04.30.24
Jessica Helfand, Ellen McGirt | Audio

S11E2: How Franklin Leonard is using The Black List to Redesign Hollywood


Franklin Leonard is invested in making the film industry the best version of itself. He is the founder and CEO of The Black List, a platform that nurtures emerging screenwriters and gives screenplays that aren’t attached to a big producer, actor or studio a chance to be produced. Since The Black List’s founding in 2005, 440 scripts from its annual survey have been produced as feature films, grossing $30 billion in box office worldwide. These films have earned 267 Academy Award nominations and 54 wins including four Best Pictures (Spotlight, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo). Prior to founding The Black List, Franklin worked in feature film development at Universal Pictures and the production companies of Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio. He is also a former Sundance Juror and a current member of The Academy.

Over the course of his almost three decades working in Hollywood, Franklin has taken the time to understand the industry and think deeply about what it needs to be more diverse, more equitable, more accessible and 

In this episode, Franklin discusses the most pressing issues Hollywood faces, the business case for giving more diverse screenwriters a shot, and why he believes making the film industry a true meritocracy will naturally lead to more diverse filmmaking. “I actually don't sit around thinking a lot about how I can diversify Hollywood,” he told DB|BD hosts Ellen McGirt and Jessica Helfand. “I spend a lot more time thinking about how I can make Hollywood more of a meritocracy, because I know that if it was more of a true meritocracy, real diversity would be inevitable.”

This season of DB|BD is powered by Deloitte.

To learn more about The Black List, visit their website.

Franklin Leonard’s Ted Talk: How I Accidentally Changed the Way Movies Get Made

The Black Film Archive

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Episodes are produced by Design Observer’s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.



Transcript

Franklin Leonard Like, I actually don't sit around thinking a lot about how I can diversify Hollywood. I spend a lot more time thinking about how I can make Hollywood more of a meritocracy, because I know that if it was more of a true meritocracy, real diversity would be inevitable. Because I don't believe and I don't think anybody believes, that any group of people has a exclusive or competitive advantage when it comes to storytelling.

Ellen McGirt Welcome to the Design of Business,

Jessica Helfand The Business of Design.

Ellen McGirt Where we introduce you to people from all over the world, from different industries and disciplines,

Jessica Helfand Who are here to talk about design, business, civility and the values that govern how we work and live together.

Ellen McGirt This season, we are observing equity.

Jessica Helfand I'm Jessica Helfand.

Ellen McGirt And I'm Ellen McGirt. This episode of The Design of Business | the Business of Design is powered by Deloitte's DEI Institute. Deloitte believes that bold actions can help drive equitable outcomes, and conversations like this can fuel the change needed to continue to build a more equitable society. Visit Deloitte's DEI Institute site at Deloitte dot com slash US slash DEI Institute for more of their research and perspectives on equity.

Ellen McGirt Hey, Jessica.

Jessica Helfand Hey, Ellen.

Ellen McGirt We are back with another inspiring redesigner. Today's guest happens to be someone who I've known since the early days of his career, and I just think the world of him.

Jessica Helfand I believe you said you'd pick him up from the airport. /laughs

Ellen McGirt Indeed I did. Which is the highest compliment coming from a New Yorker.

Jessica Helfand We are talking about Franklin Leonard, who is the founder and CEO of The Black List, which he started in 2005 as a list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Over the past 20 years, The Blacklist has evolved into a platform that nurtures emerging screenwriters and gives screenplays that aren't attached to a big producer, actor, or studio a chance to be produced.

Ellen McGirt Now, you've probably seen or heard of some of the films that got their start as Blacklisted screenplays —films like Slumdog Millionaire, King Richard, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. As of 2023, 440 Black List scripts have been produced. These movies have received, get this, 267 total Oscar noms, 54 wins and have grossed 30 billion in box office worldwide.

Jessica Helfand Unbelievable. Ellen, you met Franklin before those 267 Oscar nominations, and before the 30 billion in box office revenue, is that right?

Ellen McGirt Yes, yes, yes, he was, he was in Fast Company early on. He was at an event of ours in 2006ish. I would've picked him up from the airport then. Jessica, he was so clearly going someplace with this idea. It was so compelling. And, I mean, the Black List was barely out of the idea stage at that point, but.

Jessica Helfand So the million dollar question or maybe I should say the $30 billion question that we're going to be asking each other a lot this season: why is Franklin Leonard such a great fit for this season of The Design of Business | The Business of Design podcast, where we're looking so carefully at redesign and redesigners?

Ellen McGirt Yeah, there are so many reasons, thank you for asking that, including the very real one, that everything is better when the stories we're able to tell and discover reflect the lives and imaginations of a wide array of people. But I think the thing that people really get wrong about diversity and equity, since we're observing equity where it flourishes, is that it that it's lowering the bar somehow. In fact, it's widening the search for talent that have been shut out or ignored. And Franklin and his team have proven that widening the scope in this way and letting people in is great entertainment and even better business.

Jessica Helfand Unbelievable. It's so true. I was thinking about this conversation a lot since we recorded it for a number of reasons. So let me give you two: First of all, it was a lovely day because we were together in New York with our wonderful producer Alexis, and we were all in the same room recording this interview live and in person.

Ellen McGirt Yeah.

Jessica Helfand And two, Franklin was such a rich subject for for interview, but for conversation. His perspectives were wise and nuanced, and he goes after huge topics. He's fearless in this way that the dominate kind of our current cultural moment and discussion like, for example, the legacy of Hollywood's historical failures or the anxiety over the future of movies and the media, debates over what's actually constitutes truth on screen, what representation really looks like.

Ellen McGirt That is such a powerful, observation, Jessica, that nuance and wisdom that you mentioned is well earned, he's taken the time to understand his industry and think deeply about what it needs to be a better version of itself, because he loves film and filmmakers and storytelling. That's where he's coming from. And that's the very powerful position to really think about, how can you make this better and more equitable? But let's not keep him from our audience any longer. Here is our conversation with Franklin Leonard, founder and CEO of The Black List.

