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A black list from heaven
Hollywood's secret list a treasure trove of future award-winning movies waiting to be discovered.

Each year, at precisely 11am on December 9, a young Hollywood executive named Franklin Leonard emails out the "Black List", a top-secret document that ranks 100 of the best unproduced screenplays in Tinseltown.

By lunch, the list is the talk of the town. Executives hit their iPads to read it. Actors call their agents about it. Writers are rushed into urgent deal meetings. And studios enter bidding wars hoping to bag the next Best Picture Oscar winner for a bargain-basement price.

After all, that's exactly what happened to The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, which went from unproduced scripts on the Black List to winning Best Picture Oscars in 2007 and 2010 respectively.

In fact, since its accidental inception in 2005, the Black List has enjoyed a staggering strike rate. Four of the past eight Best Screenplay Oscar winners were on the list, including The Descendants, The Social Network and Juno. Many others received multiple nominations, including The Ides of March, Up in the Air and There Will Be Blood. More still became commercial and cult hits, such as The Hangover, 500 Days of Summer and Superbad.

No wonder the Black List is now seen as the most powerful and influential document in Hollywood. The obvious question, then, is how such critical and commercial hits are left to flounder - sometimes for years - as unproduced screenplays until being discovered on the Black List and put into production.

"It's the 100 best unproduced screenplays," Jodie Foster explained after directing Mel Gibson in The Beaver, whose script she discovered on the Black List. "Usually they're quirky films that have trouble getting off the ground, and the reason is because they're unusual. I read The Beaver on the Black List and I loved it."

With tens of thousands of scripts written every year, the majority never make it to the eye of a low-level studio reader, let alone a production executive. Some are passed between production houses for years, lingering like sad pound puppies until the right person picks one up and falls in love with it.

Getting a script on the Black List, however, is like winning the lottery - literally - and gives a script the best chance it can have of being turned into a film.

To understand how the list works, you have to go back to 2005 when Leonard, then a creative executive at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, read screenplays for the star and chose those with the most potential to be made into movies. The 33-year-old Harvard graduate, who ditched his management consultancy job to become a script scout, was often frustrated by what he read.

Before going on Christmas holidays, he decided to try something different.

"I just decided to email the people in the same business as me, about 75 in all, and ask them for a list of their 10 best screenplays that had been written that year," Leonard told the London Times. "I combined all the information, ordered the titles in terms of popularity, slapped a vaguely subversive name - the Black List - on it, sent it back to the participants and went on holiday."

Leonard, an African-American, said the name was less a parody on the original list of Hollywood's supposed communist sympathisers and more to challenge its negative cultural symbolism. He collated the information so each film was ranked according to its popularity, and made sure every film on the list included the names of the writer, agent, manager and anyone attached to the project, making contact easy for interested producers.

"By the time I got back (from holiday), the list had gone viral, and I was terrified that I was going to be run out of town."

What Leonard found, instead, was that the anonymity of the list gave the executives the freedom to name the scripts they loved rather than those they thought would make millions. In that sense, the list unveiled the gaping paradox that, for decades, great scripts were being overlooked in favour of sure-fire box office hits. The Black List, however, gave those "quirky scripts" (as Foster put it) the stamp of approval and made them a safer option to shoot.

In that first year, for instance, two of the top five films on the list tackled tricky subjects. Juno addressed teen pregnancy while Lars and the Real Girl sees an immature man fall in love with a sex doll. Yet both went into production, snagged Best Original Screenplay nominations and earned many times their budget at the box office.

With that kind of immediate success, the Black List quickly became a hot commodity in Hollywood. The following year, Leonard expanded his net to 300-odd development executives and high-level assistants. Scott Neustadter - who co-wrote 500 Days of Summer - said the recognition alone went a long way.

"It's definitely the best and most comprehensive thing out there that tells us writers how we did," he told The Huffington Post.

Some now complain that the list has been co-opted by the studios, with one producer griping that it has become political with some screenwriters begging for help to get on it. Given scripts for blockbusters such as The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman are on there, plus Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, it's a valid point.

Yet there is no denying the Black List is a game-changer that's levelled Hollywood's traditionally commercial playing field.

Recently released films that once floundered on the list include Sarah Polley's searching indie romance Take This Waltz (ranked 10th on the 2009 list), the financial thriller Margin Call (31st in 2010) and the Oscar-winning The Descendants (14th in 2008).

Films to look forward to include Magic Mike (out July 26), about Channing Tatum's real-life time as a stripper, and Tarantino's new film Django Unchained (December). The last list also promises some purlers, including the number-one ranked script for The Imitation Game, based on Graham Moore's WWII code-breaking epic, and the third ranked Chewie, a comic look at the making of Star Wars through the eyes of the guy in the wookiee suit, Peter Mayhew.

As for Leonard, he's now the director of development at Universal Pictures, and he recently took the Black List online and added an iTunes-style feature where producers rate the scripts they've read and are sent "recommendations" for scripts based on their tastes. No wonder it's inspired industry copycat The Hit List, which champions "spec" (unpaid) scripts. "I wish I could say I saw all of this coming," Leonard concludes.

Sounds like the makings of a good movie.