Hollywood’s “Secret” Screenplay List: Not Actually Secret, but Very Hollywood

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 13 2011 11:58 AM

The Mostly Dull-Sounding Screenplays on This Year’s “Black List”

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Leonardo DiCarprio in Hollywood last month.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

When the “Black List,” an annual catalog of popular unproduced screenplays, first got wide notice, in 2006, it seemed like a delicious Hollywood secret. Entertainment Weekly described it as “a hush-hush report” that had “taken on a life of its own.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

In truth, it was the idle creation of a “midlevel studio executive” who wanted to read some good scripts, and so emailed other Hollywood executives to ask for suggestions. “It became a thing very quickly,” that executive, Franklin Leonard, has said: He created the first such list in 2005, and it was in EW by March of the following year. But because the scripts on the list had not yet become movies—and some were not even terribly close to doing so—when the list reached the general public, it had the feel of privileged information (aided, perhaps, by the clever name: The scripts have not, in fact, been blacklisted in any fashion).

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Another factor in the Black List’s early reputation: In 2006, two of the top three scripts—Juno and Lars and the Real Girl—were fairly quirky by Hollywood standards. The Beaver, the odd and ill-fated movie that eventually starred Mel Gibson, topped the list in 2008, adding to the impression that the scripts on the Black List were beloved but challenging, precisely the kind of screenplays that needed the sort of underground championing that the Black List seemed to do.

Really, though? The list is voted on by Hollywood development executives, and for a script to top that list, it needs to have been read by many of those people. In other words, these are screenplays that are already making the Hollywood rounds. And while, as a rule, they have not yet been produced, many of them are already in production. In 2009, the year after The Beaver was #1, the second-most popular script on the Black List was The Social Network, by an up-and-coming scribe named Aaron Sorkin, who was hired to write the screenplay by Scott Rudin, only one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood. The movie was a Best Picture contender one year later.

So while hearing about films that may hit screens in the near future is always fun (at least to me), the Black List is not much different than all the other industry-insider news I now read—not only in trade magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter but also in New York Magazine and The New York Times. With Hollywood, as with professional sports, we’re all general managers now, and the Black List is yet another way for us to play “inside baseball.”

Of course, we now play it so well that, if you follow the right blogs, you not only know the Black List is coming, you know what’s likely to be on it. The Playlist, a blog on the website IndieWire, reported yesterday that, “as was widely expected,” the most popular script on this year’s list is The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing, “the mathemetician and computer pioneer who helped to crack codes during World War Two, but found himself ostracized afterwards for his homosexuality”—which could be great, but doesn’t sound much different from other prestige pictures that come out every year. (The Black List: Read about tomorrow’s J. Edgar today! Which will probably star Leonardo DiCaprio again!) Warner Brothers bought the script months ago for “a whopping seven figure sum.”

Other scripts on the list not only sound familiar, but downright depressing. Like Dirty Grandpa, for instance, in which a “horny grandfather” shows a young man “how to take life by the balls and lead with his heart.” Or Guys Night: “Sick of brunches, bosses, and light beer, four co-workers set out on the mother of all guys nights in an attempt to rediscover their manhood.” I have already sighed multiple times today while reading those sentences. There are even remakes on the list, including yet another Pinnochio and a new version of Soapdish centered on a telenovela.

There are, to be fair, more interesting projects on there, too: Near the top is Chewie, described by the A.V. Club as “a satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of Star Wars, as seen through the eyes of Chewbacca portrayer Peter Mayhew.” (Mayhew presumably got a good look at what was going on, since he seemed to spend most of his time on that first movie just standing around.)

Sadly, the Playlist says Chewie may get held up by “rights issues,” just as 2009’s top script, The Muppet Man, a biopic about Jim Henson, did. Both those winners suggest there is a considerable appetite among Hollywood executives for behind-the-scenes stuff. Also on the list this year are scripts about Bob Hope in Korea and Grace Kelly in Monaco. I guess if we’re all interested in how the sausage gets made—as the whole Black List phenomenon suggests—we shouldn’t be surprised that executives in Hollywood want to put that on screen.

You can download your own copy of the Black List here.