Ellen McGirt But I was explaining to them, like what it was like to meet you when you were first starting out. You came to Fast Company. We felt like we discovered you. Although you were absolutely non-discoverable, you were a person doing this amazing work and it is just been such a joy to see how your work has developed over the years and how you've evolved into this powerhouse of a person. That's the ultimate New Yorker sort of compliment is like, I'd pick them up at the airport.

Franklin Leonard /Laughs.

Ellen McGirt That's how I feel about you, Frank.

Franklin Leonard Very, very good to know. Next time I need to get out of, LaGuardia or JFK.

Jessica Helfand Put her on speed dial now.

Ellen McGirt Yeah,.

Jessica Helfand Yeah.

Franklin Leonard It's it's very flattering. I mean, I think when you're in it, you don't really. I tend not to think about the growth. Like, I distinctly remember when I came to New York for the Fast Company event, and I distinctly remember vomiting, in the green room before I had to go on stage and speak, because I was not doing a lot of speaking then. And I still get anxious about it, nervous now, but, yeah, it's been quite the, decade.

Jessica Helfand I share with you that nervousness. And one would never know to watch your TED talk, which I did yesterday on the train coming down to New York from Rhode Island. And I just —

Franklin Leonard The TED talk has a great bit of, context on the nervousness front. I'll just share the story. So my TEDx talk was directly after Diane von Furstenberg's TEDx talk. And, we were in the green room together because, you know, they do them in, like, groups of 3 or 4. And so the first two people go, and so there's a moment when just Diane von Furstenberg and I are in the green room together, which is already like a moment one remembers, and I remember being like, more anxious about, like, not sounding like an idiot and talking to her than I did about going out and giving my TED talk. But about two minutes before she leaves to go on stage, she looks at me and I was wearing this leather jacket over the t shirt that I was wearing. She just looks at me and she's like, you're not going to wear that, aren't you?

Ellen McGirt Oh, no.

Franklin Leonard And.

Jessica Helfand Oh my god, No.

And it's Diane von Furstenberg. So, like, what am I going to be like? No, I definitely am. So then she leaves to go give her talk, and I'm sitting in the green room by myself for about 15 minutes just debating whether I'm going to wear this jacket. And if you watch the TED talk last night, yesterday, you'll know that I did not wear the jacket because, you know, if Diane von Furstenberg gives you fashion notes, you take them.

Ellen McGirt You should have worn a wrap dress. That would have taught her.

Franklin Leonard I mean, if I had known, I definitely would have considered it. But it was definitely. It was funny because I think it actually distracted me enough from the fact that I was about to go off to do this talk, that I ended up doing it without feeling too much nervousness.

Jessica Helfand Interesting. I wonder if you'll have an opportunity at some point to give her advice on the movie she pitches.

Franklin Leonard I, I, I will absolutely tell her that she definitely won't remember it, but I'll definitely tell her the story if I run into her again.

Jessica Helfand Well, we are just delighted to have you today and we have so many questions to ask you. I'd like to begin with really that classic question, which is for you to share a little bit of your origin story. We know a little bit from, what we've read, but really tell us what got you, where you, where you were when you began The Black List, which we're going to be talking about in a moment. Tell us a little bit about what happened before got you there.

Franklin Leonard Yeah. I'd say it's a long and circuitous route. And there's sort of two versions. There's two parts of the story. The first is my my journey to Hollywood, and I guess my second is my journey to to creating The Black List. Yeah, I was, a Black kid in west central Georgia growing up. My father was in the Army, so I was born in Hawaii and lived in El Paso, Texas, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in Germany for three years, all before I was eight years old. And then we moved to Columbus, when his mother died to take- so that he could take care of his father. And that was where I grew up. You know, and I was a big nerd. I made the joke before that I was Steve Urkel while Steve Urkel was on television. Which was not really great for my social life. I, you know, I think I had a lot of solitary time as a kid. I and a lot of that time was spent doing schoolwork. And the other part of that time was spent, in movie theaters. Once I reached the age where my, my mom felt comfortable letting me go to the movie theater by myself. So I'd say I probably saw, like most studio releases of movies from 1991 to 1996 when I left for college, really just as a as a way to, to kill time. And then I went to Harvard for undergraduate. I thought I was going to be a math major — again going back to the Urkel thing. And, when I, got to Harvard, I realized very quickly that there's a very big difference between being good at math in Georgia and being good at math at Harvard.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs.

Franklin Leonard So I ended up majoring in, in a degree, a concentrating in a department called Social Studies, which is social and political theory. And, and, you know, social psychology, economics, sociology, and thought I was going to go into politics and I-I, the day after I graduated from college, I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to help run a congressional campaign that was run by a candidate named John Cranley, who spent some time as mayor of Cincinnati afterwards. We lost a very close race. I ended up moving to Trinidad, which is where my mom's dad is from, and wrote for the Guardian newspapers for a bit. Got bored, and then moved to New York to take a consulting job that I'd been offered, while I was still in college. I did that for two years and hated the job. I was about to quit when me and the rest of my analyst class got laid off with five months severance. And then I spent a bunch of time in New York, where I was living at the time, just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I'd taken the LSAT, I didn't want to go to law school. I found myself watching a lot of movies again and reading about the film industry, and I realized that it had never really occurred to me to pursue a career in that direction. I think growing up black in South Georgia, it would have been easier for me to become an astronaut, because I was really good at math and a decent soccer player. So I was an athlete, then it would have been for me to say: Oh, I'll just move to LA and figure it out. So I ended up in this social slipstream, as have having gone to Harvard. And I took a month in Los Angeles, you know, it was snowing in New York, and I wanted to be somewhere warm. So I moved to LA for a month — march of 2003. Two days into my trip, I had an interview, to be an assistant at Creative Artist Agency and started working there the following Monday. Which again, wouldn't have happened if I didn't have social relationships that allowed me to get that interview, which allowed me to get that job. And that's sort of how I ended up, shipwrecked on the shores of Los Angeles, if you will.

