Franklin Leonard, a film executive and founder of the screenplay-scouting website “The Black List,” visited campus on Wednesday for a conversation with Roux Distinguished Scholar Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. The pair discussed a range of topics, from the problems within the film industry to Premier League soccer.
Leonard and Johnson met during their freshman year at Harvard University and the two have since remained close friends, which made for a casual and friendly event.
Leonard has been working in the film business for nearly two decades. After working as a mid-level executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way Productions, for a year, Leonard came up with the idea that would later change the film industry. At the time, Leonard wanted to come up with a more efficient way to find quality scripts to bring to his bosses, so he took a survey of his peers of their 10 favorite unproduced screenplays. He called it “The Black List” and put it on the early internet. Soon after, it went viral.
“I went on vacation. I read all the scripts, and they were really good. I came back and everyone was talking about this thing,” Leonard said.
Today, the Black List is an annual survey of studio and production company executives of the most liked unproduced screenplays. Films produced from screenplays that appeared on the Black List include “Argo”, “Juno” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” Combined, they have grossed over $30 billion.
Leonard is not only a pioneer in the film realm, but he is also an activist and a champion of groups undervalued in the industry. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Leonard pressed management consulting firm McKinsey and Company—for whom he previously worked—to do a study on racial inequities in Hollywood. In 2021, McKinsey released the landmark study, which revealed the extent of how the film industry stereotyped, undervalued and failed to support Black actors in Hollywood. While Leonard’s area of expertise is film, Johnson’s is the environment. To mix the two subjects, Johnson asked Leonard about the lack of films in Hollywood that acknowledge the climate crisis. The pair agreed there is a need to portray realities of climate change more frequently in films.
“I think if you’re making a movie in 2023, it’s actually irresponsible to not acknowledge [climate change] as part of the world in which the film is taking place,” Leonard said.
An engaged audience posed various questions in the Q&A session at the end of the event.
Professor of Cinema Studies Tricia Welsch had heard of Leonard and the Black List long before Wednesday’s conversation and was impressed by Leonard’s generosity towards students, especially when they were asking questions.
“I saw [Leonard] walk right up to everybody and try to have the best encounter he could possibly have. I got to watch that all day long and that is clearly what he brings to the table,” Welsch said.
Attendee Hewan Yoseph ’25 appreciated Leonard’s unique viewpoint from inside the film industry.
“There are a lot of things I’ve heard about being Black in Hollywood or advocating for diversity in Hollywood that were echoed. I think it was just really interesting to hear from this perspective, from someone who went at things almost as an academic,” Yoseph said.
Despite the many problems Leonard discussed, he remained optimistic and offered hope to those looking to work in Hollywood or make change in the industry.
Regardless of their area of expertise, Leonard encouraged attendees to become an expert at something they are truly passionate about. For students at a college like Bowdoin looking to enter a creative field like film, Leonard offered three simple words.
“Make dope stuff.”