F.A.Q.: Who cares about the Black List?
A conversation with Entertainment Weekly senior writer Sara Vilkomerson about the Black List, which is compiled from the suggestions of over 290 film executives who list names of up to ten of their favorite scripts that were written in, or are somehow uniquely associated with, 2010 and will not be released in theaters during the year.
Josh Benson: What does the Black List mean to you?
Sara Vilkomerson: I find the Black List a really fascinating thing in ways I don't even think I understand. I think the fact that it exists is the interesting thing. And that it's taken so seriously now.
Josh: Definitely. Although it seems like it's taken seriously in different ways by different people. (It's one thing for the fans who have caught onto it and something else entirely for industry pros.)
Sara: I think that's true. It's the unproduced screenplays of the year that movie executives liked the most, according to a sort of survey this one person has been doing for the past few years. So it's a useful thing for the industry. It shines a light on things that might have gotten overlooked, and sometimes they actually get made. (The big example that always gets used is that Juno was on the Black List, I think in 2005, as was Lars and the Real Girl. And six of the current top 10 scripts have already been purchased by studios.) But for me it's fantastic just to be able to see what's out there. Even just in terms of the ideas, before any of them become movies, I would never have heard about most of these projects.
Sara: I went back and looked at the entries from 2008. And you can see a lot of movies here that will seem familiar because they are on their way to coming out. Like the number one script is The Beaver, which now is that Mel Gibson/Jodi Foster thing. People keep talking about "that crazy Mel Gibson movie" but I haven't heard anything about the fact that in 2008 this was the number one script on the Black List.
Josh: Mel Gibson can be distracting like that.
Sara: I mean, Mel Gibson and HAND PUPPET.
Sara: Also the number 6 film by Liz Meriwether, once called F*** Buddies, will be seen shortly as that Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman rom-com No Strings Attached. I guess my point is that these movies are getting made!
Josh: Right. So now apply that to this year's list. If the premise is that some of these are the expensive projects of the future, and some are worthy and fascinating and will never see the light of day, it's kind of fun to try to figure out which is which.
Josh: So for an idiot like me who merely likes movies without knowing or caring as much as I probably should about the industry, it's just kind of fun to pick projects to root for. So I'm totally with you, for example, on F*cking Jane Austin.
Sara: YES. I'm mostly interested to see what that title would ACTUALLY be if push came to shove. (No joke intended.)
Josh: There are others that sound fun for entirely nerdier reasons. Probably precisely because they're too nerdy to get made in real life.
Sara: Which ones do you think are too out there? Because remember, HAND PUPPETS.
Josh: I don't know about what's too out there. But, for example, I would pay my own money to see the one about the Nez Perce, even as I doubt that millions of other people would do the same.
Josh: But that's the fun thing about the list for us, anyway. I assume the list gets read in a totally different way by people in New York, both ones who write about movies (you) or merely go to see them sometimes (me), than it does out there, where everyone's actually familiar with the names attached to the projects and there's a totally different thing at stake.
Sara: Because the list, I believe, in its earliest days was never intended for schmucks like you and me. I mean for people like me who follow movies the way other people do baseball, it's a tremendous geek-out opportunity if you can get your hands on it. But it was always really meant for other studio-developmental types.
Josh: Well (without accepting for a second that you're in the same schmuck-boat as me) I think it's still very much for them. That's clear, for example, from the comments under this year's list on Nikke Finke's site. These people are at war over stuff that will never mean anything to the casuals.
Sara: Welcome to the internet.
Josh: But even accounting for sock-puppetry and gratuitous crankiness, very little of it was about the merits of the movie ideas. It was about how the list gets gamed, and the various ways in which it's biased, and generally how it sucks because of all the unproduced scripts that didn't make it.
Sara: Which is a funny complaint as the list isn't a "best of" but more of "most enjoyed" as compiled by the 290 film executives. It's not supposed to be a fair and balanced thing. Like, there can be 10 hand-puppet films on there if that's what it boils down to.
