Insider tips: How to get your screenplay on The Black List
Getting your screenplay read can be hard. Getting it produced as a theatrical film can seem like something only possible in your wildest dreams. However, for many scriptwriters who featured on The Black List, this dream became reality when their entries were picked up by Hollywood producers.
Since launching in 2005 by Franklin Leonard, The Black List is an annual survey that now sees upward of 500 film industry development executives voting for their “most liked” motion picture screenplays that are not yet produced. To register and give the voters access to their work, writers pay a small monthly fee to create a profile and upload their script.
The rates speak for themselves – of the approximately 1000 screenplays The Black List has included since 2005, nearly a third have been later produced as theatrical films, including smashhits like Argo, Juno, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Spotlight, and The Revenant.
But even if a Black List screenplay doesn’t get picked up for production, writers whose scripts are listed often find that they are more readily hired for other jobs, such as Jim Rash & Nat Faxon – two of the writers of the Oscar-winning screenplay The Descendants. Plus it’s a great way to have your script read and offered feedback by industry professionals like Master of None writer Lena Waithe, who recently said she would check out any listed scripts that rated eight or higher.
Over the years, The Black List has become a way for the industry to spot raw talent and for raw talent to garner attention. Film Daily caught up with three writers whose scripts made it onto The Black List to find out their approach to the craft and how an aspiring or established writer can shape their work to give themselves a better chance at making it on the list.
One such success story was Anna Klassen, whose J.K. Rowling biopic script When Lightning Strikes – chronicling the 25-year-old’s tough journey to create the infamous Harry Potter book series – was rewarded with high-ranking placements on both the 2017 Black List and the 2017 Hit List. A place to start for any screenwriter is to look at those who inspire you and see how they developed their writing along the way.
Discussing her influences of which she has “many favorites”, Klassen noted Jim Uhls, who developed a screenplay from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel for David Fincher’s epic thriller Fight Club. Asking Uhls to read his 1998 screenplay, he obliged and allowed Klassen to study the pages he had crafted for the film. “I know that film inside and out, so seeing what had changed from page to screen was fascinating and incredibly informative.”
When it comes to actually putting pen to paper (or in the modern world, fingers to keyboard), timing varies from writer to writer. For Klassen, the process took roughly a month of intensive research and a month of writing to end up with a finished product. For Evan Kilgore (co-writer of Keeper of the Diary, which made it onto the 2017 Black List and is at Fox Searchlight with Kenneth Branagh attached to direct) beating out the outline, doing the requisite research, and then sitting down to write the script took around six months.
The starting point of this entire process is research. This might mean digging deep into the story of a real subject – in Klassen’s case it was Rowling’s background and for Kilgore, Keeper of the Diary told the story of Anne Frank’s father Otto. Or it could mean researching the details of a fictional subject and the world they live in.
Either way, researching the facts can often be what leads to the soul of a story and can fill in the gaps of what is missing. “As we dug around to get a deeper sense of the world of the story, we had a lightbulb moment about including the Barbara Zimmerman side of the film,” explained Kilgore. “It’s crucial, it’s exactly what was missing, but it took stumbling into that blind alley for a moment to push us to look in the right place.”
For Klassen, it was like putting pieces of a puzzle together using Rowling’s rare TV appearances, her Harvard commencement speech, and interviews with her ex-husband and her family members. “I also wanted to infuse as many Harry Potter easter eggs as possible, so I was constantly looking for places to include references or hints at the series.”
When it comes to writing the script, specificity is key. As Klassen pointed out, a screenplay is the blueprint of a movie, a plan that everyone will follow, “so finding the perfect words to describe exactly what you mean or intend is paramount.” However, it’s also important to trust your instincts. “If a scene looks okay but in your gut it feels like it plays wrong or it’s not quite good enough, then it’s not good enough,” declared Kilgore. “Rewrite it again and again until you can read it and tell yourself that is exactly how this scene should play out.”
This process is backed by 2017 Black List success story Cesar Vitale – writer of The Great Nothing – who explained it’s vital not to be afraid to change things. “I hate rewriting because I end up invariably having to cut whole stretches of my script that I’ve learned to love. It’s part of the process, though, and if you don’t learn how to cut and rewrite, your script will never improve from its first draft.”
If this is still not working, take a break and come back to the script with a fresh view. Vitale remembers a time his script wasn’t working, but he could not figure out why. Instead of torturing himself to find a solution there and then, he put the script aside and focused on another project for a long time. “Coming back to it after keeping myself busy with something else for such a long time helped me tackle the story with fresh eyes and eventually let me see clearly what was and wasn’t working with the story.”
Most of all, it’s essential to separate who you are as an individual and your work. Klassen stressed the importance of remembering your writing is only a part of who you are and it doesn’t define you as a person. “If you allow your happiness to be contingent on your success as a writer, you’re in big trouble. If you learn to love the process of writing, and you’re not relying on your scripts necessarily being produced, you will be much happier and healthier.”
Finally, the tools are a major part of the process. While there are many tools and apps available (including these ones to beat that pesky writer’s block), both Kilgore & Vitale use screenwriting software Final Draft to craft their script. And proving how sometimes the classic tools are the most essential ones, Klassen added, “Honestly, a thesaurus has and always will be my best friend in writing.”