Two weeks ago, the podcast network Wolfpop debuted a show called The Black List Table Reads. The first episode has host Franklin Leonard introducing the premise, which is to take the best unmade screenplays and read them aloud with talented voice actors. In other words, Black List is making audio movies.
The title is a nod to the McCarthy era blacklist, a roster of actors, writers, and directors considered too politically subversive to work in Hollywood. The title is even more intriguing when Leonard explains what his blacklist is. In 2005, he was working for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company and struggling to find top-notch scripts. So, he hatched a plan. He emailed executives in Hollywood and asked them to send over the best ten screenplays they’d read that year that never made it into production. In return, he’d compile the list and share it with everyone who participated.
As you can imagine, Leonard curated quite a database. Approximately 1,000 scripts have appeared in the annual black list and around 300 of them have been produced. The scripts have earned over $25 billion worldwide.
That Leonard has access to these scripts for a podcast is exactly why we should be paying attention. “We know that these are some of the best and most exciting screenplays Hollywood hasn’t yet made, because that’s what we do,” says Leonard. For me, that’s a $64,000 statement of purpose.
There are three components to Black List: a brief backstory to the script to kick off the episode, the voice acted table read, and an interview with the writers. It is an ambitious format designed to bring listeners both the movie itself as well as a glimpse behind the scenes.
I’m here to report that Black List delivers a genuinely entertaining movie. And the point isn’t just that its first script, Balls Out, is funny—though it is. It’s an over-the-top parody of your average white male fantasy. It reminds me of 1970s Mel Brooks channeling Falling Down and Office Space. Black List also works because it taps into our ability to imagine entire sets and scenes. When the actors connect with the material, the film reel rolls in your mind and the magic of Hollywood takes over.
By taking all the necessary steps to cast and produce a movie–short of actually filming it–Black List has a real property on its hands.
The cast is a talented bunch, too. Since Balls Out is a ramshackle farce of movie archetypes (the frustrated everyday man who lashes out, the horn dog friend, the hot chick from work, etc), Leonard pulls in some very funny people to read: Lauren Lapkus, Jason Mantzoukas, and Paul Sheer headline.
Leonard is on to something here, but Black List still needs to find its footing. For instance, the acting needs to be taken more seriously. When the voice actors hit their beats, they are excellent. However, the cast often snickers their way through some of the better lines as if channeling Jimmy Fallon losing his shit every time Will Farrell pulled out his miniature flip phone on Saturday Night Live.
Sure, it’s hard to take the movie seriously when one of its characters says, “Your problem, Jim, and I don’t wanna make it sound like I’m judging you, but even if you had a cock half the size of mine, you’d probably still want mine cuz it’s so fucking big.” But comedy demands that its lines be delivered without interruption, even if they are this outrageous. The actors are undermining what can make Black List great.
Additionally, the arrangement of Black List could still use some tinkering. If someone just wants to listen to the movie, they are out of luck. Not only does the first podcast begin and end with the history of the script, it is broken up into multiple podcasts across weeks of time. Right now we’re two episodes in and we still don’t know the conclusion to Balls Out.
Black List is all about making movies, but frequently the show forgets that for many moviegoers the excitement is in the movie itself, not the writer’s room.
Consider the first episode, “BALLS OUT, Pt. 1.″ Introductions are made to the Black List podcast and a snippet of history is given about the script. We find out that Balls Out was a movie written by two frustrated screenwriters, Malcolm Spellman and Tim Talbott, disgusted by the Hollywood factory and determined to flip a middle finger at the industry. And the script has now become something of legend in the lore of screenwriting. With the table set, we dive into the script, but only for 25 minutes. The movie is then interrupted for sponsors and an interview with the writers. At that point, we’ve barely scratched the surface of Balls Out and we’re well short of the rising action.
Count me in as someone who is delighted to listen to Leonard interview the writers. I would listen to this podcast if it were only long form interviews with screenwriters. And the context provided is extremely valuable. Yet, the table read must be the centerpiece. After all, this is a movie.
I think the fix is a straightforward one. The podcast can easily be released in a movie and separate interview installments, rather than a blend of the two.
These are small adjustments, though, and the early episodes show great promise for Black List. It has all the potential to be on the vanguard of the “movie in your ears” branded podcasts, a genre that’s been underwhelming in the current popular lineup. Outside of The Truth, which probably won’t ever have the caliber of writing that Black List will, there aren’t a whole lot of podcasts that have the know-how to pull this off. It’s been gifted a valuable pool of screenwriting that’s been vetted by the industry, and Leonard obviously has ties to great actors and the knowledge to pull it off.