Photo credit: David Morrison
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Part of our mission at Microphone Check is to expand our conversation about hip-hop culture. To that end, we’re interviewing people who make an impact within it and also operate in other areas under its principles.
To that end, we brought in Franklin Leonard, a film executive who runs something called The Black List, an annual collection of screenplays that Hollywood decision-makers like but haven’t yet been made.
We wanted to talk to him about movies — why good movies don’t get made and bad ones do — and about the effect of things like “the mainstream” and “conventional wisdom” on culture industries. The parallels to the music industry showed up right away: you can replace the words “big name actor” with the words “big name rapper” in almost every exchange we have.
Really this is a conversation about making value — value’s what I’m talking about. Thanks for going out on a limb with us here, and we hope you get a lot out of this one.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What up?
FRANNIE KELLEY: Thank you for being here.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Thank you for having me.
FRANNIE: And thanks for sort of trusting us as we expand the show.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.
FRANNIE: We don't want it to be — we don't want to fake it, but to our mind, hip-hop culture is more than just the music industry.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I would agree completely.
FRANNIE: So yeah, maybe we could start there, if you could tell us how you see hip-hop factoring into, like, the role that you play in Hollywood.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah. I mean, I think it's hard to pinpoint it, cause I think that — let's just put it all on the table, right? To my mind, hip-hop is arguably the most important cultural force on Earth in the last four years.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: And so, I think everyone on some level is affected by hip-hop, in terms of the sort of soundtrack to their lives, the music that they find themselves listening to, and then I think if you grew up listening to the music, if you grew up sort of watching the way in which hip-hop culture — whether it's sampling or whether it's sort of creating one's own business within a business and owning that business, I think you're starting to see that approach to life, that approach to storytelling, that approach to art come alive in film.
And I think it took longer in the film industry because it's so capital intensive. Like, to make a movie you need — at least until recently, you needed millions of dollars. Whereas to put together an album, you can do music without that much money, and in many ways, like, hip-hop was born of, "Look, we don't have all of these resources available to us, but you give us two turntables and some wax we can do something with it. And a microphone. We're here." And I think that that's — when I think about the indie film business, that's what I think about.
And when I think about so many of the people who are coming up right now film-wise, whether it be Issa Rae or Donald Glover or Ava DuVernay or Ryan Coogler, these are people whose lives were defined by hip-hop, culturally throughout the duration of their entire lives, and now they're making films that are reflective of that worldview and mindset that aren't necessarily exclusively defined by hip-hop, which as somebody who's in the industry, but also just as a person who watches movies and television, that's incredibly exciting.
FRANNIE: Yeah. I want to kind of bring The Black List into how it could possibly have implications for the music industry.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.
FRANNIE: But maybe we should start by —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: What is The Black List?
FRANNIE: Yeah. Exactly.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: This thing started cause my job is just buying good screenplays to read and good writers to work with. I was working for Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, and that was the gig. And I felt like most of the stuff that I was reading was bad, and I wanted to find stuff that was good, and if I couldn't, I needed to listen to my mother when she kept calling me to ask about law school and do that. And I really didn't want to go to law school.
FRANNIE: It's a universal story, really.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: It's pretty universal.
But so I surveyed all my people that I knew in the business and said, "Look, send me a list of your favorite ten scripts that haven't been made yet in exchange I'll send you the combined list." And that list was Juno, Lars And The Real Girl, The Queen, a bunch of stuff that either was beloved but hadn't been made yet or maybe it was going to get made. Like, David Benioff and Aaron Sorkin were pretty high on that first list. That stuff was probably going to get made at same point.
But I think by shining a very bright spotlight on that stuff, it makes people take a second look and say, "Maybe we undervalued that. Maybe a good screenplay has more value than just a sample to go write a superhero movie." So I think we catalyzed a lot of stuff to get made, but I never want to over-claim our role in the movies getting made or the movies themselves, because that credit goes to the people who made the movies.
FRANNIE: OK. So whether or not the movie was just not happening or if it was in some stage, the Black List gives it momentum of some kind.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think we've expanded sort of what we do. Now we have this website that allows anybody on Earth to upload their script, have it evaluated if it's good. And that's sort of predicated on this theory that, for years, Hollywood has assumed that if you want to write, move to L.A., get a job at a coffee shop, and then network yourself into success.
And that's fine if you're an upper-middle-class kid, and mommy and daddy can pay for a BMW. But if you grew up in Georgia where I grew up, and you didn't know the right people, or you're a suburban dad in Charlotte, you're a terrible father if you move your family to L.A. to try to be a screenwriter. But that doesn't mean you can't write.
And I think that the industry, its lack of diversity and inclusion for women, for people of color, for just about everybody, is reflective of that lack of access. And so we're trying to open it up a little bit.
FRANNIE: So what are some things that slow the momentum of projects?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: The process of deciding which movies get made largely comes down to an evaluation of whether or not the movie can make more money than it costs.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: It's a simple economic decision. And so you're dealing with a lot of assumptions and occasionally analytical evidence about what can make money. But there's a lot of conventional wisdom in those decisions that is all convention and no wisdom. So I think a lot of the times it's just trying to make the economic argument that you're movie can make money and turn a profit, and that can take time, especially if your movie is not on its face a blockbuster.
And the sad things is is that there're a lot of things that are assumed not to be blockbusters that have nothing to do with the quality of the movie or even the likely audience reception. I mean, look, one example is people are like, "Well, you can't sell black people abroad." I've been asking for as long as I've been in the business, which is almost 15 years, for anyone to show me any analytical evidence of that claim whatsoever, and no one has shown it. And anybody listening, if you have it, hit me up on Twitter. Show me the numbers. But they don't exist.
Coming To America made something like $200 million foreign when it came out. Big Momma's House 2 made $70 million abroad in 2007. You can't tell me that you can't sell black movies abroad or people of color abroad, because the evidence just isn't there. But assumptions like that are what slow certain things from getting made.
