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Seven Aside

Franklin Leonard

The founder and CEO of The Black List on rhetoric versus results on the path to meritocracy and true representation, international streamers and the next generation of filmmaking talent, art’s obligation to truth, and the improbably ‘perfect’ Ted Lasso


ND: This year, we’ve heard a lot of talk about equity in Hollywood and seen actions like BAFTA and the Academy/Oscars revamping their nominations criteria to address underrepresentation. From your perspective, does it feel like actual, true change or is it simply rhetoric?

FL: I think that the distinction between rhetoric versus results is a really critical one. I’m always loath to side one way or the other because I think time will reveal us concrete answers. So I guess the honest answer is, I don’t know. I know that there’s a lot of rhetoric, and you can only know whether that is met with results. My position has been to reserve judgement until such time that anybody could reasonably be evaluated based on the claims that they’re making over the last six months. I’m seeing some indication of movement, but I think that among the many failures that the industry has had, is being honest about what real change should look like, and what an actually representative culture would look like. You’ll see announcements made in the industry like ‘oh, there was a 13 percent increase in the number of women directing television episodes.’ Okay, that’s good, but the percentage of television episodes directed by women is still less than a third. Women are 50 percent of the population, and I believe 50 percent of the students in film schools.

What will it look like when we have true representation? A young woman and a young man enter the industry at the same time with equal amounts of talent, and the opportunities that will be presented to that young woman will be equal to that of the young man. That’s just not the case yet, and we’re nowhere close to that. And the same thing is true for a person of color, a woman of color, a person with a disability, there’s religious discrimination, there’s discrimination based on sexual orientation, sexual identity, and until we have real representation in our culture, we will continue to see the consequences of that failure in representation in the lived lives of all the members of these communities, right? Whether it means that people perceive me as a Black man as more dangerous than other people and therefore my life is more likely to be affected by police violence, whether it’s I’m a Latinx immigrant, and therefore people will be likely to perceive me as a criminal, because 50 percent of the Latinx immigrants shown on television have been shown engaged in criminal activity, even though Latinx communities are disproportionately less crime-filled than other communities in America, or if you’re a woman and you have aspirations towards power, you’re perceived in one way as opposed to just a hyper-capable person who should be leading our country.

On top of the moral and ethical reasons behind the need for diversity, the industry’s going to make less money. That’s always the funniest part for me. There’s the moral and ethical reason to not be racist and sexist, but there’s also the capitalist reason not to be racist and sexist. If you’re hiring the best people, you can’t have that bias, because that bias is preventing you from having a true meritocracy. A true meritocracy can lead us to a place where we’re getting the best content, the most commercial content, and everybody can get rich.

How have the streaming wars impacted what you’re doing at The Black List?

I don’t know that the streaming wars have really affected The Black List that much. At the end of the day, everyone still needs good scripts and good writers. There’s been a slight shift from film to television within the industry but I think that was going on even before the acceleration of the streaming transition that the pandemic brought on. If anything, it creates more opportunities, because there’s unlimited shelf space on Netflix, on Amazon, on Apple, right? When it was four networks, or networks plus cable, you had limited numbers of primetime hours every week, and once you filled those hours, you didn’t have a need for more shows, whereas Reed Hastings says that Netflix’s primary competition is sleep. They need new content every day, so there’s an increased need for talented writers and we do a very good job of identifying talented writers in the world.

We joke on The Black List website that in a world where all the studio and network executives and all the agents are in a field full of haystacks on their hands and knees trying to find needles, The Black List is the only metal detector in existence. We come back with a bushel of needles and say ‘hey, does anybody need any needles?’ In a world where, all of the sudden, people need a lot more needles than they did before, we’ve become very popular, which is a good place to be. And again, our business is oriented around helping great writers get the attention and the compensation they deserve, and helping people who can compensate writers find good writers. There’s always going to be a need for the work that we do, and, as the size and the scope of the demand increases, the demand for us increases as well.

Does it make a difference that the needles that they’re looking for are very specific kinds of needles? Netflix has all of these different niches, saying ‘we want to appeal to this very specific section of the population.’ On the flip side of that question, is there a danger that gets a little reductionist because, say, a woman of color is writing a specific story that Netflix is looking for, and then that person can only write that type of story in the future?

