Franklin Leonard, The Art of Podcasting No. 22

Franklin Leonard hosts a podcast called The Black List Table Reads over at Wolfpop. Innovative in so many ways, TBLTR spawned from Leonard’s full-time work on The Black List, a website that curates the best movie scripts in Hollywood not yet made into films. Since launching months ago, TBLTR carved out a singular space in podcasting. Leonard wrangles voice acting talent rarely seen in podcasts, he leans on bona fide screenwriters for a diversity of movie scripts, and takes listeners from the suburbs, to New York City, and then over to England and back. The Timbre’s Eric McQuade called Leonard to discuss the uniqueness of TBLTR, what it means to be a writer groupie, and why the bottomline of his work is entertaining listeners. 

THE TIMBRE

I think that the work you’re doing is novel, and it’s pushing the medium in the way it needs to go, from my point of view. I’m really enjoying the current script quite a bit.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

The reception has been really incredible.

THE TIMBRE

I think you have a built-in device that is just, to me, amazing. You can just flip the script. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s fine.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yeah, exactly. Come back in a couple weeks and they’ll be another one there.

THE TIMBRE

In doing this thing, which I think is new, you sound like you had some reservations. Was there a worry like, “Oh my god, what if this misses? Because if this misses, it might miss really big.” Was there a fear of that?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yeah, I think there definitely was. I had placed a lot a stock and had a lot of confidence in the quality of a good story well told. So I think that my instinct was that if it was going to miss, it would miss because the voice talent wasn’t good, or because the production was off, or because I was a terrible host. I knew if I could figure out how to not sound like a totally uncomfortable radio host, we could probably pull it off. And that seems to be the case.

I think a terrible amount of credit goes to the folks over at Wolfpop–folks who are sort of making me not sound like a terrible, awkward human being. And then also to Chris Bannon and Gretta Cohn and Cody Skully and everybody who’s sort of been involved in the past on it, because I think that really adds a significant edge to it. And obviously, we’re using great scripts, which is kind of what we do, and the rest takes care of itself.

THE TIMBRE

So, are you a writer at heart? Is that how you identify yourself?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

You know, I never really figured that out. I think I’m probably not, and I think it’s probably because I recognize that the writerly lifestyle is not one that suits me. I’m a natural sort of homebody and loner as it is. If your natural disposition is to be home and alone, and you add needing to be home and alone for work, and to go deep within yourself and excavate the deepest parts of your soul—which great writing usually entails to some extent—I just don’t think I have that constitution. And so I’m probably not a writer at heart.

I think I’m probably more of a writer groupie at heart. I get really excited by people who do it well. I think it’s sort of bad form, and extraordinarily bad business, the extent to which the industry treats writers poorly given the contributions to the success of the products. And so, to the extent that I will be able to help really talented people realize their artistic ambitions, I think that’s probably where my heart really is.

THE TIMBRE

I think one thing that shocked me about your podcast is how you use the internet to a wonderful advantage. You had access to these scripts and some contacts who could get these great readers and you could just deliver this product. It seems like such a product of its time.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yeah, well, it’s interesting. The Black List website couldn’t have existed ten years ago. The work that the annual Black List did in taking a survey amongst development executives was so much more labor-intensive in a world before email, in a world before being able to build a website. We’ve evaluated more than 20,000 screenplays in the last two years. Which I have to assume is more than any other script evaluating organization has done. Even in our first year, we were the largest evaluator of scripted, narrative material on earth. Which was sort of staggering, and that wasn’t possible before the internet.

THE TIMBRE

So how often are you reading scripts? You personally?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

I’m reading scripts probably much less than I used to. I’m reading several a week still, but I was reading 10-15 screenplays a week at my peak.

THE TIMBRE

How did you come into that position? You can grow up reading novels in your parent’s basement. Screenplays are a little bit inaccessible.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

I was definitely the kid who was in his basement reading Capote novels, you know, under the covers with a flashlight, late at night, to extend my bedtime. I went to Harvard, graduated 15 years ago—actually just went to my 15 year reunion, which is a bit surreal—and then I ran a congressional campaign, I wrote for The Guardian newspapers in Trinidad, which is where my grandfather’s from. Then I moved to New York; I was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. Then I got laid off with five month’s severance.