Ellen McGirt The social relationships piece is a pretty important piece when I think about what happens next. Your- I picture you poolside with a handful of scripts, the slush pile next to you, and then you send out the bat signal and asked for help. Is that sort of how it happened?

Franklin Leonard Yes, except for the pool part. I — no. So look, for the first couple years, my first couple years in Hollywood, I was an assistant, to an agent who represented, writers and directors at CAA. I was an executive, briefly, for a producer named John Goldwyn, who had a deal at Paramount. And then I got poached to go, help run development, to work for really worked for Leo's producing partner, Leonardo DiCaprio's producing partner. And, you know, my job was to find great scripts and great writers who could write things or do things that that Leo could star in or produce. And most of the things that I was reading, I would say fell in the category of mediocre to bad. You know, I knew very early on in my career that, my competitive advantage was not going to be being the cool guy or, like, knowing all the right people. But I could read and retain more than most. So I would take home 20, 25 scripts a weekend and like, just sit in my very small one bedroom apartment and just like, you know, with a banker's box full of scripts next to me and just churn through them. And again, most of the things that I was reading weren't things that I could walk into my boss's office the next Monday and slam down on the desk and say, this is your priority now. Or at least I couldn't do that in good conscience. And, you know, my mom would call me once a week and ask if my LSAT scores were still valid.

Jessica Helfand Once a mon always a—

Franklin Leonard I mean, it was in retrospect, it was probably the forcing function, like force that made me come up with all this. So I owe her a great deal of thanks. But I remember sitting in my office, on Sunset Boulevard in November of 2005. At this point, thinking that, well, you know, she might be right here, if I can't find good scripts, which is literally my job either I'm bad at my job, which is finding good scripts, or the actual job is reading bad scripts and passing on them. In either case, I needed a solution. And so I, you know, went through my calendar from 2005, made a list of everyone I had had breakfast, lunch, dinner or drinks with who had a job similar to mine, and I sent anonymous email to those people asking for a list of their favorite ten unproduced scripts that they read for the first time that calendar year, and promised that in exchange, I would share them back the combined list. And that's what I did. I sort of gathered all of the the responses. I think all but three people responded and maybe another five asked for a coworker to participate. Ran it through a pivot table, exported it to PowerPoint and slapped a quasi subversive name on it and sent it back out, and then went on vacation. And by the time I came back, it had sort of gone viral within the industry. And everywhere I would go, socially, people were talking about this list and where did it come from? And the scripts were really good that were on it. And I, I just, kept quiet because I was sure that, someone, when they found out that it was me, I would be I would be run out of town on rails and forced to go to law school, which, again, I'm —.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand Lucky for all of us, that didn't happen. At what point in this process that you so beautifully describe for us, did you come up with this subversive idea of, invoking the what I think to some people would be a reference to McCarthyism, but obviously plays on many different, has other valences. This idea of calling it The Black List, when did that enter the picture?

Franklin Leonard Probably in the two hours before I sent it out, the first time. I think, you know, I think — I've always been fascinated by language, and I've always looked at look for ways to to play with language and, make a point in my language usage. I just realized that's a natural default instinct that I have. And I think in this case, it was, okay, I need to name this thing, it's a list of scripts. So a list. What other historical lists might be relevant? And I think for me, I've always had a great deal of reverence, even before I sort of thought seriously about working in the film industry, for the-the filmmakers, the film professionals who lost their career during the McCarthy era, and screenwriters, I think, were principal among them. So it was it was, that reference felt comfortable. And then simultaneously, you know, this notion of color symbolism in literature and art. I remember being a middle schooler in, in west central Georgia and being in English class and being explained that if you see a cowboy with a white hat that good, they're probably the good guy. And if you see a cowboy with a white- the black hat, they're probably the bad guy. And, you know, I didn't know what in mathematical induction was then, but I definitely had the instinct that inductively, I was not comfortable with that, sort of organization of information. And I remember as a kid thinking, one day I'm going to write a novel that inverts all of that. And I have not gotten around to doing that yet, but but I do remember thinking when we named the list, what if there was a black list that people wanted to be on? What if black was a positive signifier in this case? And so the combination of those two things just felt right to me. And I sent it out. But again, I think it's important to remember, like, I didn't make The Black List trying to make a thing. I really was trying to solve a very specific problem that I had, and it felt to me as though the optimal solution to that problem required this sort of communitarian approach. And the name was just something that I put on there as self amusement more than anything, because I had no expectation that it was going to be something that anybody cared about except for me.

Ellen McGirt And now, nearly 20 years later, it is a thing. Can we, unpack a little bit what the impact is? I know there's some really straightforward metrics, movies that would never have been made or may never have been made, have been made. But I'm also— let's-let's talk about that and let's talk about the cultural impact. You know, the kinds of things that's a little more difficult to measure.

Franklin Leonard You know, The Black List has been around this-this-this December will be our 20th year. I think there have been about 1500 scripts on the list. A third of them have been produced. They've made over 30 billion in worldwide box office. They've won 50 Oscars from, I think, about 300 nominations, including four best pictures and 11 screenwriting Oscars since 2007. Maybe most, joyously for my mother who's still mad that I didn't go to grad school, harvard Business School did a study on the annual list, just before the pandemic, and found that movies made from scripts on The Black List, controlling for all other factors, make about 90% more in revenue than movies control- that movie's made from scripts not on The Black List. The other thing that I think it's really important for me to to say when I talk about all these numbers is that, like, I didn't make any of these movies, right? I didn't produce them, direct them, I didn't make crafts serv- I didn't do craft service on these movies. I cannot claim any of the credit for the success of these movies individually. That-that credit goes to the artists and people and practitioners who made them. I think what we can take credit for, and I say we now, because The Black List is a team of people, for building a metal detector that, you know, does better than any other at identifying things that if they are invested in further by talented people, have a better chance of success, both critically and commercially. And then I think we, you know, we've industrialized that metal detector with the work that we've done with The Black List website and everything we've built on top of that sense. But I will admit to feeling very uncomfortable talking about, the cultural impact of The Black List because, I'm the one that made it. And so anybody should rightly distrust any, any judgment of its impact, from me, lest I be, you know, a bit a bit ego driven in that description.

