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What’s the secret behind Oscar-winning screenplays? The Black List

black listBefore Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture, before the script was even made into a movie, the story circulated on The Black List.

The Black List is a network that connects scripts with the people who turn them into films. It started out as an informal survey of not-yet-produced screenplays, grew into a trusted annual list of the best 75 scripts in Hollywood, and is now a full-fledged marketplace.

Three out of the past five Best Picture winners and seven of the past 12 screenwriting Oscars victors were on The Black List before they went into production. Over the years, films on The Black List have been nominated for 148 Academy Awards and earned over $16 billion in worldwide box office sales. Of the 600 scripts that have been on the list, more than 200 have been produced as movies.

So what is the secret to The Black List’s success? Picking screenplays to turn into movies is in many ways a riskier endeavor than picking startups to invest it. Hollywood does not have the same process of due diligence as Silicon Valley does, and success is ultimately up to the whims of the viewer.

Franklin Leonard is the man behind The Black List, and he said crowdsourcing is the answer.

On one side of the marketplace, screenwriters submit their work which is evaluated by a team of readers. If it is good, they post the scripts on the site. On the other side, over 1,000 film industry professionals are registered members of the community. They have access to the curated selection of screenplays and vote to create a ranking system that surfaces the best content.

“Over 30,000 pieces of material are registered at the Writers Guild of America every year,” Leonard said in an interview at VentureBeat’s office. “Of that number, only 200 are released. How do you make sure those 200 are the best? The current filtering mechanisms are inefficient. By taking a systematic, crowdsourced approach to identifying quality, regardless of executive considerations or making money, and aggregating that, the scripts end up being successful.”

Leonard started The Black List to solve his own problem. He was working for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company and spent an excessive amount of time reading bad scripts. He sent out an informal survey to 75 of his colleagues asking them to respond with their 10 favorite screenplays that had not yet been made into movies. The document continued to circulate and grow to such a degree that Leonard decided to turn bring The Black List to the next level.

Eight years after the initial survey, The Black List has grown into much more than a place to compare notes on scripts. Now, the network involves a real-time list that tracks all the activity on the site as well as a screenplay-recommendation engine. In October, The Black List extended its mission to make it easier to screenwriters from around the world to upload their scripts into the database, giving them access to the closed circles of Hollywood’s elite.

“We are expanding beyond the highly insular, incredibly opaque universe that is Hollywood,” Leonard said. “In a world where if you don’t have the right network or connections, you don’t have the opportunity to tell your story in film, we are saying that if you are good, the only distance between you and becoming a full-time Hollywood screenwriter is your talent. The things The Black List is highlighting are things will see in movie theaters in two, five, 10 years down the road and at the Oscars.”

Hollywood is a prime example of an industry where business is primarily done offline in closed circles and the Internet is creeping in to democratize it. Leonard also envisions a future where data is a key component of making movies.

“The industry is going to have to start being a little more data-intensive about how they make decisions,” he said. “Everyone in Hollywood likes to quote Bill Goldman, who said, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ This is a good way to justify an expensive movie no one goes to see. This may have been true five years ago, but data and statistical analysis can provide insights that are an advantage over a willful, no-knowledge perspective on making business decisions.”

Argo is the latest to join the ranks of The Black List trophy case, along with The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire. While The Black List does not take responsibility for the success of any movie that comes out of its list, Leonard said the “correlative relationship” is undeniable. Rather, it acts as a catalyst to bring certain projects into the spotlight.

Photo Credit: Jenni from the block/Flickr