By the way, that was true of things like — when Hunger Games, the book, came out, people were like, "I don't know. Female-driven action doesn't really work." Really? Where did that come from? Titanic was a female-driven action movie. It did alright. And so I think there's a lot of just assumptions about what can work and what cannot, and you have to convince people that what you're selling people will buy.
FRANNIE: So given those assumptions, when people say a movie is mainstream, what are they saying?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I mean, for the most part what they're saying is is it appeals to young white men, or sort of — yeah, I think that's actually — I will not edit that statement. That's pretty accurate. Look, maybe that's changing a little bit. But, no, for the most part, that is what they're saying.
FRANNIE: How do they know what appeals — like, is that analytical? Is there numbers to back that up?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yes, there are assumptions implicit in that, right? Well, let's say Get Out as an example. I don't know that most people would've assumed that that was a mainstream movie. Black lead, no big stars, not a ton of action. But again, if your mainstream is the movie-going public, clearly it is mainstream. It made a ton of money.
But no — and look, is there some analytical background behind that? Yeah. Like, if you look at big superhero movies with a ton of action and a ton of partially-clad women, those tend to do pretty well with young white men. Transformers, the Marvel franchises, the DC Comics movies.
But a lot of it is sort of based on the intuition of the people who run these companies. And the people who run these companies are overwhelmingly are white men from upper-class backgrounds, and they're making decisions based on how they see the world and how they experience the world, which is, in the main, not representative of how the world actually is.
FRANNIE: Right. So I want to talk about a movie called Geostorm, which I recently saw. Have you seen it?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: No.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that's a smart decision. Have you seen it?
FRANNIE: So, like, I just don't understand why people thought that people would go to see that movie. I don't — it's like, on the one hand, there's a whole bunch of misperceptions of audience that leads to movies being overwhelmingly white and male, right?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Right. And there's misperceptions that lead to movies with white men being overwhelmingly bad and successful, or getting made? Yeah.
FRANNIE: Exactly! So there's also this question of good work vs. bad work, which is essentially —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.
FRANNIE: The function of your list is like, "Here's good work that isn't being made." Why is there bad work everywhere?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: So I'm speculating, because I don't know the details of Geostorm, but here's what I guess: Geostorm is a big, global action movie, right?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Well, global in the sense that it — things that happen —
FRANNIE: They destroy Rio at one point.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.
FRANNIE: Yeah. OK.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: There's worldwide destruction. Gerard Butler, he stars, right?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah, he's the star of 300. That movie made a lot of money around the world.
FRANNIE: Right. True.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: And I think that there's an assumption that if you have a movie about worldwide catastrophe with a white male lead between the ages of 25 and 45 who people recognize from other movies that involve action and worldwide destruction, there's a good chance it'll work. Maybe it won't work in the U.S. But maybe we can sell it abroad, and people will go see it.
Now a lot of times those bets don't work, and certainly there are better — from an investor perspective, if I had a pile of money and I was choosing between investing it in Geostorm and investing in a lot of other things, I may make different decisions. But I think that's probably the bet people are taking, and fortunately I think the more often bets like that prove wrong, people will have to adjust their sort of their investment strategies to try to, you know, actually make more profit. And we'll see fewer of those movies and more movies like Get Out and The Big Sick and things like that.
FRANNIE: Right. It's just in that calculation — I mean, I get that it's subjective, you know, what is good, what is high quality. But it doesn't even seem to be — it's not even a column on the spreadsheet.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah, well —
FRANNIE: Or is it?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: No, that's an interesting question. How are people incorporating the quality of the screenplay into making a greenlight decision? So I'd say two things. One, I haven't read the script for Geostorm. It might be great. Like, the original screenplay for Geostorm might have been great, and then the million decisions that go from screenplay to the movie we see on the screen may have made it not great.
But in my experience there is an assumption that, in putting together a greenlighting process, things like the actor, the genre, the budget, the action sequences, those are sort of concrete quantities that you can mentally process into an economic decision. Whereas the quality of the screenplay, because it is entirely subjective on some level, well, there's no way to know one way or another, so let's just pull that aside.
And as long as the people who are involved in the greenlight decision don't absolutely hate the screenplay or think that it's total garbage, we should probably move forward with this movie. Or even if we do think it's garbage, every other element that we have is a reliable, concrete thing, so it's probably a good bet anyway.
I actually think that that is a terrible economic strategy to put together a slate of movies in which to try to turn a profit, but I think that that's probably how it happens.
FRANNIE: So how would you do it? What would be a good economic strategy?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I think trying to find a way to set up a proxy for the quality of the screenplay and make that a significant, or certainly a more significant, component in the decision about what movies to make and what not to make would yield better results. I hope that's a hypothesis that I can attempt to test in the near future. We'll see how that works.
But no, look, I think that the work that screenwriters do is terribly undervalued in the industry. I think that everybody knows that at the end of the day what you're looking for when you go to a movie — yeah, maybe you want great action, maybe you want attractive people, maybe you want global destruction. I'm down with all of that, if the story around it is good. And when you get all of it, it's great, and when you're missing the screenplay part, you don't have much to go on. The rest just all feels like a waste of time.
And I used to work for Anthony Minghella who directed The English Patient and Talented Mr. Ripley, and he would describe the screenplay like, "You're an architect. You are designing the house, and if you don't have a good design, you're not going to build a house — not only that doesn't look good, but it might crush you as you open the door to walk in." And so I think that we just need to properly value the screenplay in the process of making movies.
