Tufts alumnus and co-founder of The Black List discusses the power of the script-sharing platform to diversify the movies that get made
With the movie award season each year comes the daunting reminder that Hollywood is still not where it should be in terms of representation—either in front of or behind the camera.
While there have been small strides in the past decade, the numbers remain unimpressive: the percentage of working screenwriters of color was 22.6 percent in 2020, according to the latest 2022 report from the Writers Guild of America West.
The team behind The Black List spotted this problem years ago–and through their platform have helped to start to provide solutions. The initiative connects screenwriters with established industry professionals—the agents, managers, and producers needed to back the projects that could otherwise go overlooked in a sea of Hollywood competition.
Dino Simone, E07, EG13, The Black List’s co-founder and chief technology officer (CTO), is passionate about evolving its mission to be bigger and more effective in mitigating film’s diversity problem.
He and his team have come a long way. When his co-founder Franklin Leonard first launched The Black List in 2005, the concept was simply an annual list highlighting exceptional under-the-radar and unproduced screenplays, with selections generated by the votes of actively working film executives who opted to participate.
This list is still produced each year, but The Black List has grown to offer more ways for screenwriters to get their feet in the door. That includes virtual networking tools, resources like workshops and master classes, and in-person events, plus ongoing partnerships with other initiatives like Women in Film and studios like Sony Pictures to provide residencies, scholarships, and other job opportunities for marginalized voices in film. Recent opportunities have included a Black Voices Fellowship with YouTube Originals that awarded $40,000 to four writers/directors to produce a TV series reflecting the Black experience.
Any screenwriter can create a profile on The Black List website for free; paid subscriptions are required in order to upload their full script and have it be viewable to industry professionals browsing the site. In addition to greater visibility, a separate paid feature allows subscribers to submit their scripts for direct evaluation and feedback from experts.
To date, The Black List has hosted more than 120,000 scripts and 100,000 writers, with submissions from over 100 countries. Some familiar titles to emerge from the list include the Academy Award Best Picture nominees like The King’s Speech, King Richard, and Promising Young Woman.
“As you can imagine, there are a lot of stories here that wouldn't otherwise be told without the existence of our platform,” says Simone. “But at the same time, we want to be very careful about not taking too much credit. We might be helping them a bit, but the writers are the ones truly doing the work.”
Tufts Now spoke to Simone about The Black List’s expanding mission and the tech that’s helping to pave the way.
Tufts Now: How do you maintain The Black List’s aim of providing equitable access for emerging screenwriters?
Dino Simone: Anyone is eligible to put a screenplay up. I think that's sort of the beauty of it—we don't want to limit who can tell a story. There are a lot of great stories to be told. Traditionally, if you wanted to become a writer, you were told you had to relocate to Hollywood and completely change your life around. Well, that's no longer the case. Now, someone from halfway across the world who has an amazing story to tell can actually submit a screenplay—there have been incredible success stories like this.
Where we do limit people is on the industry side. We have a very rigorous vetting process because we want to make sure that the industry members who are going to read these scripts are reputable, and that they're not trying to knock a certain writer for whatever reason.
As CTO of The Black List, can you talk about how you’re merging the worlds of Hollywood and tech?
It's funny because I'm sort of the most unlikely person to have anything to do with Hollywood—coming from the East Coast, and not having spent a whole lot of time in that area. While I was in my early 20s, I had graduated from Tufts, I had my first job working full time and I was really just itching to do something more than just being in a cubicle all day long.
I made some trips to L.A., and my path crossed with my co-founder, Franklin Leonard. I think where my inspiration came from was just being able to use my technology background to streamline something that was very inefficient.
Coming from an engineering background, I was like, “OK, there are all these inefficiencies that I think we can solve pretty quickly.” More recently, with all the buzz around AI, there have been services out there that have attempted to evaluate screenplays without input from actual human beings. I would say that has not been too successful. I think this has to do with just generally the effectiveness of it, but also the sensitivity of the writers—writers want real humans looking at their stories and evaluating them.
However, where we could benefit from AI, particularly the likes of ChatGPT, which has gained so much attention recently, is in using it to augment the screenplay discovery process to provide more relevant results and recommendations for our industry audience. I think there’s still a lot to be done and for us there’s a lot of opportunity here.
Anything forthcoming to share?
We are in the process of completely overhauling our website. We've worked with some amazing designers and illustrators, some of whom are very well known. We’re going to be running some cutting-edge tech, both on the back end and the front end. As far as highlighting writers and their voices, I think we're going to have a lot more opportunities coming up as well in 2023. That's another thing to keep an eye out for, which we’re very excited about.