This week marks the release of the 14th edition of the Black List — the annual rundown of the most-liked unproduced screenplays to make the rounds in Hollywood as voted on by 300 studio and production-company executives. Over the past decade, the list has become not only an index of hot properties but a kind of super-early Oscars preview — these are the movies we’ll see getting trophies sometime between 2020 and 2030. That’s not hype: Ten of the last 20 Best Screenplay Oscar winners first showed up on the Black List, which was founded and is overseen by Franklin Leonard, a development exec who has worked with, among others, Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio. American Hustle, Argo, Arrival, Hell or High Water, The Imitation Game, Juno, Manchester By the Sea, Michael Clayton, Spotlight, and Whiplash were all Black List scripts; so is this week’s new arrival Bird Box.
The roster of Black List screenplays that have gone on to be produced and distributed runs to 300 — almost as impressive a number as the 700 that (so far) haven’t. That would be a great batting average in baseball and is an astonishing one for film development, especially since a significant number of Black List scripts are not really meant to be produced. They’re biopics of people who haven’t sold their life rights, or based-on-a-true-story accounts that would never clear any studio’s legal department but still serve as effective calling cards for their authors — showy work that can put them on the map, demonstrate their skill at dialogue, character, and/or structure, and improve their chances to be hired for a project a film company wants to make.
But the Black List serves another purpose: It’s a yearly glimpse of the state of the art by the art’s next great group of creators. Critics often speak approvingly of movies that feel “of the moment,” but because of the vagaries and challenges of production, that moment can be maddeningly long in coming. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, which opens this week, was a Black List selection — in 2014. How It Ends, an action film that arrived earlier this year, made the list way back in 2010. And the Best Picture nominees Nebraska and The Revenant took eight years to move from script to screen. Any year’s most-acclaimed movies usually started as glimmers in a writer’s eye between two and ten years earlier. Those perfect Trump-era takes? They were probably written during the Obama era.
But the arrival of the Black List allows us to look at Hollywood in a different way: What are writers most eager to pursue right now? There are 73 class-of-2018 Black List scripts (it took at least seven votes to make the list, and this year’s winner, Elissa Karasik’s Frat Boy Genius, received 36). Together, they constitute a kind of group show of writers at or near the beginning of their careers (the typical Black List scribe can be found somewhere on IMDB, often under “miscellaneous crew”); their work collectively showcases unmistakable themes, frustrations, and obsessions that are indeed of this moment.
This year’s scripts include at least two with central roles for trans protagonists, and the roster of up-to-the-minute villains, according to the list’s loglines, includes “Gamergate trolls” and a “social-media influencer.” One theme, though, announces itself louder than any other (no, not that one). A good writer knows to avoid anything too on-the-nose, which is why there appear to be zero scripts about you know who. But one Trump-adjacent plotline — how did [asshole’s name here] ever get so much power? — is pervasive. Frat Boy Genius is about Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel. Cody Brotter’s Drudge, about Matt Drudge’s rise during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, also made this year’s top four, and other scripts on the list include takes on (if not takedowns of) Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng, former Gawker editor A. J. Daulerio, and Chris Wylie and Cambridge Analytica. (Almost a decade later, The Social Network, a 2009 Black List selection, clearly casts a long shadow.) Biopics or episode-in-the-life-of stories are pervasive: Sally Ride, Bill Gates, Vanilla Ice, and a high-school-age Samuel L. Jackson all have scripts devoted to them, as do Richard Williams (Venus and Serena’s father), Tiger Woods, and Kobe Bryant (Mike Schneider’s Mamba focuses on the sexual-assault case against him).