And that means in greenlight decisions, that means paying proper due to the people who are writing movies on red carpets, at the Oscars. Every movie you see, someone somewhere sat in a room by themselves and dreamed that into existence, and that's a pretty remarkable thing that I don't think those people get enough credit for it. If you've ever tried to write anything, you have some idea of how hard that is. But then do it and then know that you're going to hand that off to somebody as a blueprint to try to execute on your vision. I mean, respect is due.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I mean, as far as credit, there's also parallels with music where there is ghostwriting, there is people getting credit for — you come in and you have, like, one suggestion, but because you're a-list, maybe your little sprinkle made it something it could never have been without that. Is there another way, other than putting somebody's name up there, to pay people for their work?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Well, I mean —
FRANNIE: Different type of deals maybe.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah, different type of deals. My dad was in the army for 25 years. He used to say, "Don't tell me your priorities. Show me your budget." On a fundamental basis, like, pay writers more. If you were to look at the budgets on those movies, the big stars are probably getting paid the most, and then the directors, and then somewhere down the line, probably below the third- or fourth- or fifth-billed actor, maybe the writer shows up. I think some of that matters.
I think that having the writers involved deeper into the process of making the movie makes sense. Everyone talks all the time now about how TV is, like, so good right now. We're living in the golden age of television. I think that's largely true, and I think part of the reason for that is that television is a writer's medium. Shonda Rhimes is the one dictating terms about what direction her shows had. David Simon was the star of The Wire, and not the directors of any individual episode.
So I don't think we need to sort of kick auteurs out of the business or kick directors out or not acknowledge the extraordinary contributions they make, but let's recognize where this stuff comes from, and that's writers. So I think it's credit. I think it's money. I think it's just a general shift in an orientation of the industry towards recognizing the source of real value.
I'm not saying great value doesn't come from the contributions of everyone else on film. It's a collaborative medium and a sort of unique one. But I do think that the work that writers do is just profoundly undervalued, and to really awful consequences for the industry as a whole. If we valued writers the way they should be valued, the industry's economics would be better, and we'd be making better movies.
FRANNIE: Right. It sounds like the music industry to me.
ALI: So many parallels. I'm just sitting here, comparing —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Really? See, I don't have any sense of the music industry at all.
ALI: Well, the one thing that I take, like — and I didn't see this movie. I don't really know much about Geostorm. But something that —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I don't think anybody knows much about it, cause no one really saw it.
FRANNIE: I'll just tell you: the dog lives. So.
ALI: Spoiler. So because I've been scoring, and so I've tiptoed into the world of film and television, and just when you're looking at your ledger, if it's an economic-based business and people are looking at it, how do you look at all these financial failures but still continue to make the same dumb decisions?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I think there's a few factors there. I think there's some, like, basic human stuff, right? Where, if you're the person responsible for making a decision where $120 million goes and you know your jobs on the line and you got kids in private school and a mortgage, you're going to play it pretty conservatively. And most people naturally do that. It's unfortunate, but it's a reality.
The consequence of that is you make decisions that — you're playing defense all the time. You want to put yourself in a position where you can say — if your boss, who's responsible to shareholders, comes to you and says, "Yo, how'd you make this movie?" You want to be able to say, "Anyone would've made the same decision I did. It was a big action movie. I had Gerard Butler from 300. All those Roland Emmerich movies about the world getting ended do well. Everyone would've greenlit this. I did too. But you can't fire me for a decision everybody would make." If you make the risky decision and your boss comes to you and said, "What were you thinking?" It's a lot harder to keep your job when you sort of are out on your own, so I think people play it conservatively just to protect the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed.
And I also think that there's just a sort of venal, I-want-hang-out-with-celebrities part of those decisions too. It's like, why am I going to be nicer to a big actor than a big writer? Well, maybe I want to hang out with that actor. Maybe I want to get invited to that actor's birthday party. And like, all of us are susceptible to this on some level. But it's the actor and the director's faces on TV, on magazine covers, that everyone wants to know.
Writers, as a community, either A) haven't embraced that or haven't been welcomed into that space, and, as a consequence, I would say the sort of weird ego drive is not as strong to give them what they want solely because you want that association. I may be overstating that a little bit, but I do think that that's part of the operating thing that's happening there.
ALI: It's interesting. At least, from a music perspective, writers at some point before streaming used to really have the bigger share of the economics of a record. Streaming kind of killed that for everyone, specifically the writers, because the value that we get paid for streaming is way less than radio plays and stuff like that. I don't know. I'm listening to you guys speak.
FRANNIE: I mean, the more I started — I guess originally I had wanted to talk to you for your perspective on the way that this era of film and television that we have now is being shaped by hip-hop, and I do still want to talk about it. But the more that I started seeing these parallels with the industry, I was like, could there be something like the Black List in music, and I was thinking specifically in hip-hop. Because there are acts that are well-liked by scouts and low-level A&R and kids that just fucking pay attention and are scouring the Internet. Could you not make some form of list?
ALI: Well, that's a really good question. I think you could do something like that, and there are several blogs out there that I think go looking for good music, and they write about the things that aren't being written or spoken about.
But just on another level, I look at that, and I'm like, well, MySpace was sort of that sort of a thing. Because it was a place that you can go to obviously to socialize, but there were a lot of great music that was made, a lot of great partnerships was made, because it was the go-to place to find just good music. And same thing with SoundCloud before it got really oversaturated was that it was a place where — there was not a list, but at least it was place that you know you could go to to find that underdog, just great song from a great artist, and —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: People came to me for years being like, "Oh, you should do a Black List for music. You should do a Black List for all this other stuff." And, like, the thing about screenplays is you have to read the entire thing to know if it's good or not. That's like a two-hour commitment. With music, if there's a track, I can listen to it in five minutes and know if I'm in or not. And if I'm in, I'm going to go look for other stuff by the same artist.
And I actually think that technology and the Internet, SoundCloud, MySpace, all those hubs end up functioning like a real-time marketplace of opinion. So, like, if you got something dope, you can put it online and if people find it, you can go viral overnight. Because people are always looking for new music. There's a critical mass of people looking for new music, and then there are people that are following on what they're listening to.