Jessica Helfand I think that Ellen's comment speaks as much as the community that you've worked with and for, as the cultural and the cultural impact. And on that subject, I want to ask you a question about, what you describe as being such a complicated community, right? So many moving parts, so many different skill sets, including, as you say, in your TED talk, also craft services, which I love. But I wonder how and at what point, it seems quite early, from my read, but but you tell us — you came upon the discovery that the real engine here is the writing. That it's not the ego of the director or the showcase for the star, or even the box office number speculation from any number of analysts, but actually an idea and words that put that idea into some kind of motion that then gets gathered into an important list. Is that because you were reading scripts for a living? Is that because you're just smarter than the rest of us? Just t-tell me, I really want to know.

Franklin Leonard You know, it's interesting. I think there was — it's a good question. When I think about my history of watching movies, I think that I was always aware that there was a person who wrote the thing, right. So whatever movie I watch, even as a kid, I remember thinking: Okay, I'm seeing these actors. I know there's a director who's responsible for shooting all of this stuff, but like somewhere at the very beginning, someone had to go into a room by themselves and almost, godlike, create these people, create these dynamics, create this thing. And everything was built on top of that. And and we as the audience, you know, the first, the wellspring from which all of this comes is, is a writer. You know, if you think about how a movie gets made and you go back far enough somewhere, it began with a person and an idea, and none of it exists without that. So I think that was sort of the context in which I entered the industry. I think very early on in my career, my first boss, Rowena Arguelles, who still an agent at CAA and a dear friend of mine, and my first boss when I was an executive, John Goldwyn, I think both of them really emphasized the value of a good script. Rowena was representing a lot of directors that were coming out of the indie space, people like Patty Jenkins, Justin Lin, she signed Taika Waititi when I was working for her. You know, these were folks who were storytellers first and foremost and directors secondly. But they were all writer-directors. And then John Goldwyn, you know, I remember him telling me, listen, if you can get a great script, you can get a great director, and as you can get a great script and a great director, you can get the actors and then the rest is downhill. And that really stuck with me. And it made a lot of sense, right. Like just on a pure how do you put this thing together? Start with a great thing that will get other great things to join up. And I think that thesis has really been borne out. You know, I think the other real takeaway from the HBS study is, that Hollywood undervalues, the sort of economic value of a good screenplay and writers. And I think you see that borne out in the writers strike, in the relative, celebration that you see for writers vis-a-vis directors and actors, the relative compensation that they receive it on some level is just seems like blindingly obvious to me that, all this is built atop of the work of writers. But then when you really dig in on the numbers, it-that-that thesis gets confirmed again and again and again. And I think it's frankly one of Hollywood's great failures that it continues to undervalue writers. And if we we value them more, and prioritize finding good ones. I think we as an industry would see significantly better financial outcomes and significantly better creative ones too.

Ellen McGirt Oh, I couldn't agree more. Let's-let's dig into Hollywood's failures, because I think that there's still there's there's plenty to talk about here. And you could probably—

Franklin Leonard How long you got?

Ellen McGirt I know baby, you know, we we got the studio. You just keep talking. But I want to I want to talk about the business case for diversity in film, because I focus on the business case for diversity in business, and it is a fraught argument. There's a now famous study that you cite that shows the accounts for loss of some $10 billion due to anti-Black bias. And there's a that. There's the fact that Hollywood is a challenging place to work. And I don't just mean, you know, sort of the sexual scandals that we've, we've seen play out over the number of years, just they don't even pay their assistants properly. You cannot be-you cannot start in the mailroom and end up going anywhere. You had a you had a very smart way of framing your move into Hollywood, that you had the slipstream of social contact. That was helpful for anybody else who comes from a truly underrepresented population. They're not getting there from there. So what is really going on here with Hollywood, any way that you want to enter the the you know, I give you a magic wand. What's happening? What are you fixing?

Franklin Leonard So, I mean, let me let me try to parse through that. I think I feel like there were three parts to that question. The first was the sort of generalized diversity question, and specifically the cost of anti-Black bias to Hollywood economically. The second was Me Too. And then the third was sort of economic exclusion. Am I am I getting-am I getting that roughly right?

Ellen McGirt That's perfect. You should actually be the host of the podcast.

Jessica Helfand Time for me to retire.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs

Franklin Leonard So, I mean, look, I'll, I'll try to I'll try to address all three, but I think they're intertwined, right? So. Yeah. Look, my my former consulting employers, shortly after George Floyd's murder, did a study on the economic costs of anti-Black bias in Hollywood. And what they found was that the industry is missing out on about $10 billion every year as a consequence of anti-Black bias. And that, comes in many forms, that comes in the form of, under investing in films made by and about Black people. So if you look at the numbers, if you have a movie, a quote Black movie, they're probably getting. 3/5, ironically, of the budgets that an equivalent non-Black film would get. They're getting less marketing. They're getting, distribution in fewer international territories. And despite all of that, dollar for dollar, those movies return more on their investment than on Black movies. Right? So this is an actual, misalignment in, in inputs and outputs that, that the industry has perpetuated over decades. And it comes as a result of a lot of things, but in the investment part comes as a result of a conventional wisdom in the industry that it's impossible to sell Black movies abroad, and that there's less of an audience for Black movies domestically simply because they're Black. And, you know, there's a lot of things in Hollywood that function as a result of, that are all convention and no wisdom, I like to say. And that's a great example of it. You know, coming to America, I think to $200 million outside of the U.S in the mid 80s. Big Momma's House Two did, better business internationally than Failure to Launch, which came out, around the same time with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. But people are oblivious to those things because it doesn't confirm their priors. And they're unwilling to adjust when those priors are confronted. And that doesn't even say anything about the fact that, you know, when Ava DuVernay walks into a room, people don't see her as the next Spielberg, even though everything about her communicates the next Spielberg, and all of the positive things that, that, that means. So I think that there's just a gross undervaluing of people who do not-who are not part of a sort of white, straight, male, upper middle class default, right. I think the same thing is true when it comes to Me Too. I, you know, I don't think, and there's so many ways to to think and talk about this, but all of them infuriate me. I don't know how anyone ever thought, it was a good idea to have a business whose primary purpose is to entertain the world, be run by people who are all part of a similar demographic community. But that doesn't make sense to me. Like, if you were trying to run a business that makes products for everyone, and they're particularly cultural products, the idea that, the leadership of that, of that industry should be, a group of people with a near identical, life experience just doesn't make sense to me. And I think that, you know, you know, time and time again, study after study after study confirms that having women in leadership positions, reduces the amount of abuse, across the board in those things, you get better business results, etc.. So again, you look around and you're like, how did we end up in this situation? It's not because it's the optimal business situation. It's because individual actors were optimizing for their own gains and not the gains of their companies or the industry. But I will say, you know, going back to this, the sort of pure quant stuff, you know, just like there was conventional wisdom that you can't sell Black movies abroad, there was a conventional wisdom that female action didn't work. Like, I remember hearing this early in my career, you can't make a female driven action movie. They all fail. And so when things like Hunger Games circulated the industry, most of the studios passed. You know, I believe it was Summit or Lionsgate, and the producer, Nina Jacobson, who was able to pick it up for a relatively small amount of money because people didn't realize that there was an audience for female driven action. And if you think about it, you know, James Cameron's done a pretty good job making a lot of money with female driven action. Terminator, female driven action movie; Titanic, female driven action movie. So again, there's just all these assumptions — Female driven action doesn't work, Black people can't sell abroad— that's all conventional wisdom. And I have to say, I've never heard a single bit of conventional wisdom about a white male hero that, you know, makes an argument negatively against just box office. Never once. And I can't imagine why that is. And I actually want to address the the economic exclusion as well. So yeah, look I-here's the thing. I remember when I got the job as an assistant at CAA, I was lucky that I'd saved a little bit of money from my consulting job, which was allowing me to make this transition from New York to Los Angeles. But I still had to fly back to Houston, Texas, where my parents were living now and buy my grandmother's Nissan Altima and drive it to Los Angeles. I remember driving into the, parking lot my first day of work in that Nissan Altima. Like, not a not a new model Nissan Altima, either. And driving to the assistant parking lot and passing BMWs and Mercedes. Most of the assistants that I was working with came from upper middle class, if not, let's say highly upper middle class backgrounds, as did I, by the way. I was lucky in that I knew that if I flamed out with this job that I was making, you know, 20- $20,000 a year, I could always go home and my parents had my back. But there is no real scenario for a person that does not have that sort of soft landing to pursue a career as a professional film industry person, without literally risking their well-being. And I don't necessarily advise that anybody do that. Like, you got to keep the lights on, you got to keep food on the table, you got to take care of your family. And I think that that's at the root of a lot of the industry's failures in general, because as a result of that, you lose out on all of the talent that might be available to the industry as a whole that doesn't happen to grow up either rich enough to move to Los Angeles without a job or without a way to make money or doesn't, you know, have a parent who interacts socially with people who are already in the business. And that's most of the world. And so if you imagine, if you imagine if the NBA or any professional sports league filled its rosters with only people who were in- who are social relationships of the owners of the team, I don't think anybody would watch basketball. I don't think anybody would watch professional football or soccer. That's roughly the way Hollywood functions. Most of the people who are in Hollywood's employ at a high level are the friends of the social relationships, of the people who are already there. They are not people who the industry went out into the world to find the most talented, merit filled people and said, you're amazing, we're going to do everything we can so that you and I can make money together.

Jessica Helfand And you and Ellen are both commenting on what is a pretty pernicious issue around the lack of diversity in this industry. I wonder, though, did you, at its core, as you started to build this community — at its core, it seems to me there's a collective enterprise that the nature of a collective list, by its, by its very existence has to be diverse. There's diversification, like a diversified stock portfolio. You're diversifying risk, you're diversifying voice, you're diversifying input. And even though the common denominator is the writing, which I love so much, do you think that that's what's made it recession proof and foolproof and expandable and scalable and meaningful to so many people for so long?