I was watching a ton of movies and reading a ton about the film industry, even though it had never occurred to me that there were jobs for people like me with my background in Hollywood. So, I moved out to L.A. 12 years ago. March 2003. I got a job as an agency assistant at Creative Artists Agency, but my boss was, you know, the opposite of Ari from Entourage just in terms of disposition.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

FRANKLIN LEONARD

I worked my way up through the chain of command in the development world. I was a development executive for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Company, for Universal Pictures, for Will Smith’s Company, and my job was to find good scripts. Talk to agents, talk to the editors, talk to anyone you could talk to. Find the best screenplay and pass it up the chain of command. If they liked them, then we’d get involved in the making of the scripts and working with those writers.

I did a bad job with that, but I wanted to be better. So I took a survey of my peers, asked 75 of them to send me a list of their 10 favorite scripts in that year that hadn’t yet been produced, and combined it, sent it out, under the quasi-subversive name of the Black List, and the rest is history. Two years later, Juno and Lars and the Real Girl were nominated for best original screenplay. Which was significant because those had been the #2 and #3 screenplays on that first list.

THE TIMBRE

Oh wow.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

There have been just about 1,000 screenplays on the list over the course of 10 years. 30% of them have been produced. Those movies have made about 25 billion dollars in worldwide profits. They won three of the last seven Best Picture awards, eight of the last sixteen screenwriting Oscars, four of last year’s eight Best Picture nominees were scripts on that list long before they were made. So, that process did a very good job of identifying great material that, on its face, might not be commercial, but had gone on to great success.

THE TIMBRE

That’s amazing.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

It is. We’re talking about The Imitation Game, Argo, Whiplash, King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, stuff that Hollywood wasn’t necessarily rushing to make, but have gone on to extraordinary success because they’re good stories, well told, that tap into what it means to be a human being.

And then, five years ago, the idea of a once-yearly PDF that circulated annually had become sort of adorable once the tech revolution had sped up, and I wanted to build something that would allow people to find the best scripts of the year in March or July or September. And so we built this website that functions like a real-time Black List. We realized that we could also allow anyone on earth to upload their script, have it evaluated, and then we could tell the entire industry, “Hey, there’s a great script, you should pay attention to this.” And that’s sort of what we’ve done.

THE TIMBRE

One thing I want to go back to. So when you were working for Leonardo DiCaprio’s company and then Will Smith later, was your job to find scripts for those actors? And if so, were you able to read any scripts that those actors ended up making into movies that we would know?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

There are three parts to it. This first is, simply finding scripts for those actors. I can’t say that any of the scripts that I discovered during my time working there ended up being scripts that either of them did. Possibly to their detriment–but Leo’s doing pretty damn well.

But the other two parts of it are finding scripts for writers for movies that those actors would produce. And finding writers to write on projects that we already had in-house. So, you may read a script and say, “You know, this really isn’t for us, but this person can tell a damn good story. We should call them then and see what else they might want to write.” And then hire them to do that.

THE TIMBRE

So, I have a question about scripts in general. A very famous director–it may have been Kubrick–said there are three films: There’s the film that’s written, there’s the one that’s filmed, and there’s the one that’s edited.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yeah.

THE TIMBRE

And I guess my question is that you’re putting a lot of stock in being able to read a script. And it seems to be Hollywood convention or lore that you can’t put stock into a script. You never know what’s going to come of it. No one knows. You must disagree with that and say, “No, there’s something in a script that allows it to become magic.” What’s your assessment of that Hollywood idea that there’s no way of knowing?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yeah, I think it’s a very un-nuanced view. It’s a pretty black-and-white view of the subject matter and a sort of approach that requires a lot more nuance. It’s the sort of the business industry being prescriptive and probabilistic. So yeah, I think that quote about a script is made three times – once when it’s written, once when it’s made, and once in the edit room – it’s 100% true. I mean that’s just factually correct. If a writer’s going to tell a story, a director’s going to add another layer to that story, and the editor’s going to add another layer to that surface. That’s almost inarguable.