With screenplays it's a lot harder, because there's a very small community of people who would even want to read a screenplay, and an even smaller group who read professionally, and then the commitment required to evaluate it is significantly more. So like there's a super-abundance of screenplays. There're like 50 thousand screenplays registered at the WGA every year, a couple thousand people at most reading them, and then there's a bunch of sort of massive investment that comes as a result of the decisions those people make. It's a lot easier if you make dope music to get it discovered than it ever would be if you wrote a dope screenplay too.
ALI: Well, what about the idea of my partners and I have written a couple things and shopped it around, and we've gotten a couple of interests and more no's, to the point that we said, "We're going to buy cameras and shoot it ourselves."
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I think that's happening more and more. And it's really exciting. I mean, Tangerine was a movie a couple years ago now that was shot on, like, I think the iPhone 5? So like, not even the good iPhone cameras now. And it was nominated for a bunch of Independent Spirit Awards and was part of the conversation around the Oscars that year.
So you don't need millions of dollars from Hollywood to make something available anymore on the film side. Now you have to write a screenplay that can be done with those resources, but I think that's happening more and more, and I think we're also seeing — one of the things I'm most proud of about the Black List website is that it's connecting people from all parts of the world who may be involved in various parts of making movies, not even the Hollywood film industry.
I mean, one crazy example, we had a husband and wife from Atlanta, Georgia upload a screenplay, small gothic thriller, that they wanted to find money to direct. That was found on the website by Image Nation Abu Dhabi who wanted to finance their first ever Emirati genre film. They optioned the script for Arabic language, produced it, made some small cultural changes so they could do it set in the Emirates. That movie then premiered at the London Film Festival, and then in the U.S. at Fantastic Fest, and Netflix acquired it as their first ever Arabic language acquisition. And it looks like the U.S. language-arm of that same company is now going to be giving the writer-director who wrote the original screenplay the money to make their English language version.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: That wasn't possible pre-Internet, because — and look, the idea that good storytelling has national borders is sort of ridiculous, right? A good story is a good story is a good story. So if there's person that's written a great story in Georgia, why shouldn't someone who has money and wants to make the movie in Abu Dhabi be able to get access to it? And why shouldn't then they be able to make it and then premier the movie in London and Austin, Texas? And then why shouldn't Netflix buy it, out of Los Gatos, California? And then why shouldn't that original writer-director be able to make that movie in Louisiana using the tax cuts there?
In a world where that exists, you're going to get a lot more efficient markets for cultural content that should result in you not needing Hollywood to be successful, but when you find that success, trust that Hollywood will come calling. Those are the things that make me really excited.
Issa Rae's another great example of that. You make your web series. Everyone loves your web series. HBO's like, "Yo, there's an audience here. We want to get in on that money." And you make Insecure, and it becomes one of the best shows on television.
FRANNIE: OK. So to go back on one thing. What I'm thinking with the list for music is like, there's finding a song that you like, and sort of just getting put on. There's also this idea of developing acts, which, admittedly, the majors have kind of abandoned. But if they were to kind of back into that game, they need more than just the Internet to tell them if it's good. They need some form of expertise to get involved and say, "You know, I know a little bit more about how this could be shaped or what somebody with these sort of raw skills, these talents, how they could be refined." And I was just thinking if there were some type of mechanism to rebuild the A&R function. Does that make sense?
ALI: It does make sense. It just seems like — well, one, it's much needed I think, if you want to have great music, and that's subjective to — everyone thinks they know what great is.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: If someone came to me and said, at gunpoint, "You have to make a Black List for music." What I would I probably do is put together a list of everyone who could legitimately claim to have some taste, based on either you make music or you are responsible for selling music or whatever, the sort of low-level A&R folks, folks who are in the studio, folks who are listening to music a lot, and I'd basically ask them, "Who are the ten artists that you found out about this year, that you are most excited about?" And then I would just list — based on the people that are listed most often, I'd just put that list out every year.
But I think the curation of who you're surveying becomes really important. Like in Hollywood, I'm surveying every executive at every major studio, major financier, and production company that has a deal with them. So I can legit claim the survey that I'm taking is all of the gatekeepers that matter in Hollywood proper.
And what they do professionally in large part is read material, read through screenplays, and evaluate them. So the list that I'm putting out isn't — and I say this on the list every year. It's not a best-of list, cause what is best? It is a most-liked list of the people who are making those decisions. It's a mirror of what people are into.
And that's imperfect, right. The Moonlight script wasn't on the Black List. God, I wish it was. But that's probably because —
FRANNIE: There's a lot of biopics on the list, right?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: There's a lot of biopics. Well, and — there's a lot of biopics. I think the biopic thing is because you bring — when you read a script — when you watch a movie about somebody who existed, you're bringing with you a certain amount of emotional relationship to the subject matter to begin with. There are a lot of biopics, but even more specifically there are a lot of biopics about people for whom people between the ages 25 and 45 have, like, inherent nostalgia. So it's like, Dr. Seuss, Mr. Rogers, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas. Like, if you're our age, you have feelings about those people.
FRANNIE: I do.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Some part of your childhood was touched by that, and so if you nail that script, all the feelings come out. And that's really what people are looking for I think when they read screenplays, when they listen to music, when they watch movies. You want an emotional reaction. That's for me the holy grail of any art, is eliciting an emotional reaction and recasting the world so that people see it differently than they did when first encountered the art.
ALI: How did a Quentin Tarantino movie make the Black List?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Because it was just a beloved script. We don't limit it to writers that you've never heard of. It's just movie scripts that you found out about this year that haven't gotten made. So the cool thing about that list is you end up with everyone from a writer who just graduated from college and just moved out to L.A. and wrote something that was straight fire to someone like Tarantino or — I mean, The Social Network script was on the list. That was getting made without out us. Sorkin's one of the best writers in the game. He wrote an amazing screenplay about the founding of Facebook.