Franklin Leonard The short answer is yes, but there are some things I want to unpack there. So, you know, when I started The Black List, it really was not a, I think a lot of people were like: Oh, Franklin, you're doing such great activist work, you know, diversifying Hollywood. And I think, sure, but that actually isn't the goal for me. Like, I actually don't sit around thinking a lot about how I can diversify Hollywood. I spend a lot more time thinking about how I can make Hollywood more of a meritocracy, because I know that if it was more of a true meritocracy, real diversity would be inevitable. Because I don't believe and I don't think anybody believes, that any group of people has a exclusive or competitive advantage when it comes to storytelling, right? Like, I don't I don't think that that Black women, white men, queer folks en mass, there's no this group is more gifted at storytelling. Maybe there's some arguments you can make culturally, but I think, generally speaking, you're born, everybody has a roughly equal aptitude for storytelling, and that's something that you cultivate as a craft over time. That's true for, I think, all artists. I think the reason you've seen such a lack of diversity in Hollywood, because it is because it's not a meritocracy, because there's a lot of, you know, it's a it's a socially driven business. The people who have those relationships have a significant lead, greater chance of having success. Once you have a door open to you, if you actually are talented. And so for me, this enterprise is far more about how do we make sure that, the industry is finding the best people. And I think if you find the best people, you're going to be recession proof. Your business is going to be better. And I think that's kind of what the annual Black List proves. And the Harvard Business School study proves is like, find the best stuff. Don't worry about where it comes from. Don't worry about who writes it. Just find the best stuff. If you look at the early Black List, right where I was surveying executives in Hollywood, there's not a lot of diversity. It's still overwhelmingly white men. There are few women, but very few. You've seen those numbers improve over time. And I think that's a reflection of, a slowly shifting, you know, basket of of people who are voting in the LIst because they are the, the basket of executives has changed slowly, particularly at the lower levels, which is disproportionately what I'm surveying. We're not seeing a lot of change at the very top, but at the junior executive level, at the VP level, I think there's probably more diversity than there was when I entered 20 years ago. And you see the annual list reflect that diversity of experiences, responses to storytelling, etc., in a way that you wouldn't have several decades ago.

Ellen McGirt You're a member of the Academy, aren't you?

Franklin Leonard I am.

Ellen McGirt So, post 2020, like all organizations, they made some big promises around diversity and inclusion. Have you seen, have you seen any progress? Is it making any kind of a difference?

Franklin Leonard I think that the academy did a really good job in, in, addressing its membership failures in making sure that folks who, had been contributing significantly to the Hollywood community, were invited to join the academy equivalent with their, their contributions. And I think you're seeing the beginnings of change in the choices that it makes, for its awards as a consequence. The rest of the changes that it's made. I don't detect any much significance from them. Like, I know there's these inclusion standards for being nominated for Best Picture, but like a, that's only for being nominated for Best Picture,And they are the lowest standards possible. To make the point that, yes, we-we the academy believes that this is important so we will make a nod to it. But they're not stringent enough that anyone really has to change anything about how they're making their movies, or what companies they're working with in order to be eligible. Like, you would have to try very hard to be ineligible, based on those standards. I will also say this, though, personally, I don't care if a move- a movie is made by all white men, right? I don't care if that movie's great. Great. I will watch it. I will praise it. I want —I'm-I'm looking for hits. I'm looking for bangers. The best in class. For me. What I care about is not that a bunch of white men who decide, hey, we want to make and distribute a movie. Like, I'm not trying to stop them. I just want to make sure that if there's a group of Black women or Asian women or queer filmmakers who want to do the same thing, who will make a movie as good as those white men, I want to make sure that they have the same resources available to them to make and distribute the movie. And so I get really uncomfortable when it's like, oh, you have to have these numbers, etc., etc. I'm much more interested in an ecosystem that supports all great artists, not in telling artists how they need to be making what they're making.

Ellen McGirt I'm here with Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte's Chief Purpose and DEI Officer. Hey, Kwasi. Thanks for being here today.

Kwasi Mitchell It's good to be here, ellen.

Ellen McGirt Kwesi. In recent years we've seen and you know, I've reported on big shifts in the way the business community approaches equity. Tell us what you've been seeing.

Kwasi Mitchell There's a few things that I've been seeing as part of this shift, I would say several years ago Ellen. So much of the efforts of the business community was identifying talent in some of our more traditional sources, largely from, you know, colleges and universities, people with four years degrees. What I've started to see as the shift of is expansion of that particular pipeline and looking at things such as talent sources that do not obtain or have four year degrees. And in addition to that, an increased focus on retention and advancement, which is something that you have reported on for so many years and the need for a heavier focus in those areas, rather than only the identification of talent in and of itself.

Ellen McGirt That's very encouraging. So when we take this view, what's your call to action for the business community?

Kwasi Mitchell Call to action for the business community is for us to spend some time really observing what is taking place within the doors of our organization that are driving perhaps inequitable outcomes across our broader workforce. And that could be so many distinct capacities, everything from how are we sourcing talent, how are we selecting people for development programs to how are we spending time with respect to leadership development activities and so all of those things together. It's really critical for the business community to observe their own actions and use that as the starting point for driving change.

Ellen McGirt Always great to hear concrete ways we can move forward. I appreciate you, Kwasi.

Kwasi Mitchell Same, and it's always a pleasure talking to you, Ellen.

Jessica Helfand Where do you see, The Black List 20 years from now?

Franklin Leonard It's a very good question. I think that, what I'd say is — so The Black List exists to identify and celebrate great storytelling, great written storytelling. I think that there are no real limitations on, what kinds of written storytelling we should be trying to identify and celebrate. I think that, if we have the ability to do that globally, efficiently and consistently, we'll be able to build a lot of businesses on top of that ability. You know, if you can find all of the great screenplays, plays, books, whatever, and identify them as having value before everybody else, you can build a pretty exciting business around that. And I think that's the direction that we're headed. And if anybody would like to invest in said business, they should give me a call.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand I Diane von Furstenberg might be interested.

Franklin Leonard But, you know, I you look, we we've built a lot on top of that annual survey, right. We have a website now where people can, get feedback on their work from professional readers, no matter where in the world they are. If that feedback is received positively, we tell everybody in Hollywood: Hey, this is a good script. You should do something with it. There are writers literally all around the world who sign with agents and managers, had their movies produced, some of which not even in the English language. And our ability to identify that work and to connect that work with the right people, has grown considerably in recent years. I mean, in in the last two years alone, The Black List website distributed more than $1.2 million to writers directly via, development deals and in grants for short films, etc.. And I increasingly believe that that's just the tip of the iceberg with with what we can do to transform the industry. And comparatively speaking, we need very, very little resources to do transformative work compared to the what a lot of other people are investing to, to increase their company's fortunes.

