Blacklist: Data + Intuition = Hollywood’s good bet

When you watch your favorite film, maybe it is “THE KING’S SPEECH”, or “SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”, or “ARGO”, have you ever thought that these successful productions would have never been shoot into films if it was not because of a website called “The Blacklist”?

You must have heard about the famous anecdote that the scriptwriters of “House of Cards” wrote the story based on big data analysis done by Netflix. Though it is not a 100% true story, this anecdote unveils the potential impact of data on Hollywood world of entertainment today. Now let’s talk about something that’s really happening in Hollywood –  when you watch your favorite film, maybe it is “THE KING’S SPEECH”, or “SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”, or “ARGO”, have you ever thought that these successful productions would have never been shoot into films if it was not because of a website called “The Blacklist” and a man called Franklin Leonard?


In 2005, Franklin Leonard, a Hollywood film executive, and also a proud Harvard University graduate, launched The Blacklist, which is a survey database of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. On one end, The Blacklist has recruited nearly 500 film executives (they may be veteran scripts, directors or producers) serving as the internal reviewer, vote and write reviews of the scripts in the database. On the other hand, the website also attracted thousands of professional scriptwriters to submit their scripts through it and get reviewed by the film industry professionals from various yet sophisticated dimensions. The Blacklist is an exclusive and safe platform complied with IP management regulations, for writers to upload their scripts and get reviewed by professional readers. Readers must go through a strict application and filtering process done by the website and are monitored of the quality of their comments and reviews. Based on these readers’ reviews, every year, The Blacklist will publish its annual list of best rated but not yet produced scripts, stating that “These are not necessarily ‘the best’ screenplays, but rather ‘the most liked’.” If you are a film professional who are in search of more information about the scripts than the annual list, you must register and go through an application process as well on the website. After you’re successfully registered, a detailed evaluation dataset of certain plays – grades based on plot, premise, characters, setting and dialogue from dozens of genres will be made available to you. When scripts are rated highly, The Blacklist also promotes the screenplays to potential buyers for the scriptwriters.


Hollywood has a long history of not a big fan of data. Instead of data, they believe in intuition of art. And that makes film production a high-risk industry due to too much uncertainty of intuition-based bets. However, Franklin is a firm believer in his own theory of crowdsourcing the most liked intuitions of the people who are well-experienced veterans of the industry, analyzing them and believing in them. “I don’t trust one man’s intuition. I trust the shared intuition of the most experienced people in Hollywood.”


Statistically, these “most liked intuitions of the professionals” turned out to be successful. Over 300 Black List screenplays have been made as feature films since 2005. Those films have earned over $26 billion in worldwide box office, have been nominated for 264 Academy Awards, and have won 48, including 4 Best Pictures and ten of the last twenty screenwriting Oscars.


Based on its 12 years of accumulation, besides surveying and publishing annual lists, The Blacklist is also offering data analysis for scriptwriters to better think of their new writing. For example, according to The Blacklist’s database, science-fiction scripts were some of the lowest-performing genres by 2014, and the general category of science fiction and fantasy does worse than the general set in most elements. This message might send a warning sign to the writers to move away from this genre for now, or maybe plan to write a tent-pole blockbuster of this genre in the next several years when the market would be in need of this genre after those lower-performing ones. The Blacklist will also help the writers work on specific dimensions based on data analysis, e.g. when it finds out that a good setting can compensate for poorer character development or dialogue, if you are a writer that finds writing dialogue or characters particularly challenging, you would better choose to write niche dramas that have a compelling time/location setting, rather than comedies.



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