But I think Hollywood profoundly undervalues the value of a quality screenplay. So certainly the contributions of the editor and director, in a way the entire crew, in production and post, are incredibly important, but I think historically, Hollywood has undervalued, somewhat profoundly, the contributions of that first step.

I can’t remember who I’m paraphrasing: “You can make a bad movie from a good script.” That is possible. And it happens quite a lot. But it’s damn near impossible to make a good movie out of a bad script. So, if your goal was to make a good movie, then your best bet is to start with a great script. Which means that there needs to be a mechanism for finding that. And I think that’s kind of where we fit in. Having a great script isn’t going to guarantee that you’re going to make a great movie, but it increases your likelihood somewhat significantly.

THE TIMBRE

I’m reading a book right now on the making of Casablanca

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Oh, that sounds really good!

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, it’s really good. I’m really interested in old Hollywood, and I’m amazed by it. They have all these staff writers, and they’re explaining how Casablanca was written, and it’s a fascinating thing how it was written, because it was a collective work. And they existed under this old studio system where they had writers on staff. You were paid a salary, and you went to Warner Brothers and you wrote in your office.

I wonder, what is the current state of Hollywood screenwriters? Are these men and women freelancers? Is there anybody that’s under a salary at a studio anymore? Is that just completely dead?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yeah, I don’t think movies are the same anymore. There definitely are some models that are heading back in that direction. You’ve seen some of the studios put writers’ rooms around franchises like the Transformers, but it’s definitely not like it was when F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing the talkies. I think, if anything, it’s very much a freelance profession.

THE TIMBRE

For good screenwriters, is there an idea of maybe a director who really admires a screenwriter and wants to work with that person, and they maybe call on them to write something new for them?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Absolutely. John August works with Tim Burton, for example but that doesn’t mean that John August has a contract with Tim Burton. It’s pretty much a project-by-project basis. And so, though people have ongoing relationships that serve them well throughout their careers, it is really a project situation.

THE TIMBRE

I want to ask you about the decision to move into podcasting. When did you make the connection that you’re curating all this wonderful material? When did you decide, “I could make this into a podcast?”

FRANKLIN LEONARD

It’s funny. I started looking into podcasting in earnest slightly before the Serial thing happened, because my colleague at Black List, Kate Hagen, recommended it. I was complaining about driving around L.A. and having nothing to listen to outside the radio, and she was like, “Oh, you’ve gotta listen to How Did This Get Made?” The podcast with Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas.

THE TIMBRE

Right.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

I started listening to that, and, literally, I think I just listened to every episode. Just straight through. I went back to #1 and that became drive-time radio to me for weeks at a time. And this was right around the time we had started doing these live, staged script readings in L.A. What we do is we take a script from the annual Black List, and we would cast them up with actors. We do them on a stage with about 900 people in the audience. So, we’re doing these, and we announce them, and we tweet about them, and put them on Facebook, and we get emails and tweets and Facebook comments back saying, “This sounds amazing. I don’t live in L.A. Are you going to live stream this? Are you going to record it and tell us? How could I listen to this?” And that gave me the idea. That’s basically how it happened.

THE TIMBRE

I’ve heard that being a voice actor for The Simpsons is the best job you could ever have–in that, it’s a great paycheck, and nobody knows who you are, and you can just show up in your pajamas and read. There must be a real pleasure for these actors to be able to come in. It’s not the stress of a set. They’re not being filmed.

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Right, yeah.

THE TIMBRE

Like a fun new gig versus, “Hey, I’m filming this movie, I would love for you to come in and shoot this cameo for me.” Have you found the actors attracted to this idea of a podcast?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yeah, I think some actors are very attracted to it. I think some actors say, “Oh, this is really cool. This is an opportunity to stretch, to exercise different muscles, and do something that is complete, and I get to develop an entire character literally over the course of an afternoon.” Because we record in one fell swoop. We don’t pay the actors a lot. We want to put most of the money in the hands of the writer. So if you’re an actor who’s primarily driven by how much you’re going to get paid, then it’s going to stink. But we’ve actually found that a lot of actors are really kind of amazing and come in and give these amazing performances.

THE TIMBRE

I wonder, do you think there’s a chance that you’re helping these get made into films? Is that a goal?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

First and foremost, our goal is to provide great audio entertainment for our audience. That’s #1.