Ellen McGirt You've been such a powerful voice for the meaning of movies and people's lives. I saw Origin, for example, in a theater. I lived most of the year in a white flight community suburb of Saint Louis, which is another podcast for how I got there. But I watched it in a theater just ten miles from Ferguson, and I was one of six people in the theater. And, you know, partly it was the time of day, I did it to myself, but I was craving a communal experience, and that's not always possible. It's not good for the, the, for the industry of, if movies were only seen in person. How do you how do you see the future of meaning and movies playing out? With films showing up on tiny screens, maybe beamed into our brain — how how are we? How are we able to leverage the meaning and impact of great storytelling going forward?

Franklin Leonard So. I be- look, I'm a huge fan of the communal moviegoing experience. I'm on the board of the American Cinematheque, which is, you know, here in Los Angeles, is explicitly about protecting and saving the communal film experience, in Los Angeles and beyond. You know, I have incredibly fond and precise memories of going to see Jurassic Park in the theater when it came out. I think I saw it three times opening weekend. And I still just really love the notion of walking into a dark room with a bunch of people I don't know, and having, a 2 to 3 hour experience. That changes the way I view what it means to be alive, with a bunch of people I don't know. It's it's a I think of it as a religious experience. It's not very different than going to a church, synagogue, mosque, and having, you know, a sermon about- it's a story. The sermon is always a story. And you leave buttressed against the hard things in life. But I also think that, like the impact of movies, I you may have a different experience watching something in a theater, but I don't think that that means that seeing it at home on or television on your phone, God forbid, beamed into our brain means that that those things have any less value. And I think that what we can mean when we talk about a communal experience can extend to I saw something and then I engaged in a conversation with it online, about it online with other people. And it informed how I communicate, what I learn about the world, how I interact with people when I leave the theater. You know, I think one of-one of my heroes, you know, Martin Scorsese, he like, he saw some of his first films on television, not in a theater. Did-did it have less of an impact on him because he saw them on a television, you know, probably a very small television in black and white with not a great, you know, picture? I don't think it does, and I also think that I'm obviously biased here having grown up in a small town in west central Georgia and not having access to a great deal of world cinema, independent cinema. I think that there's extremely good things about streaming, making movies available to everyone to participate as part of that communal experience, a communal experience. And I do think there's an argument. And look, it hasn't been borne out yet, and it's highly dependent on how these streamers develop their business model. But I do think it's possible that that can be helpful in allowing filmmakers to have sustainable careers that allow them to continue to make the kinds of movies that they want, and not necessarily things that need to be driven by the largest possible opening weekend theatrical box office. Because if that if-the if that is a necessity, the business folks, you know, the studios are justified in making some of the conservative, business decisions they make because they know that in order to have a financial success, you got to deliver opening weekend theatrical box office. If that becomes less of a preoccupation, it opens up the kinds of things that can be made, because they can be made using different business models at lower prices, etc.. So I'm, I'm-I'm a pessimist by nature and an optimist by practice, and so I believe it is possible that the future will, give us some models that allows film to matter even more. Because I think that as human beings, we have a natural disposition to seeking out stories about what this brief, painful life means and how we can survive it. And I think one of the things that, regardless of culture, most of those stories on some level, come back to the extent to which we need other people in order for this life to have meaning.

Jessica Helfand But is there some larger societal level of understanding, opposing viewpoints, of enlarging perspectives, of being able to withstand tension and drama and think about the denouement in a different way? Do you see it as a sort of larger, in a larger orbit that there's a potential for, for movies to really change the world?

Franklin Leonard I would argue that it's inarguable that movies change the world. I think what you're describing is the best, the best case scenario for movies changing the world. And I think unfortunately, there is a there's the flip side of that, which is that movies can change the world for the negative. You know, it's not lost on me that, you know, Hollywood's first blockbuster, Birth of a Nation, was responsible for rebirthing the klan, and gifting them a lot of their iconography that didn't previously exist like it came from that movie. It's not lost on me that, you know, we have a, problem in America, with the world, with the, the, you know, the perceived, inherent violence of Black men, right? That goes back to Birth of a Nation, that continues through present day. I think there was a study done a couple of years ago that found that two thirds of gang members and in Hollywood films are Black, but the FBI statistics are that one third of gang members are Black. And the same way that we can learn about all those things badly because of the stories we tell, presumably we also can learn about, you know, what could be better, from the same thing. I think unfortunately, there are far fewer examples of that, but I but I do know that they exist. You know, they're- there are two quotes that I, sort of savor, and I'm not able to get them perfectly right, but they're from, a manifesto that the animator Hayao Miyazaki wrote, I think, in the mid 80s. One is, I think if I even get this right— A popular movie should be full of true human emotion. Even if it's base, the entrance should be low and wide so that everyone can be welcomed in, but the exit should be high and purified. It shouldn't be anything that emphasizes or enlargess the lowness. So, like, that's that is a definition of a of a popular movie that I've tried to, like, think seriously about when I think about things that I want to be involved in. The other thing he talks about is, is that when you make a movie, you have no idea about the emotional state of the person who is watching it, that they could be going through a divorce. They could have just lost their child. They could have gotten a promotion. They could have had a great day. And part of your job as a filmmaker is to take them away from whatever that is for the time that they're watching the movie and leave them more prepared to navigate and survive the things that they're going through when they leave.

Jessica Helfand On that cheerful note — it's a cheerful note, actually. You're talking about, so many things that I think are going to be, of great interest to our listeners, and they're certainly of great interest to us. Tell us, though, because we're we're dying to know, what was the last movie you saw that you loved?

