Joe Downtown

[Joe Downtown]

Joe Downtown: Tony Hsieh begins writing-publishing push with Hollywood screenwriters workshop downtown

Franklin Leonard
Photo: Joe Schoenmann

As someone who had read scripts with the goal of finding good ones for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Franklin Leonard hadn’t found a good script in so long, he began to doubt his own script filter.

So in 2005 he came up with an idea.

He asked 75 colleagues to email him the 10 best scripts that had not been made into movies. In return, Leonard shared the list with everyone who contributed. (You can see that list here.

Leonard then ranked scripts based on how many times they appeared in individual lists. The ranking, he said, “went viral” long before Twitter came along and just as YouTube was founded.

And in very short order, it proved itself. A few years later, two movies nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, “Juno” and “Lars and the Real Girl” had been ranked in the top three of that original list; “Juno” won the award and was nominated for three more Oscars.

Since then, of 600 screenplays that have made that list: 200 became movies; they have earned more than $15 billion; were nominated for 160 Oscars; and won 30 times.

“And this still blows my mind,” Leonard says. “Seven of the last 12 Oscars for screenwriting came from the list.”

Leonard stresses success came from the writers, not The Black List, which worked as a unique way of getting them seen by industry insiders. “Chris Terrio, who wrote ‘Argo,’ has said publicly that Ben Affleck found the script because it was on the list.”

Leonard is laying out The Black List origins story in downtown’s Gold Spike. He is here as a guest of a Downtown Project initiative called “Writing Downtown,” which is working to build a writing and publishing community downtown. The Project provided free rooms in The Ogden to hold a one-week mentoring program to six fledgling screenwriters who wrote promising scripts and submitted them to The Black List.

The rooms came free but The Black List is funding the seminar, Leonard said. The six writers were chosen from 20 finalists; they came from Miami, Chicago, Oxnard, Calif., two from Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. They come from a variety of backgrounds: one is a speechwriter for nonprofit groups, for example, another is a recent college graduate who had been working for a think tank.

Aside from writing a good draft, each writer qualified by verifying that they had not earned more than $25,000 as a screenwriter. Then they were paired with mentors who, over the last week, worked with them on their scripts.

Those mentors included Billy Ray, screenwriter of numerous movies including “The Hunger Games,” “Hart’s War” and the new Tom Hanks’ movie, “Captain Phillips.” The others are Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith: “The Ugly Truth,” “Legally Blonde” and “10 Things I Hate About You”; Brian Koppelman: “Rounders,” “Solitary Man”; Jenny Lumet: “Rachel Getting Married”; and Scott Myers, a UNC-Chapel Hill screenwriting instructor with “K-9” and “Trojan War” as screenwriting credits. Myers also writes a screenwriting blog at

As the first seminar ever put on by The Black List, Leonard is still evaluating it but said he anticipates coming back to Las Vegas to do it again.

In the meantime, he has his hands full. He started The Black List online a year ago. For a small fee ($25 per month membership), screenwriters can become members; then they may upload scripts to a database and have them evaluated (for $50) by a professional script reader.

If the script gets a good evaluation, it will be sent to more than 2,000 professionals in the movie industry.

The Black List is also expanding to include TV screenwriting. Leonard hopes to have that addition up and running by the end of November.

Leonard likes the idea of having the weeklong seminar in Las Vegas, seeing a commonality in the aspiring writers and the aspirations of the city’s urban core.

“What we’re doing is kind of what this place is,” he said. “These are writers on the verge. I see Las Vegas that way, especially with all the stuff happening downtown, as a place with the potential to be a real haven for the arts.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.
Photo of Joe Schoenmann

Joe Schoenmann

Get more Joe Schoenmann
Top of Story