But the full range of backgrounds, the full range of experience — cause we're just asking about what's good from this year. If you were to ask most Hollywood folks who are the writers you're most excited to work with, that list would be a bunch of Aaron Sorkins and Quentin Tarantinos, and not very many of those new folks. But I love the fact that the list is something where literally you can have Sorkin number two behind someone who hasn't even moved out to L.A. yet, but who just wrote their first script and it was amazing. And I think that legitimizes the folks who aren't big already, because they're on the same list with Tarantino and Sorkin.
FRANNIE: So at this point, is there any jockeying or positioning that you're aware of by agents or managers?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look, I think people recognize that there's real value in getting on the list, and a rational response to that is to try to get on the list, right? And so I think, yeah. I'm sure — I know for a fact that agents call around and try to remind executives like, "Hey, you said you liked that script earlier this year. Don't forget to vote."
I don't think it matters though. The voting is blind. So an agent can call you and try to convince you to vote for their client, and you may say, "Yeah. Loved it. Gonna vote for it. Totally." And then not vote for it. And they're never going to know one way or the other. And every year I always get at least one phone call from some agent or rep who's like, "I'm pretty sure nine people voted for my client's script." And you know, look, maybe I made a mistake. I go back and double check, and usually I have to call them and be like, "Sorry, dude. Five people lied to you. I don't know what to tell you."
FRANNIE: Did you make that — really? You said, "Five people lied to you."
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I mean, I'm sure — with agents with whom I have a closer personal relationship I'm sure I said exactly that.
But no, I mean, look, it's — I am a lot of things. The thing that I am more than anything is I'm totally neurotic, and I fact check that thing like five, six times. Santa checks his list twice. I'm definitely doing it more than that. And so I'm not trying to make mistakes.
And could someone campaign their way onto the Black List? Yeah, I'm sure. I don't think that's impossible. I'd be foolish to think that it was. But OK, let's play that out. You've got a garbage script. Your agent gets it on the list. Everybody reads it, realizes your script is garbage, and then doesn't want to read the next thing you wrote.
The Black List is really only valuable if the script is good. Cause then everybody reads it, and if it's good, then everyone's hyped and they want to make your movie. But if you wrote something that was mediocre to bad and it makes it on the list, OK, yeah, maybe a bunch of people read you, but I don't think it's going to help that much.
And I think that's really how the Black List has to be used, is as a list of things that people say they like, and some people have terrible taste. And some people maybe did campaign their way on the list. So read the scripts on the list, and then make your own decision about whether you like them or not. Don't just trust that the scripts on the Black List are amazing.
Yeah, some of them are. Some of them, in my opinion, are not. But it is and it will always be a list of what people are saying they liked. But you as a person who's involved in making movies or art has to then decide what you think it is and whether you want to invest the time and money in being involved in it.
FRANNIE: Yeah. I want to talk about two separate things sort of, which is a lot more about hip-hop and then also about this survey study that Color of Change just put out about the writer's room.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.
FRANNIE: Could you just sort of tell people what that was?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: So Color of Change puts out a lot of analysis of the industry, but this one was particularly striking. I think the numbers were what? That like 5.4% of writers for television —
FRANNIE: Something like that. Yeah.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: — are black or African-American? That more than 50% of the writer's rooms have no black writers in them or something crazy.
FRANNIE: I thought it was like 67%. Something crazy.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah. More than 50%. Sixty-seven. Let's say two-thirds. Round it.
And yeah. I wish I could say that it came as a surprise to me. I think that the reality is is that black folks have always been underrepresented in high-capital cultural production. I think that's acutely true in television and film. I think it's true for Latinos. I think it's true for Muslims. I think it's true for women also. And I think that the world in which we live right now — with Trump as president and with the Republican party doing what they're doing, and in some ways the Democratic party doing what they're doing — is the consequence of that.
We should not be surprised when — I think that study also — or maybe it was a different study that came out yesterday as well — said that 50% of the Latino immigrant characters on television are portrayed as criminals. Why are we surprised that it's so easy for Trump to do what he's doing from a narrative perspective as president when 50% of the immigrant Latinos that all Americans see on television are criminals. Why are we surprised that we have a president who bragged about grabbing p**** when the at one time most powerful man in the film business was actually doing it?
Like, our attitudes about everything are affected by the art that we consume, but particularly film and television, cause they're such popular mediums. And I think that Hollywood is, because of things like that, because of its failure to represent the world as it actually is, and because of its failure to have the world represented by people as diverse as the world actually is, we're complicit if not responsible for the world in which we find ourselves right now that we like to criticize so much.
But we haven't really done our part to make sure the world isn't like that. If anything, we've made it a lot easier for the folks who would do a significant percentage of the population harm to do that harm.
FRANNIE: Right. And it's also so frequently at odds — like, there are so many financial incentives.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: That's the craziest part.
FRANNIE: I don't —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: That is the craziest part.
FRANNIE: That's how you know it's —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Exactly. That is the craziest part for me. Is that every time a black movie comes out and makes money, someone writes the article like, "This movie overperformed!" And it's like, how many times consecutively does a certain kind of movie need to quote-unquote overperform before you say, "Maybe my model's wrong in assessing the value of this thing." Maybe they're not overperforming, maybe that's just what these movies do.
If you look at female-driven films, they are more profitable than male-driven films, and they're more profitable on a percentage basis on smaller budgets. If the market was responding to the reality of the situation, you'd see more female-driven films being made, more black movies being made. But because of these biases, both conscious and unconscious, you don't. And that is really — people are like, "Ugh, affirmative action. Affirmative action is bad." The only affirmative action I'm seeing in the film industry is in favor of young white men.
