Yesterday a new partnership was announced between The Blacklist and ALMA Guionistas, that will give Spanish screenwriters the opportunity to enjoy discounted rates in the script-hosting services of the site. As a novel writer from Spain who has spent some time in Los Angeles, I feel compelled to write about my personal experience regarding The Blacklist, in case it proves helpful to anyone in a similar situation as mine.
First off, and I want to be very clear: this is good news. Any opportunity for Spanish screenwriters to approach the channels of the Hollywood script market is not only welcome, but much needed. So, congratulations to ALMA for making this partnership happen. It is a very hopeful first step.
Secondly, what is exactly The Blacklist? An interview with founder and CEO Franklin Leonard is available on Bloguionistas (in Spanish): as the man himself explains, The Blacklist was born as a yearly roster of the best unproduced screenplays going around production companies and studios. As the impact of this list grew —and some films were picked up for production—, The Blacklist became a script-hosting site where writers could upload their work, purchase evaluations from professional readers, and get their work exposed to the +3000 Hollywood professionals who access the database regularly in search for new, high-quality scripts.
As everybody who has attempted to break into the Hollywood fortress knows, access is the greatest difficulty new talent faces. Development executives rarely read anything that doesn’t come from a manager or agent, and these agencies, in turn, very rarely accept unsolicited submissions (here’s a list of some interesting talent firms, fyi.)
This is the reason why many young writers take up unpaid internships in development, hoping to meet people who might end up interested in their work: it’s been like this for a while, it has worked for some, and it has filtered out many others who either gave up or simply didn’t get lucky. I have done this: it has given me some great connections, experience, and learning. But it hasn’t given me an opportunity to pitch my ideas or find representation.
Others resort to screenwriting competitions hoping to reach the quarter finals, semi finals, or higher, which —when it happens, if it happens— usually draws some attention from managers and agents, and gives the budding writer an opportunity to break in. I have done this: it has given me the excitement of the wait, of the hope against all odds —my first two scripts on the Nicholl competition had to face off with +7000 other works—, but little else so far. Don’t get me wrong: it is what it is. Maybe most of us are just not good enough. In any case, I will keep trying. And if you find yourself in a similar situation, so should you. (Here’s a list of some good, serious competitions that can be worth the investment.)
In this context is where The Blacklist offers a perhaps revolutionary service: you can now access the readers directly by posting your scripts online. With two conditions: 1) it is at a price; and 2) you still need to draw attention amidst an ocean of movie and TV pilot spec scripts.
The money: hosting a feature film script for a month costs $25, and each evaluation from a reader, $50. It does seem reasonable and for sure not significantly more expensive than submitting to competitions (depending on how early you get to the deadlines, of course.)
The attention: I do not know the number of scripts currently uploaded on The Blacklist —and I don’t know if it’s available to the public—, but in its first year, +7300 scripts were submitted, which is more than the 2013 Nicholl Fellowship received. You are still a needle in a haystack.
The trick here is that you need to get an average rating of +8 from at least two evaluations (purchased or not, I understand) in one month if you want to make the so-called “top list.” If you don’t show up in there, you can still be found —if someone happens to be searching for what you’re offering, and if your script is really good— but in general it does seem like you’re nearly invisible.
In my recent experience, I uploaded a script and paid for one month plus an evaluation ($75). Customer service was excellent: since the rating I received was delayed for slightly over three weeks, The Blacklist gave me an extra month of hosting for free, which was vital to draw clicks to my script. The rating was the following:
The reader comments, however, caused me some confusion given that they were mainly positive. The reader praised the script’s “great twist” with a “powerful impact,” the character work, as well as the “sharp” dialogue and the “heart wrenching moment” at the end. On the negative side, the reader criticized —very legitimately and accurately, granted— a villain “coming off as a bit too cartoonish” and an ending that was “too rushed.” This is what the conclusion the reader wrote (character names deleted):
I agree with these comments and have kept the notes in mind in later revisions. But the fact remained that I had a “7” and my script wasn’t going to attract a lot of attention nor make the much-desired “top list.” All well and fine by me: I don’t kid myself. I know there’s a lot of good work out there. I don’t feel like I’ve been underestimated or misjudged. It’s just a tough race.
Some people with a more critical approach think, however, that The Blacklist is just part of what John Gary very poignantly calls “the Hope Machine.” (Please do yourself a favor and read his views on the subject, as compiled by The Bitter Script Reader.) These people —not Mr. Gary that I know of, for the record—, think that The Blacklist is only a platform that pushes scripts to the online foreground that have been already pushed forward in the offline scene. Others say, and maybe they have a point, that what $50 can get you in the industry —in terms of evaluation/feedback— is not going to be a top reader. Those people, they argue, already have tons of scripts to read at work. They don’t need more for a few dollars more.
But —you may be wondering, as I have many times—, does it work? Is it real? Are there any success stories?
The answer is not all that simple. There are certainly some hopeful cases of early success (scripts picked up, screenwriters hired, representation obtained), but I personally have never seen a comprehensive account of those, and more importantly, I have never been able to differentiate which success stories spring from “The Black List” —as a yearly roster of best, unproduced screenplays— and which ones take place on “blcklst.com,” the script hosting site. That is the only point I disliked from the Bloguionistas’ post on the matter, because it seems misleading: they insist that “over 300 scripts have become movies,” without taking explicit notice of Mr. Leonard‘s precision that “only a handful of screenplays discovered in and exclusively backed by The Blacklist have become movies […] However, it is true that over 300 films have been made from scripts hosted in The Blacklist.” While I don’t want to jump to conclusions, this distinction still remains somewhat unclear to me, and it seems to give credit to the aforementioned criticism that The Blacklist serves as a springboard for scripts online that have already been noticed “offline.”
For more information, with facts, numbers, and opinions, I recommend the following pieces:
- “Warner Bros. Hires Screenwriter from Black List Service, What Does This Mean for the Rest of Us?” – nofilmschool.com
- “Should You Upload Your Script on the Black List’s Website? Here Are Some Facts to Help You Decide” – mentorless.com
- “Are All Screenplay Services Bullshit? The Black List Might Not Be” – defamer.gawker.com
As you may notice from the general tone of these three pieces, I’m not too skeptical about The Blacklist. I think it is a well-run service. I think that it provides opportunities for exposure much like competitions do, and that is always good. And I think that it is also good to revolutionize the way the market works, specially in the complicated world of Hollywood. (Here in Spain we are witnessing our own version of this with the Filmarket Hub, which I encourage everyone to take a look at, and of which I have also been a client.)
Now, what I really think is this: The Blacklist is not the answer. The Nicholl Fellowship is not the answer. The same as InkTip, or Screencraft, or what have you. These are all crutches, opportunities, tools. Many among them have happy endings, as well as many have horror stories. The answer is to keep writing. Certainly a cliché, but also the only piece of advice that has consistently proven to work. Of my writer friends in LA, only a few have already representation: the only common factor to all of them is that they are prolific. They write a lot. Maybe not everyday, but certainly every week. A lot. And that’s what I’m going to aspire to keep doing. (And yes, perhaps I’ll go back to The Blacklist at some point.)
If you need more arguments to fuel your motivation, I advise you to read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Joe Eszterhas’ The Screenwriter’s Guide to Hollywood. Much of what they say is debatable, but they have one common virtue: they make you want to write. So let’s do that.
PS. Apologies for the long absence here on the blog, but it has been —it’s being— a rather intense year. More time for work means less time for blogging. But I will keep posting!