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  • What You Can Learn from the 2012 Black List Scripts

    December 21st, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    This past week, the heavily publicized 2012 Black List was released. 78 scripts made the list this year, and what an eclectic bunch. Much like the last two years where I’ve analyzed the Black List scripts, this year’s crop raises a number of points, questions and lessons for writers…but perhaps the largest lesson this year’s list can teach us is — Hollywood’s just a popularity contest and no one really knows what the fuck they want.

    And just because something’s well-written does not mean it’s sellable.

    For the last 8 years, the Black List has not just been a barometer of talent, but of trends. It’s been a launching pad for careers – of both writers and reps – and it’s been a great way to discover new voices and praise the voices Hollywood already loved. It’s often been a predictor of what projects would be put into production the following year. And sometimes, it’s been a great way for producers to find awesome commercial projects that didn’t sell on the spec market and give them a second chance.

    I still think reading the Black List scripts is a great way to learn how a great voice can make a project stand out and jump off the page – even if it’s not commercial or original. And it may be a strong indicator of what types of projects agents and managers are attracted to.

    If you’d like to see the full list of scripts, click here –

    This year, however, it feels much more like a popularity contest than ever before because most of the projects on this list would never get made (even if they did sell), and are simply not commercial in any way. And surprisingly, quite a few feel very cliché – though this may be due to their not-so-great loglines (which are created by The Black List).

    A disgraced cop goes after the serial killer who killed his partner; A teen tries to lose his virginity to the girl of his dreams; A man goes to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend to stop her from getting married; Geeky female high school outcasts decide to get revenge on the bully Queen Bee; After being dumped, a guy’s best friend devises a plan to get him laid by as many women as possible.

    These are the cream of the crop? Really? I’m not saying the concepts aren’t brought out in new ways or with great voices – but these concepts have been done a million times before.

    While it is executives and assistants who vote on these scripts, my guess is that these same execs PASSED on the script when it crossed their desk. Sure, they loved the writing and wished they could have gotten them made – but they couldn’t. They couldn’t sell them.  How do I know? Because if they could’ve….they’d be sold.

    Only about 50 of the 78 scripts listed have a producer attached, which is a lower number than previous years. And keep in mind, having a producer attached does not mean the producer will be able to get the project made. It just means it’s in development. Only about 25 of the scripts actually have financing (or companies that finance) behind them.

    The reason this year’s Black List scripts are such a paradox and hard to learn from is because they break all the rules. From formatting to voiceovers to genre to period to types of characters to page counts to rights issues…this year’s scripts broke all the rules.

    But keep in mind, ALL of the writers who made the Black List already have great agents and/or managers behind them and many of the writers have been produced, sold or optioned before.  The writer of the #1 (“Draft Day”) has even won a Pulitzer. So for the most part, these aren’t novice writers. But sometimes, the key to having a voice that screams from the page…is breaking some of the rules.

    The biggest rule broken, however, was subject matter and genre. For the last few years, anyone will tell you that the number one genre that is impossible to sell – is drama! And period dramas? Fuhgedaboutit.

    Yet of the 78 scripts on the list, well over 20 are straight dramas (not including dramedies) and almost 25 are period pieces (not including scripts set in the future).

    Also interesting to note – there are way more male protagonist stories than female on the list, and almost all of the female protagonists are either slutty or total basket-cases or overwhelmed mothers dealing with death. The only two real exceptions are the Hilary Rodham Clinton story “Rodham,” and “The Keeping Room” which is about 3 southern women who defend their home from the Union Army while their husbands are fighting in the Civil War.

    Here’s my full breakdown for those interested –

    –          23 period pieces (non-future)

    –          19 titles that start with ‘THE’

    –          11 True Stories

    –          9 Sci-fi scripts

    –          8 Small-town stories with large personal/emotional stakes

    –          6 Straight comedy or Romcom scripts (not including dramedies or mix-genres)

    –          6 Stories based on well-known real life people

    –          5 Projects based on already existing intellectual property

    –          5 Projects with veterans or soldiers as protagonists

    –          3 Political stories

    –          3 Projects with characters dying of cancer

    –          2 Sports stories (including the #1 script on the list)

    –          2 Handicapped main characters (mentally or physically)

    –          …And a partridge in a pear tree.

    While the Black List has always been – and still is – a great deal about “voice,” it used to ALSO be about scripts that COULD sell and get made, but just haven’t yet. Much of this year’s crop, however, lacks the high concept, pitchable quality of projects of yore.

    If you still don’t believe that The Black List has become a popularity contest that agents, managers and their assistants lobby (heavily) for, think about this –

    72 of the 78 scripts are rep’d by the 6 Major Agencies.

    40 of the scripts (that’s more than half) come from the same 9 management companies.

    Luckily, The Black List is no longer the only barometer of great unmade specs. The last couple years, there has also been The Blood List (for genre films), The Brit List, The Spec Scout Top 10 List and The Hit List, which comes from

    Despite both Spec Scout and Hit List predicting that their top scripts would also land at the top of the Black List…that wasn’t the case. Only 30 of the 84 scripts on the Hit List made the Black List as well, and only 3 of the Top 10 matched. Only 4 of the scripts on the Blood List made the Black List (the only 4 genre scripts that made it). And only 3 of the Spec Scout’s Top 10 scripts even made the Black List at all.

    This would indicate that the voters for Black List are a bit more snobby about their favorite material than those voting for other lists. It’s like the difference between the Nicholls judges and the Page Award judges.  Reading through the other scripts on The Hit List, voters clearly preferred more commercial and genre projects. And there are TWICE as many industry voters for the Hit List as the Black List.

    No matter what list you’re reading, the important part is that you’re reading tons of scripts. Whether they teach you what to do – or what not to do – reading scripts that are getting attention and praise in Hollywood can help improve your story skills and instincts and help you develop your own voice that perhaps will land you at the top of one of these lists next year.

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