FRANNIE: And it's legacy stuff.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah. Because if you believe that talent is evenly distributed by race, by gender, whatever, and then you look at the numbers of the people participating, there is definitely something happening people being talented and people having the opportunity to show that talent. And the bias there is against women, against people of color, against communities that are not the quote-unquote mainstream. And as a consequence the industry is losing money. And that is the craziest part to me.
And movies and television aren't as good as they would be otherwise. That's the other thing. When you don't have a true meritocracy — like, was basketball better before they integrated? No! Cause the best players weren't playing. And if the best people aren't in the game, you can't expect it to be the best thing possible.
That's my rant. Sorry. I always get a bit heated when this comes up.
FRANNIE: No. It makes you feel crazy. Because there's just no way to rationalize it without coming up against this wall of like, "Oh, they just hate people."
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah, or they just don't care about them one way or the other. I don't think that —
FRANNIE: Like, to act in your own financial disinterest it has to be more proactive than just not caring.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Well, I think it's that conventional wisdom. That convention is so entrenched that people are willing to reject what their eyes can see, because it can't be right. This is what we were told. These are things that are true. These must be exceptions. And it's like, OK, how many exceptions make you change the rule? Dozen? Two dozen? A Hundred? A hundred million? Eventually you gotta make that change.
FRANNIE: OK, so somewhat related is I've seen you say that you've been disappointed that on the Black List website the majority of submissions are from white men.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah, I think it's disproportionate. For example, the male/female ratio is typically two-thirds/one-third in terms of submissions, which accurately reflects — the Academy runs a screenwriting competition every year, and that's roughly what — I think ours is a little better, but it's roughly what their submissions are as well. I think there's a slight — again I think there's slightly more white folks submitting than there are represented in the U.S. population.
I think there's a lot of cultural factors for that. In gender terms, we talk about Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In and there've been a number of studies where men will apply for any job whether they're qualified or not, whereas women need to feel that they're overqualified before they even put themselves forward. I think it's similar with screenwriting. A 22-year-old dude just out of college finishes his screenplay, types "The End," prints it, and is like, "Yo, where's my million dollars?"
FRANNIE: Oh, for the confidence of a mediocre white man.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Bingo.
And I'll talk to women and be like, "I heard you have a really good script. Why haven't you submitted it to the site?" And they're like, "Oh, there's some second act stuff I need to work out. I just want to make sure that it's perfect." And so I think that probably is the cause of some of it. I don't have a sense of what percentage of the problem that's the cause of it.
And I also think that there's the reality where if you look at Hollywood, and you don't see a lot of people that look like you, why are you going to take the shot? Because you just assume that you're not going to get a fair shake, so why am I going to do that? And again, don't know what percentage of that, but I suspect, just sort of anecdotally based on my own experience and talking to people who are trying to get in the game and figure it out, there is the assumption that, "Can't get a fair shake. Why would I even give it a shot?"
And so we make a real effort, both through creating opportunities that are specifically targeted at people from historically underrepresented communities, but also just in me putting myself out there as a black face to say, "If nothing else, you will get a fair shot here. If your script is good, we will tell everybody that it's good. And if you want to use a pen name, if you have a distinctly African female name, but you want to be John Smith in the context of our world, you can do that."
What happens after that, I can't say for sure, but they're going to be confronted by the fact that the script is good, and then they're going to have to be like, "Yeah, the script is good, but this person isn't a white man so I'm not going to do anything with them." And my hope is that that will begin to tip the scales in the right direction or contribute to tipping the scales in the right direction.
I remain optimistic, cause I look around at the folks who are doing this thing now. I look at Ava and Issa and Donald and Barry and Ryan and Charles King, and the folks behind the scenes like Tendo Nagenda who's an EVP at Disney or Niija Kuykendall who's a senior vice president at Warner Brothers who is the exec on It. Black woman.
I look at those folks and the success that they're having — and part of that success is because they've had to be that good to get where they are. And I think that the people who are around them who may not be black, who may not be of color, look at them and say, "Well, if they can do it, maybe there're more Avas out there. Maybe there's more Tendo Nagendas out there."
It's like the phenomenon when Barack Obama got elected. Every company wanted their Barack. I think it's the same thing. And I think hopefully more people will recognize that just because you walk into a room looking a certain way doesn't mean that you're not the next big thing. In fact, you may have an insight into the world, you may be serving a market that will help you become the next big thing.
I would like for every black woman that walks into a TV network executive's office, I want people thinking, "She's probably the next Issa, or Ava, or Channing Dungey, or any of the people who are running their stuff and doing a phenomenal job." Because darn good chance they might be. And if you can't see that, you're missing out.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I mean the analytics would seem to back it up.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: The analytics have always backed it up.
FRANNIE: So let's talk a little bit about representations of hip-hop in movies and TV recently. Do you have any examples in your mind when you think of, first of all, somebody who's sort of done hip-hop well within a story? But what I really mean by that is, like, that it made sense to use it, it was relevant to the character, the setting, that it had to be there.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: It's hard for me to think about representations of hip-hop right now without thinking about Atlanta, which, for me — I grew up two hours south of Atlanta. My childhood was a little bit more like Lucas from Stranger Things, right? They actually shoot not far from where I grew up. Those of you who've seen season two, his family, that's basically — the house he grows up in on the show is like the house I grew up in. Shout out to Caleb McLaughlin.
My cousins were those guys from Atlanta. And what I love about Atlanta more than anything is that these are three-dimensional portrayals of people who are involved in that world. Paper Boi is not some quote-unquote gangster rapper who's violent, whatever. He's a dude who is having existential crises and trying to figure his life out, just like literally every other human being on Earth. He just happens to have flow and rap. And that — you haven't really seen that that often on screen, the sort of portrayal of the artist behind hip-hop.