The short answer is yes, we have become extra valuable because of the ability to search by identity and be really prescriptive about the kind of writer you’re looking for. I think that’s great, because the more specific stories that you try to tell that are ‘outside the mainstream’, if you do them, they cross back over. I May Destroy You is about a British woman of African descent, and most of the people that I knew who were watching it were neither British nor of African descent. Ava DuVernay has this expression, ‘the rich is in the niches,’ and basically it’s to say the specific is the universal. So, yes, great, people are able to write the things that they want to write, and have been successful when they cross over. But I agree with you, I’m a Black man from the deep south. If I was a writer, I wouldn’t want to be limited to writing about Black people in the deep south because I’m also interested in footballers from Lancashire, and I’m a big fan of Wong Kar-wei’s In The Mood for Love, and I would need to do more research to have a claim of expertise in telling those stories—but I certainly wouldn’t want to be limited by my background.

In an ideal world, every artist is free to tell whatever story they want, but we have to recognize that there’s a historical context in which that’s happening, and that hasn’t been the case. 

There is a danger of people getting pigeon-holed into things based only on their identity and not their areas of interest. The goal has to not be about ‘okay, we need to be making more content about Black women, made by Black women.’ The goal is, we need to be finding more talented Black women writers or writers with disabilities or queer writers or whatever, and saying, ‘what do you want to write?’ And giving them the autonomy or the resources necessary to do what they want to do as artists. If the bulk of folks who are doing that and have that freedom and those resources is representative of the world, the odds are very high that the content that they create is going to be representative, even if they’re not individually making things that are necessarily retelling their own life story. People were like ‘oh well, we don’t want white guys writing our stories,’ and I’m like ‘look, it’s fine if they do, but you should have just as much right to write their stories as you do to write yours,’ and that hasn’t been the case. So for right now, maybe we put a pause on white dudes writing the stories of Black women, just until we figure out what’s going on, to quote our president.

In an ideal world, every artist is free to tell whatever story they want, but we have to recognize that there’s a historical context in which that’s happening, and that hasn’t been the case. Until we’ve adjusted things to make that the case, we need to be cognizant of those things. I said for a long time that I don’t need every movie or every television show to represent everybody, because then you end up forcing this diversity. I didn’t need a Black character in The Favourite. I was into The Favourite. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just want to know that if someone wants to make the African version of The Favourite, with all black faces, that they have an opportunity to do so. One movie need not represent everybody, but all movies and actors definitely should, and we’re all better off when they do.

All around the world right now, there are kids, and I do mean kids, who have spent their entire lives making and telling visual stories with their parents’ or with their own phones. They’ve had access to the entire history of cinema via the internet and streaming services. They have an education in film that I didn’t have until my mid 30s.

You’ve done a fair amount of work in Nigeria. How do you feel the streamers have been doing to develop international talent?

I actually think that the streamers are looking outside of the US and are very optimistic about it. It’s still very early days and it’s impossible to say, but I don’t think that any of the streamers can reach their corporate goals without properly developing international talent. Because if you’re Netflix, there are only a certain number of possible subscribers in the US, and there are a lot of them outside of the US. If there’s talent there, you should be trying to develop it and you should want the content that they may create for your platform.

That’s one of the things that I’m really excited about as a viewer. All around the world right now, there are kids, and I do mean kids, who have spent their entire lives making and telling visual stories with their parents’ or with their own phones. They’ve had access to the entire history of cinema via the internet and streaming services. They have an education in film that I didn’t have until my mid 30s.

I have been working with these young Nigerian filmmakers, called The Critics Who Rule the World, for the last year. When we got on the phone for the first time I asked them what movies they liked. I was expecting them to answer like I would have when I was in high school, which is like Marvel movies or whatever the equivalent was 30 years ago. They said they liked David Fincher but found his work a little bit cold, and I realized I wasn’t talking to a bunch of teenagers who love movies. I was talking to film students. There’s a generation worldwide that thinks that way because they have production experience and an education that most of the people in Hollywood did not have at their age, and it’s really exciting for what we’re going to get to watch in the next couple of decades. If point one percent of the unlimited genius that is on TikTok expands out to longer form stuff, I’m never going to have to leave my house. There is genuine creative genius being done, and if you can expand that from 15 seconds to five minutes to 40 minutes to an hour and a half, just as an audience member, I’m excited.

Leonard at the Beijing International Film Festival in 2018 

What role does China play in all of this in terms of the box office? Do you think Hollywood is ready to have a conversation about human rights?