And #2 is to celebrate these screenplays with as large an audience as possible. And that audience has two parts in my mind. One part is the film industry. People who have some ability to make it more likely for these scripts to get made, right? So agents, assistants, producers, backers, directors, whatever. I’m starting to hear there are a ton of directors and actors—people who can make movies—listening to the podcast. The feedback that I’ve been getting within the industry has been kind of amazing. So there are people, literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people listening to this podcast who can move a project forward towards getting made.

And the other half of it is the audience, right? I think the bigger the audience gets with a podcast, the more likely it is that someone’s going to say, “Hey, there are 100,000 people listening to this already. If we made this into a movie, that’s a guaranteed million dollars at the box office.”

THE TIMBRE

The podcast is so young, and I love that the script changes. I’ve noticed that you’ve tweaked the format. For instance, in the first episode there was a lot of talk with the writers, and in the second script, you plunged directly into the film. How much are you proactively working on trying to get the format the way you want it, and how much are you fielding feedback from fans and people you respect to make the format correct?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

I think that shift with the interview was a consequence of wanting to explain what the podcast was, in the first episode. Like really introduce it. And also about needing a context for people to enjoy it and not just think it was the most distasteful thing of all time.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

FRANKLIN LEONARD

I needed a framing device, and I think that we always thought that we’d probably do the interview at the end of the script rather than the beginning. I feel really good about the structure of the show right now. There are some other things that I’m interested in trying to do, but when I think about the podcast—like I said—we had very clear goals. Entertain and elevate the profile of these scripts. And if that’s the goal, then the meat of the thing really has to be the scripts.

I think probably the biggest complaint we’ve had is that people hate the fact that it’s divided up into four episodes. They want to listen to the whole thing at once. I think we’re definitely in a binge culture right now in terms of content, mainly because of Netflix. It’s a good thing that we’re getting people coming back with every episode, and I like the fact that people are so excited that they’re getting frustrated by the fact that they can’t do that immediately. But I also think we can only do so many of these, so often. So I’d rather have regular content coming out on a weekly basis than divide it up and do one per month. And I think doing more than that would be quite a bit just in terms of resources and production.

THE TIMBRE

Let me ask you about the evaluation for Black List Table Reads, the actual podcast. You described how the company works in the industry. For your podcast, how are you selecting and identifying scripts that you would like to make into a podcast?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

It’s a good question. We’re just trying to find scripts that we think will be entertaining. The vast majority of them will come from the website. We’re using the data that we have on the scripts that have been hosted on the site. We also do category ratings: premise, dialogue, plot structure, setting, and a bunch of things like that. So we’re really looking for scripts that are strong based on data that we’ve been able to assemble, and particularly strong on the dialogue side, because that’s ultimately going to be the bulk of what people are going to hear.

THE TIMBRE

How much is the podcast taking over your life? Is it becoming a full-time job for you? Or are you still able to be in the Black List?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

Yes, it is a significant part of my life right now. There is no doubt about that. It is highly resource-intensive, but I think rewarding. I’m lucky that the Black List has an amazing team, and they pretty much run their fiefdoms with minimal oversight from me. I’m probably more of a micro-manager than I should be, but ultimately I have people that ensure my natural instincts towards micro-management aren’t as necessary as they would be. So I think that right now, my primary focus has been to make sure the podcast gets off the ground in a really effective way. But I still run the Black List website on a day-to-day basis as well.

THE TIMBRE

How far in advance do you have scripts selected? Do you have five in the queue for the podcast, or are you just looking at the next one?

FRANKLIN LEONARD

I knew what the first four scripts would be. And again, I think that came from me just wanting to make sure that we had those first four lined up. I think you’re going to see, going forward, a little bit more flexibility in that regard.

THE TIMBRE

I remember when we were tipped off that your podcast was coming out, and we were told from people at Midroll, “You’re going to like this one.” I’m that person who thinks when someone tells me something’s going be good, it’s usually like, “Okay, here’s the letdown.”

FRANKLIN LEONARD

That’s how I am. So, I know exactly what you mean.

THE TIMBRE

But it wasn’t at all. I think it’s wonderful.

 

~

Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

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