I think hip-hop is often portrayed as sort of being a culture of criminals who rap, but most people I know in hip-hop are — they're artists. And even the ones who may represent themselves one way for the purpose of branding, they're dealing with the same creative — sort of the same trouble positioning themselves in the world that other artists that I know, whether they are fine artists whose work goes in museums or screenwriters. It's like, what am I trying to say? What story am I trying to tell? What is it that I want people to feel when they hear my work? And I think that when you can present hip-hop and the people who are involved in hip-hop in that way, that's the most authentic portrayal of it that I see.
I think you see it in Straight Outta Compton as well. Who are we in the world? How are we responding to the world around us? And how does our art fit within that? That's what hip-hop is. That's what it's always been. And I think that the more we can represent that reality, rather than this sort of fantasia that sort of goes back to the early days of gangster rap when people were threatened by this notion of, "Oh my god, they're coming to steal our children and make them say bad words and carry guns," I think that's a good thing.
But again, I think all of that goes back to the inability of the industry in large part to portray three-dimensional characters of color period. And the problem with hip-hop is that you sort of get multiple layers of that, because there's class and being outspoken and all of these things that American culture has historically been really uncomfortable with. Super happy conversation.
FRANNIE: I can bring it back. We see rap stars move into film.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.
FRANNIE: Do you think that's a good look?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: If they're good at it, yeah.
Here's the thing. I actually think that — the thing that hip-hop and film have in common is that they're storytelling mediums. And even more than that, I think a lot of hip-hop stars, part of the way in which they're telling their story is by inhabiting a character. The difference between Cube in person hanging out and Cube on the N.W.A. album, those are very different people. And so it never really surprised me that you would have — the movement between the two doesn't surprise me at all for that reason. They are similar mediums with slightly different canvases.
But even more than that, because of that, the notion of inhabiting a character in order to tell the story, it especially doesn't surprise me that so many hip-hop stars have been able to act so well, cause they've been — there is some — there is performance as part of their entire thing.
And I suspect you're going to see more and more of that. And I think those who have a gap between their public persona and their private persona, those folks will have more success as actors, again, cause it's a talent that they already have. It's just a different medium in which they're expressing it.
FRANNIE: Are there any stories, of any subject, anybody, that you would like to see come to the screen?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: They still haven't made a Bob Marley biopic yet. That's the one.
FRANNIE: You love biopics.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I do love — well, look, the coincidence of the Black List having a lot of biopics and me loving biopics, that is just a coincidence. I should clarify. It's not like I'm like, "Oh, that biopic is dope. Let me put it on there." No, I do love biopics.
One of the things that I wanted to do when I came to Hollywood, the sort of fantasy dream, there was a triptych of biopics of the African diaspora that I wanted to do. I wanted to the Mandela biopic, the Marley biopic, and the Paul Robeson biopic. And they made a bunch of Mandela biopics in the wake of his untimely passing, but there still hasn't been a Robeson biopic and there still hasn't been a Marley biopic. Those are two stories that I'd love to see.
I'd also love to see Fannie Lou Hamer biopic. I don't think we've seen enough about the role of black women in the Civil Rights Movement, just as a matter of black women played a big role in the Civil Rights Movement, and we haven't seen that story told. And I think hers is particularly special.
I mean, I just want to see good stuff. That's the other thing. I could tell you the things that I want to see, and it's easy for me to come up with those biopic stories cause I feel like those are stories that I know, that I think would have a positive impact on the way people see the world, the way people see black people, whatever.
But for me, more than — I couldn't've told you that I wished that Barry Jenkins would make a movie about a young gay black man in Miami, crack-infested Miami in the '80s. Not — literally in a million years, if I had just made a list of ideas, that never would've come up. But that movie was brilliant.
So I think for me, it's less about, "These are the movies I want to see," and more about, "These are the points-of-view or people who I want to have the creative license to tell the stories that they want to tell." And so for me, I want to see more films from Muslim women who live in the Muslim world. I want to see more films from the LGBTQIA community. I want to see more films from the Latino immigrant community. I want to see more films from the refugee community. I want to see more films from poor white rural communities.
Growing up in West Central Georgia as basically Steve Urkel, my only exposure to the world was in movies and television. And I loved the idea that I could sit in front of a screen and see what life was like anywhere in the world or in space or whatever. And so the more varied versions of that I can get, the happier I'm going to be, and I think the better the world will be.
FRANNIE: Your guys' stuff has been used in movies and TV before, right?
FRANNIE: How does it feel to see your stuff there in that context, hear it?
ALI: When I know about it, it feels great, but when I don't know about it —
ALI: It feels good. Because when you're dreaming about making records and stuff like that, like, that was never part of our conversation. Like, "Oh, we can't wait till our music is in a movie" or something like that.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Right.
ALI: You just living your life and having your artistic expression based off of the life you're living and feeling and connecting with your community and stuff like that, and then fast forward some years later and your music, one, it's still relevant to some degree. That feels really good. And that's something that you dream about, being around forever. But you really don't know what that means. And so when you see it in a movie, it feels good.
FRANNIE: Sometimes I hear — sometimes I'm watching something and the hip-hop beat signifies — it's like a mood change, and it either means, oh, it's about to get either more lively or more aggressive or it's a party or whatever. But I can imagine some occasions of that being borderline offensive. Like, why is this being used for this purpose always?
ALI: That's true. And for some of the sync requests that we get, we get sort of a synopsis of what — how and what scene the music will be used. And there've been several times that — I can't speak for the rest of the guys, and I'm like, "Nah." And I feel badly, because then the publisher will say, "Well, everyone else said yes." And it's like, "Well, good for them. But, like" — and it's even more challenging when your music is sampled. For an example, Lil Wayne sampled a song from us for "A Milli," and so it's his song but I get to say yes or no. If I say no, then that shuts it down.