We need to be honest about what the financial realities are. China is the largest country in the world by population, and it’s a rapidly growing middle class of people who have access to content. And so, of course, that population is a highly desirable audience for movies. It’s no different than India or any other large country. They have the added reality of a political situation that is, let’s say, sub-optimal, and they have control over what content is available internally in the country and what isn’t. I think Hollywood has an obligation to tell the truth. I think all art has an obligation to tell the truth, in that we have to be incredibly cautious about the extent to which we let the impulse to make more money interrupt our ability or our obligation to tell the truth in a creative or journalistic sense.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that those are the competing elements. They’re no different than the competing elements that we list elsewhere, right? To what extent is CNN, or any of the other television networks or film studios right now, telling the truth about the police in America? To what extent are we telling the truth about the relationship between the Republican party and voter suppression? Because, at the end of the day, the Republican party, various police unions will affect the bottom line for the studios and the networks, etcetera.

This isn’t new, it’s just a greater scale and it just feels more international at a time when the industry is increasingly internationalized. But balancing these moral and capitalistic impulses is part and parcel of any art form that requires the large amount of resources that film and television do. I think Hollywood has proven over the last 100 years that it isn’t ready to have that conversation. We also have to remember that Hollywood’s first blockbuster was Birth of a Nation, a movie that directly resulted in the re-creation of the Ku Klux Klan and the deaths of thousands of black people in the United States. The industry’s not ready to have that conversation yet, and the consequences of its ongoing white supremacy and patriarchy, etcetera. I don’t think we’re ready yet for a nuanced conversation about our relationship with China, either. I hope we will, but I haven’t seen evidence that, as a community, we’re ready to have it, any more than any other industry is, by the way.

At the end of the day, give me high drama, give me exceptional football, give me really good narrative, and I’m in.

I know you’ve been excited about the Premier League this year. What’s so exciting about it for you?

The uncertainty of it all. I get asked about this a lot, especially right now because I’m living in London. People ask who my team is. I grew up in a soccer family. My younger brother played in the MLS on the New England Revolution for a bit. I’ve loved the sport for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t grow up with a team. Adopting, in my early 40s, Arsenal or Chelsea or whatever, I feel like an impostor, so I just like the drama. The Leicester year, it was amazing. I bought a Leicester throwback jersey. I’m all about it.

This season, to be able to go into literally every match, just about, and not really know what the outcome is going to be and have these totally bizarre results, whether it’s Aston Villa at Spurs, or the most recent Spurs at West Ham match, it is just the best human drama that exists. Someone recently said ‘oh, on some fundamental level with football, you’re just a petty bitch who loves drama.’ And I didn’t really have a counterargument. At the end of the day, give me high drama, give me exceptional football, give me really good narrative, and I’m in.

Are there any football-related Black List projects that you’d like to see get made?

There was very recently a script that came through our website that I believe was a finalist for The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting as well. It’s called The Lions of Mesopotamia, about the Iraqi football team. I am desperate for more football movies. It cannot just be Victory and Goal. That is unacceptable, though I am very happy about this new trend in docuseries about various teams, whether it’s the Take Us Home: Leeds United, the Queens Park Rangers one, Tottenham Hotspur: All or Nothing. I will watch literally any of those, and look forward to Amazon doing more.

The thing that is really blowing my mind more than anything right now when it comes to football is Ted Lasso. That show, it should not work. I was ready to hate it. I’m a big Jason Sudeikis fan, but I was expecting to hate it. It is basically perfect. It is like someone took the Great British Bake Off and turned it into a footballing television series. In a year of a great deal of surprises, Ted Lasso being a good show might be the biggest surprise for me. I recommend it unapologetically, and everyone I’ve recommended it to has loved it too. I couldn’t be more shocked about that fact. If you don’t like it, we probably differ on enough things that I’m not even going to worry about it. It’s the weirdest. When you see it, you’ll understand just how true that is. It’s extraordinary. Truly.

Earlier this year, The Black List, partnering with Hulu, Remezcla, and Muslim Public Affairs Council among others, introduced lists to identify and develop Muslim and Latinx screenwriting talent. This month, Hulu announced the 10 writers for the inaugural Latinx list, three of whom received blind script deals.

The Black List podcast debuted on Luminary in March. Franklin Leonard is on Twitter at @franklinleonard.