Josh: Could you tell me what you found on there that was interesting to you? Other than Jane Austin, which, obviously.
Sara: Let's see. I am intrigued, even as a person who has a lot of problems with the time-space continuum, by Dante Harper's All You Need Is Kill, described as "A new recruit in a war against aliens finds himself caught in a time loop where he wakes up one day in the past after having been killed on the battlefield." I mean ... HELLO! MY MIND!
Josh: You mean it sounds to you like the next version of District 9, which you loved so much?
Sara: I DID love District 9.
Josh: You love things that freak you out.
Sara: But this sounds sort of Goodbye, Brain territory in a really good way. Like Doctor Who and Inception and District 9 in one.
Josh: What else intrigued you?
Sara: Well it's hard to ignore Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, isn't it?
Josh: It is.
Josh: You haven't even mentioned Zombie Baby yet.
Sara: OMG, good point!
Josh: The synopsis begins, "After the zombie apocalypse ..."
Josh: I figured that might have been a sale right there.
Sara: The top 10 is pretty interesting. I like the sound of The Last Son of Isaac Lemay by Greg Johnson, in which an aging outlaw thinks there is evil in his genes and goes out to kill all his offspring.
Josh: Boys from Brazil meets ... what?
Josh: What else in the top 10?
Sara: I can see the Jackie movie being a big hitter. And the Lehman Brothers meltdown, Margin Call, will surely be something. I guess that's what is so fun about the list. You think about how many things go into making a good movie besides a good script, and there are about a kabillion moving parts that will factor into making a movie a success. But looking at a list with a one-sentence description, the possibilities are endless!
Josh: Right. Well I guess that's why the Black List is more fun than a list of movies that actually get made. I figure the writers must know that a lot of this stuff is a long shot when they create it.
Sara: Do you think so?
Josh: They're willing to be more ambitious about what the projects they undertake than movie execs are, who are wagering actual money.
Josh: You mentioned Jackie: There are a bunch of scripts on here that are focused on really specific bits of history. That's great as far as I'm concerned, but I wouldn't have thought that's the stuff blockbusters are made of.
Sara: Oh, you like a bit of historical fiction do you? What about time loopholes with alien battlefields?
Josh: Do I have to choose?
Sara: No, it's a LIST! Ta-da!
Josh: Boy Scouts vs. Zombies. “A troop of Boy Scouts on their weekend camping trip must protect an island town from a zombie outbreak and save the local girl scout troop.”
Sara: I mean ... How many minutes in do you think that movie goes before there is a Thin Mint joke?
Sara: I HOPE WE FIND OUT.
Sara: Can You Keep A Secret? "After a woman spills her secrets to a stranger during a turbulent plane ride, she shows up at work to discover that he is the recently returned C.E.O. of her company." OOOOPS.
Josh: College Republicans, which is supposed to be about young Atwater and young Rove, sounds a lot like Social Network to me, even though it's about young conservative nerds instead of young liberal nerds.
Sara: Well it's Very Recent History. I was so skeptical about The Social Network because I thought we wouldn't have enough critical distance to examine Facebook and boy, I was WRONG. But what's funny is that these scripts were written way before they saw The Social Network, you know?
Josh: There's one in there called NESS/CAPONE.
Sara: I saw that!
Josh: Which is about how Eliot Ness took down Al Capone.
Sara: Which is also The Untouchables isn't it?
Josh: Oh, you're not wrong. It sounds to me like The Untouchables meets The Untouchables.
Sara: But you know, even if these films don't get made, it's so good for the writers to be on there. It's a huge recognition-bump for them and that's a really nice thing. I am saying this sincerely. Maybe I'm seeing this very much through rose-colored glasses (I have the X-mas spirit!) but I find it heartening to know that Franklin Leonard started this thing for the right reasons and now it's become this cool thing.