Franklin Leonard I, I think Origin was probably the last movie that I saw that I, that I really loved. I think it it reduced me to tears multiple times. I think it really does. I think it is a wildly ambitious film. The attempts to, to articulate, a sort of unified field theory of human existence, about what makes life hard and how we survive it. I think the love story at the center of it is one of the most heartbreaking I've seen in a very long time. I think, Ava is just a beautiful filmmaker. So that's probably the last movie I saw that I loved. But there are a lot of them. Anatomy of a Fall. Incredible. Incredible film. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Ellen McGirt Anything from you, Franklin, that we should have asked?

Franklin Leonard I mean, look, I think the thing that I continue to be most proud of is, is, you know, beyond the annual Black List is what we've built on top of it. The Black List website, which I encourage everyone to check out. You know, it really does exist as an ecosystem where no matter who you are, where you are, who you know what your background is — if you have a great screenplay, you can get it to people who can do something with it. If you have a great pilot, you have a great play, you can get it to people who can do something with it. There's a small fee, but there's also a fee waiver. But I really do encourage anyone who is a writer, to check out our website, create a writer profile on it — that's free. But if you have a script and you don't have the ability to get it to somebody who can do something with it, give us a serious look. And I know that, as we continue to have more resources, we're going to be able to do things that can be a tide that raises all boats in the industry.

Jessica Helfand Thank you so much for your time today. This was great.

Franklin Leonard That was an absolute pleasure.

Jessica Helfand I love what you said at the beginning, before Franklin joined us about the case for equity and inclusion not being about lowering the bar, and if there was a poster child for that, it might be Franklin Leonard. I mean, this is not a person- this is, I mean an impeccable, capacious, meticulous understanding of this complicated world. As somebody who really has, has, I think, the best kind of skin in the game. And I just could listen to him forever.

Ellen McGirt I know, I know, he's always been that person, and he works to hone that perspective and his skill and talents and insights. And he takes on another trope very naturally, that, of meritocracy and the idea that he thinks that a true meritocracy where people are allowed in, would give way to true diversity. And I think he's onto something there as well.

Jessica Helfand You know what that music means.

Ellen McGirt It's big swing, small wins time.

Jessica Helfand I think we're going to have to ask Warner to write lyrics for - it's a little intro music. Wouldn't that be funny?

Ellen McGirt That would be funny.

Jessica Helfand Well, that's our big swing for this week, Ellen?

Ellen McGirt I'm excited about this. In honor of Franklin, in our conversation today, I am calling out Maya Cade, who's the scholar in residence at the Library of Congress. She's incredible. Starting in 2020, talk about a pandemic project. She created the Black Film Archive to correct the lack of Black film and traditional archives. She calls it a living register of Black film. Black film archive dot com. It goes back to, Jessica, it goes back to 1898.

Jessica Helfand Unbelievable.

Ellen McGirt She is really doing the work and I am so grateful for her. That's a big swing and a big gift to all of us. And now it's time for small wins. Jessica, what you got?

Jessica Helfand I'm going to take this. So last week was my birthday. Not that I'm having any more of those.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand And, my partner Phil took me to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Esperanza Spalding, doing an entire Wayne Shorter program. Now, I just there's not enough time in the world for me to talk about how much I love Esperanza Spalding. We were actually in a fellowship together years ago, not many years ago. But she is, of course, just a polymath, vocalist, bassist, and multiple Grammy winner. Boy, talk about a redesigner. She did this entire program about Wayne Shorter, who we lost, during the pandemic. He passed away in March of 23. There's nothing like seeing this. It's an opera that she sings excerpts from Iphigenia, which is an opera that Wayne Shorter wrote shortly before he died, and she was very involved in working with him as a librettist, as a lyricist, as a sort of coconspirator, and she introduces every part of this concert, with a short anecdote about her relationship to the late, great Wayne Shorter. It was tremendous to see this beautiful little huge talent in a little body. She's got, like a 19 octave range and this enormous orchestra. It was very moving. It was very powerful. And talk about somebody who is rethinking and redesigning music in ways that are accessible, that retail stories of, the power dynamics of women and Greek tragedy and Euripides and what it means to go to a concert hall and hear jazz. It was just tremendous. And I'll never forget it.

Ellen McGirt I love that, I love that these small wins taken together make a breakthrough career. So well done. Rest in power, Wayne Shorter. Well, that's all for today. We will see you back here in two weeks with another designer who is transforming their community, their field and our world.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer.

Jessica Helfand Our show is written and produced by Alexis Haut. The music is by Warner Meadows. Justin D Wright of Seaplane Armada mixed and mastered this episode. Thanks to Adina Karp and Focus Forward Podcast Studio in Providence for production support.

Ellen McGirt Anybody else you want to thank today, Jessica?

Jessica Helfand And we want to thank our colleagues at Curious Minds who are helping us redesign the very site that Design Observer lives on. Eric, Andrew, Shannon and the entire team of Curious Minds. A big thank you.

Ellen McGirt And for more longform content about the people redesigning our world, not just our website, please consider subscribing to our newsletters, Equity Observer and The Observatory. Head over to Design Observer dot com.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is produced by Design Observer's editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcasts, speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the podcast.

Posted in: Design of Business | Business of Design




Jessica Helfand, Ellen McGirt Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer. A former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Eye and Communications Arts magazine, she is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director’s Hall of Fame. Jessica received both her BA and MFA from Yale University where she has taught since 1994. In 2013, she won the AIGA medal.

Jessica Helfand, Ellen McGirt Ellen McGirt is an author, podcaster, speaker, community builder, and award-winning business journalist. She is the editor-in-chief of Design Observer, a media company that has maintained the same clear vision for more than two decades: to expand the definition of design in service of a better world. Ellen established the inclusive leadership beat at Fortune in 2016 with raceAhead, an award-winning newsletter on race, culture, and business. The Fortune, Time, Money, and Fast Company alumna has published over twenty magazine cover stories throughout her twenty-year career, exploring the people and ideas changing business for good. Ask her about fly fishing if you get the chance.

Jobs | May 24