Given its yearlong ubiquity in headlines, #MeToo is, perhaps, the most striking omission from the current list — though an understandable one given the likelihood of almost any screenplay reaching the desk of at least one offender. Race, however, proved an irresistible subject. In Sascha Penn’s CI-34, a black agent teams with a Mafia hit man to solve the 1966 murder of a civil-rights activist in Mississippi. A 1964 murder involving white supremacists is the subject of Michele Atkins’s One Night in Mississippi; the title character of Nicholas Mariani’s The Defender is a black defense lawyer in the Jim Crow South; and in Chris Kekaniokalani Bright’s Conviction, Clarence Darrow finds himself defending the white murderers of a native Hawaiian who had been falsely accused of rape. Some scripts offer more contemporary perspectives: Meredith Dawson’s Spark is about an African-American woman encountering Silicon Valley VC bro culture, and Queen & Slim (by Master of None Emmy winner Lena Waithe, one of the list’s few recognizable names) depicts a black couple on a first date who go on the run after killing a cop in self-defense.
As ever, there’s a lot of sci-fi, with heavy emphasis on altered consciousness, timestream do-overs, and loss. Young writers have evidently been watching Groundhog Day as well as a lot of Black Mirror; they also seem to have spent a good deal of time staring at screens while thinking, “I’m losing my mind,” which feels very fin-de-2018. The overall theme is one of intense melancholy. The logline for Mattson Tomlin’s Little Fish reads, in part, “a couple fights to hold their relationship together as a memory-loss virus spreads.” In Alanna Brown’s The 29th Accident, a man loses his wife on their wedding day only to wake up next to her four years later. The consciousness of a dead man is implanted in a new body 20 years later in Matt Kic and Mike Sorce’s The Second Life of Ben Haskins. In Naked Is the Best Disguise (by The Imitation Game’s Graham Moore, the only Oscar winner on this year’s list), “a woman who deals in black-market memories is accused of murdering a man she does not remember knowing.” Meet Cute, by Noga Pnueli, is a time-travel comedy about a woman trying to repeat and thus fix a first date. And In Retrospect, by Brett Treacy and Dan Woodward, portrays a man trying to dive into his estranged wife’s subconscious to retrieve her after “an experimental procedure.”
A couple of categories are Black List perennials: The killer high-concept sell will never go out of style. Who could resist the logline for Chris Thomas Devlin’s Cobweb (“Peter has always been told the voice he hears at night is only in his head, but when he suspects his parents have been lying, he conspires to free the girl within the walls of his house”)? Sold! In this case, literally: Lionsgate is putting up the money. The Black List is not an unknown-talent contest; more than two-thirds of the films on the list already have producers attached, and more than a quarter have financing. But a great five-second pitch never hurts, and you’d have to be profoundly incurious not to want to know at least a little more about Jason Rostovsky’s Hare (“What starts as a fun day for a group of friends in the woods turns into a living nightmare for one rabbit”) or Jason Kessler’s Escher, in which the artist uses “his unique view of the world” to battle Nazis as part of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. Even screenplays the descriptions for which are so low concept they could seemingly appear on any year’s list — like Greg Kalleres’s Our Condolences, about a couple reevaluating their relationship after their friends lose a child, or Covers, by Flora Greeson, about a woman trying to become a music producer — are intriguing precisely because it’s clear that their power must be in the execution, not the concept.
Not all of these scripts will become movies, and not all that do will be any good; Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself, which finished second among all scripts on the 2016 Black List, became one of 2018’s most critically reviled movies. And inevitably, since Hollywood never met a list it didn’t try to game, some titles may have been boosted by the clubbiness or horse-trading (“I’ll vote for your guy if you vote for mine”) to which any enterprise like this is susceptible. Still, it’s hard not to feel that if this list resulted in 73 immediate green lights, the next two years at the movies — including the misfires — would be infinitely more interesting. — Mark Harris
Since we’re impatient and couldn’t wait for Hollywood’s green light, we asked comic artists to draw pivotal scenes from five of the screenplays on this year’s Black List, including Elissa Karasik’s Frat Boy Genius (which received 36 votes); Harry Tarre’s Queen (8); Michael Waldron’s The Worst Guy of All Time, and the Girl Who Came to Kill Him (26); Amanda Idoko’s Dead Dads Club (11); and Jason Kessler’s Escher (8).
