Big Think – The Black List: The incredible innovation that led to 48 Oscar wins

The Black List: The incredible innovation that led to 48 Oscar wins

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Can’t watch another generic Hollywood film? Here, marketing expert Nilofer Merchant tells the incredible story of former data analyst Franklin Leonard who shook up the repetitive Hollywood formula with a single innovation: The Black List. In 2005, when Leonard was working as a development executive for a film production company and lamenting the same-old, same-old scripts that were being turned into movies, he came up with the idea to email 75 fellow producers to get a list of the scripts they absolutely loved that year, but that were skipped over for production. From that annual list of rejects come films like Moonlight, Juno, The Revenant, Argo, American Hustle, Slumdog Millionaire, The Descendants. Sound familiar? That’s because they’re all Oscar winners. The 331 films from The Black List that have been produced to date have led to 241 Academy Award nominations and 48 subsequent Oscar wins. Merchant lays this out as a practical lesson in innovation: what can you or your company gain by inviting ideas in from innovators people on the fringe? What happens when you stop asking, “How can we make money?” and start asking people, “What do you love?” Nilofer Merchant is the author of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.

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Transcript: Franklin Leonard is this relatively young man as we pick him up in the story, and relatively powerless in Hollywood standards. And he keeps imagining that Hollywood could find more original scripts, scripts that reflected this range of humanity instead of these trite scripts that were coming across his desk.

And so he thought: one day I’m just going to see if I can do this better. He was embarrassed, however, to actually ask that question because he thought, if I was good at my job shouldn’t I already be seeing those scripts?

But he went through his Rolodex, found the 89 people he had met during the course of his first year in Hollywood—mind you, his job was like schlepping coffee as one of his roles—but he thought, I’ll just ask these people to help me. And he created an alias because he was worried his boss might find out that he was doing this, and he sent out a note saying: “Send me the scripts you’ve seen in the last year that you’ve loved but haven’t been put into production.” And people did that and he said, “In return I will roll up,”—he turned out to be a McKinsey analyst in his prior life—“I will roll up all that data and send it back to you as the sort of give-get mix.”
It turns out that this thing that he created, which is called The Black List, ended up finding really novel and new ideas that didn’t fit the prototype of what Hollywood kept creating over and over again. They found really fresh and unusual ideas. ‘Juno’, the story of a young, pregnant teenager actually wanting to keep the baby. I’m trying to think of some of the other scripts. ‘Moonlight’, which was a really original idea. ‘Lars and the Real Girl’, which was about a boyfriend relationship with a sex doll. It was just some really unusual ideas.

And I asked Franklin, “What did he do, and what did he do right?” He said, “Well, I just shone a bigger light onto a problem or opportunity.” And as I was listening to him I was thinking, no, actually that’s not what you did. And I don’t mean to offend you, Franklin, but I think you actually did something much fresher than that: you asked a brand-new question and then you gave people the permission to join in your purpose, which is to find original fresh ideas.
And that tilt was drastically different than how Hollywood was sorting it already. Hollywood was sorting by this question, which is: How do we make money? And Franklin, by asking the question he did—which is: “What do you love? And in the anonymity of this email process I will basically shield you from the repercussions of not picking what your boss might want,”—actually got people to surface their own original interests, their own passions, and then gather it together in that nice distributed network way to actually be able to do something with it. And the numbers are unbelievable in terms of how many awards those movies have received and recognition.
But I think the best part about it is it showed the power of an individual connected in meaning with others having that ripple effect to actually change an industry. And that’s what I think the profound impact of any of us are, however young or powerless we are by society standards, we can raise our hand and say, “I have a different question I want to ask,” and how do I actually mobilize other people around those questions that I think matter?

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