For my own music, I'm a bit more contemplative about it. For someone else, I just get out of the way. But there've been many times where I'm like, "The scene just doesn't — I don't get it." And there hasn't been any additional conversation after that part for someone to try and convince me the bigger picture where I'm only getting the small piece, just a small paragraph of that one moment versus the entire story. I know some other artists, like Prince for an example, just flat out, "No," if it doesn't uphold aspects of his belief system, so.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: But I feel like that's the artist's right though, right?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I mean, you made it. You should have some authority over how it gets to be used.
ALI: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you feel flattered. Like, oh, I can catch a nice check off this. That'll be great like six months, 12 months down the line. But then some songwriters, they have their own reasons for saying yes or no, their own criteria. But me, I really think about just the purpose sometimes.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I think the hip-hop thing in trailers is really interesting. I think — they've used Kanye's music to great effect in trailers. The first time I was aware of it was Jarhead, which was "Jesus Walks."
FRANNIE: Oh, yup.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I feel like I even read a study that made the argument that their opening weekend was several million dollars bigger just because of the inclusion of that song. Well, it was striking. I remember when that trailer first came on and watching it and being like, "Yo." Cause it was literally Jamie Foxx and Jake Gyllenhaal tramping through the Iraqi desert with "Jesus Walks." And, like, you paid attention. And I remember The Social Network trailer used "Power."
FRANNIE: That's right.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: And again, I don't know what Mark Zuckerberg has to do with hip-hop, but it communicates a certain — it elicits a certain emotional response, but it also — it's anthemic. And when you make a trailer, you want people to sit up and pay attention, and you want people to have a visceral response, and I think it elicits that response.
I thought of another movie that I'd like to see, another biopic. Someone needs to make a movie like Amadeus about Kanye.
ALI: That would be dope.
FRANNIE: I was just about to ask you if there's any movies you'd want to see made. Who the hell is going to play Kanye?
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I don't know.
FRANNIE: Anyway, we'll come back to that.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Exactly. But I think someone needs to make a movie, but in the style of Amadeus, which is one of my favorite films. But I can't — I've never been able to escape the notion of him as, like, a figure in hip-hop virtually identical to the way Amadeus was in that movie and the context of classical music.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I haven't figured out who the Salieri is yet, cause it's obviously — it's not Jay. Maybe it's all of us. I think that has the potential to be a very — it'd be a very interesting movie about hip-hop, about artists, about who we are as a culture right now, all of it.
FRANNIE: I would love to see a movie that was — that told a true story, but was not stylistically traditional.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Those are the best kind of movies. Yeah.
FRANNIE: I'm so — I don't need Notorious. I want somebody to explode the idea of Biggie in Brooklyn at that time.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: And this is why I think about Amadeus as an example.
FRANNIE: Yeah, yeah. I hear you.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Amadeus is — you could do the sort of traditional Mozart biopic, but that would probably be pretty boring. The Amadeus version, they put their foot in their ass with that one. That's one of the great films of all time. And I think like, yeah, more biopics along those lines that are not traditionally told but tell the story. More of those please.
FRANNIE: What about you? Cause you know all those stories that you won't say on the microphone and everything.
ALI: Yeah. When you asked, I was like, "Exactly."
FRANNIE: See? He went like this but didn't say shit.
ALI: Yeah. Still won't. It's deeply personal, you know?
There was a documentary on Tribe, but it really wasn't the real story in my opinion. But I don't know if that could be told now at this point with Malik not being here. But there's — and I say that only from the — there was a tip of the iceberg I think that was shown in the movie, in terms of family and getting along, not getting along, and discovering yourself, your talent, and your art, but it really didn't go to the core of the relationship of being in a group. There's a lot more there.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I mean, the best part of the documentary was just hearing the songs super loud in the theater.
ALI: Yeah. I just recently went to the National African American Museum, and there was so much information there.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.
ALI: I only unfortunately had two hours to walk through, and —
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I had four and I got nowhere. There's so much.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: So much!
ALI: There's so much. And there're thousands of stories in that building that should be told. And it's upsetting to know how brilliant we always have been as Africans, African descent, and to know how we're portrayed even to this day. But when you can go back to not a recreation of an artifact but something that was so real, and you see the brilliance of the people who were robbed of their land and language and family, and it still is right there in front of your face.
And to see that where we are now, in this particular country — especially the way that the museum is set up, and I don't want to blow it for anyone, their experience, but when you go to the bottom floor, there's like European and 1400s and what was happening in Africa in the 1400s. And that's just the starting point.
I don't know how one is not compelled to really change everything that they think and act. And so when you ask me about a movie, there's so many untold stories, and we can start in that building first floor. The bottom floor, I'm sorry.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Very well said. Anybody who's anywhere near D.C. that is not to be missed. It is — I gotta get back. Like I said, I had four hours and I felt the same way you did. There's just so much, and it's extraordinarily well done.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: And I guess if we're wrapping up, we live in strange times, but we also live in times where you can broadcast your voice, and you can make art and film in ways that were not possible before. And the one piece of advice I give to everyone who's like, "How do I be a filmmaker?" I'm like, "Make films. Write stuff. Get out your phone. Get out your laptop. Get whatever resources you have together, and get your friends together. Go make something. Put it online. Get feedback. Go make something else, better than the first thing you made. Rinse and repeat until you're doing exactly what you want to do be doing."
And know that most of the stuff you make at the beginning is going to be garbage, and that's OK. Because there's going to be a gap between your ability to recognize what's great and to make what's great, and your job is to close that gap. And the rest usually takes care of itself. You make something great, trust me, Hollywood will find you.
FRANNIE: Thank you so much for coming to see us.
ALI: Yeah, thank you.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Thank you. This is like the best interview I've ever done. Thank you, guys.
FRANNIE: Yeah. Nice.