Frat Boy Genius
Screenwriter: Elissa Karasik
Illustration: Box Brown
Logline*: A disgruntled Snapchat employee narrates the rise of her former Stanford classmate and current boss Evan Spiegel.
The Plot: In this docudrama, Spiegel, a listless, hard-partying Stanford student, has the bright idea to create a photo-messaging app in which all pics disappear a few seconds after the recipient views them. Working closely with his best friends, he gets the product, first called Picaboo, off the ground. Nobody seems interested, though, until he markets it to teenagers and changes its name to Snapchat. In this fictionalized scene, Karasik imagines that Facebook calls, and Spiegel jets off to a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg — but leaves his partners in the dark.
Screenwriter: Harry Tarre
Illustration: Elsa Charretier
Logline: Based on the inspirational true story of the world’s first openly transgender high-school prom queen, Corey Rae.
The Plot: Corey Wagner is a transgender girl living in suburban New Jersey, but she hasn’t come out yet. Even though she has a mostly supportive family, Corey has to wrestle with her identity and with rumors that she’s gay, as well as the ordinary challenges high-schoolers have to deal with. Among her many goals is one day to be able to use the women’s locker room — a place that, in her daydreams, she imagines to be “a magical kingdom” of Busby Berkeley–style dance routines. As Corey eventually starts to open up about who she is, the school is thrown into disarray and she discovers who her real friends are.
The Worst Guy of All Time, and the Girl Who Came to Kill Him
Screenwriter: Michael Waldron
Illustration: Jorge Corona
Logline: Barret is a social-media influencer, the worst guy ever, and the eventual president of the United States. Dixie is a badass freedom fighter, sent back from 2076 to kill him before he takes over the world and ruins the future. They fucking hate each other. Then they accidentally fall in love.
The Plot: Lights up on a postapocalyptic hellscape in what was once Atlanta. As the film opens, a group of badass, menacing soldiers, who work for a tyrannical warlord called the Duke, are set upon and killed by a freedom fighter in a velociraptor helmet — our wisecracking, 20-something heroine, Dixie. She has been tasked with traveling back to 2018 to kill the Duke’s younger self, a “millennial shithead” and “social-media influencer” named Barret. One of Barret’s followers, Miller, also races back to stop her, and the trio get wrapped up in all manner of chrono-illogical high jinks.
Dead Dads Club
Screenwriter: Amanda Idoko
Illustration: Sonny Liew
Logline: In an effort to find a more interesting story for her college-scholarship application, a high-schooler lies about her father’s recent death. But when the father tries to take advantage of the lie by faking his own death, the high-schooler’s nemesis investigates, and bodies start piling up …
The Plot: After struggling to find an appropriately tragic angle for her scholarship-contest essay, 17-year-old Frankie Wilson makes up a story about coping with her father’s death. The trouble is, her father, J.P., is not dead. Having recently separated from Frankie’s mom, he is living with his girlfriend, Gina, dreaming about starting a fitness empire. But Frankie’s hypercompetitive, Harvard-bound classmate Natasha is already onto her ruse, so Frankie realizes that she needs things to be a little more convincing. Which means asking her father if he’ll pretend to be dead. Needless to say, he’s shocked. With an assist from Gina, Frankie finally persuades her dad to fake his own death.
Screenwriter: Jason Kessler
Illustration: Tillie Walden
Logline: Famed artist M. C. Escher reluctantly uses his unique view of the world to help the Dutch Resistance fight Nazi occupation during WWII. Inspired by the life and art of M.C. Escher.
The Plot: The story follows 46-year-old M. C. Escher in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in 1944. In his efforts to save a 9-year-old Jewish girl named Rebecca from a Nazi work camp, Escher becomes involved with the Resistance, making elaborate maps for the good guys. In this scene, Escher — referred to by his nickname, Mauk — is in the middle of making map prints when he falls into a surreal daydream about a Resistance fighter helping a mother and daughter escape a Nazi soldier using the wending and impossible stairways that made the artist famous.
*Loglines courtesy of the screenwriters.
*This article appears in the December 24, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!