Wednesday, 17 December 2014

What The Black List Says About Us

The Black List was announced last night. For those of you who arent aware of it, the Black List is a US website and online community for the film industry that aims to bring new writing talent and producers together. Writers can upload feature film scripts for feedback and industry execs can search for new projects. Its great for all involved, like a film development gang-bang.

Once a year the producers vote on the screenplays theyve read and their favourites are compiled into the official Black List. Get your script onto that list and you are well on your way to a production deal.

Films that started life on the Black List include Juno, The Kings Speech and Argo. Yeah. Its a big deal.

So I awaited this years Black List eagerly. To be eligible the script cannot be in production during that year, so all titles on this list will not be made until January 2015 at the earliest. This means that most will start to hit cinema screens from 2016.

Its really interesting to see what producers are feeling at the moment and what audiences can expect in a years time. You can begin to identify trends and it paints a clear picture of what ideas attract producers. As a writer or development assistant, being aware of what sells is essential.
For instance, the report from 2013 shows that the most popular genres were drama and comedy (no surprises there really) but it is interesting that the top tags were  the 2000s (time period), violence and male (25-34) (principal roles). So is Hollywood full of close-minded, violence-loving chauvinists? No, surely not!

Most scripts came with an estimated budget of $20-40 million and were set in either LA, NY or London. The majority were rated R, came with a happy ending and popular themes included love, courage, grief and redemption. These facts are just pulled from the overview report. If you looked more closely at each scripts logline you could discern a lot more about the kind of stories people identified with last year.

It would actually be super interesting to compare the Black Lists reports for the last ten years. I imagine what you would come out with is a pretty accurate detailing of how cinema has evolved, interesting data on what historical/cultural/social influences lead to film trends, and what producers have been mad for but what didnt do so well in the box office.

So I highly recommend you check out the Black List 2014. They run a fantastic accompanying blog too, called Go IntoThe Story, that is full of advice, interviews and script reviews, and I have been devouring it daily.

Getting back to 2014s Black List, I wanted to share my thoughts on the scripts and trends that caught my eye (all descriptions lifted straight from official log-lines).

Top of the list is a female writer with a female protagonist – hoorah! Kristina Lauren Andersens screenplay follows a young woman taking control of her life, marriage and kingdom to become Russias most celebrated monarch: Catherine the Great. I am not surprised this was picked up; audiences are demanding stronger female leads and Russia continues to dominate a lot of new stories.

Links to Russia were one trend I noticed, with three more scripts including the Cold War. Conflict continues to be a prevailing theme, with a further five scripts set in a war (four in WWII).

To break it all down for you, here are the more significant genres/themes I found in the 70 scripts of the Black List 2014 *

War/Conflict – 9
Biopic/True events – 8
Sibling feuds – 7
Coming of Age – 7
Detective – 7
Murder – 5
Disaster/Apocalypse – 5
Futuristic – 5
Self-discovery (male) – 5
Russia – 4
Psychology – 4
Road Trip – 3

Conflict is the essence of storytelling so the war genre will always provide great source material for films. But I do think the current unrest in Russia, Syria and the Middle East is telling and a major influence over writers and audiences. However to confirm this speculation you would need to compare the genres popularity during more peaceful times. 

The large number of biopics I think is a reaction to Hollywoods fakery and reliance on special effects. Maybe audiences want something a little more authentic and relatable – what better than the true story of a real person? Id be interested to see Road to Oz by Josh Golden, depicting the early days of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Love and feuds between siblings seem to be the relationships a lot of writers are exploring at the moment. There are a few parent/child dynamics too and these complex family connections seem to have replaced the traditional romance format. I think families are a great source for stories and drama that a lot of people can relate to. One that particularly caught my eye was Gifted by Tom Flynn: a man attempts to raise his deceased sisters seven year-old daughter, a kid genius, while battling his own mother for custody. I just hope they take it more in the direction of Little Miss Sunshine than Big Daddy.

Of the coming of age dramas The Swimsuit Issue by Randall Green really appeals to me. It is about a nerdy high-school photographer, who attempts to create a Swimsuit Issue featuring his classmates in the hope of raising enough money to go to summer camp. Theres something so innocent and simple about this story and I think that is why people respond to this genre over and over again, for pure escapism. I think its doing especially well now due to the disenchantment so many are feeling with adult life at the moment (those quarter-life crisis sufferers a.k.a moi).

Similarly, there were a lot of stories about middle-aged men going on a journey, resulting in self-discovery (Professor Pasghetti by Jeff Feuerstein, Everybody Wants Everything by Abraham Higginbotham, which is reminiscent of American Beauty). So apparently life doesnt get any less scary as we age (for men, anyway, unless they are just more self-indulgent than female writers). 

Other titles on the list that I hope make it to the big screen are Matriarch by Eric Koenig (a prison psychologist has 48hrs to convince a serial killer to tell her the location of her final victim before she is executed) and Morgan by Seth W Owen (a corporate risk management consultant is summoned to a remote research lab to determine whether or not to terminate an at-risk artificial being).

I wanted to count the number of female vs male writers but there were too many questionable first names for me to be sure. However I did count the number of female protagonists

Of 70 scripts:
Female Protagonists – 14
Male Protagonists – 43

Thats a huge difference. That leaves 13 scripts whose loglines didnt specify if the main character was male or female. If all 13 of them opt for women, the gender representation gap will still be largely in favour of male actors. Not cool.

I highly recommend you take a look at the full Black List yourselves. Its a really interesting read, whether you want to write, produce, direct or act. Its given me an idea of what to expect from the crazy film industry over the next year, Ive discovered some great writing talent to keep an eye on and it's really just pretty inspiring!   

*Note: I am aware that I have only looked at the Black List and that to provide accurate and thorough comment on film trends you would need to look much further afield and at extensive box office records. The above is my personal opinion and speculation of this one area of the industry as a gauge.