The Black List Goes Neon

A Hollywood screenwriting powerhouse comes Downtown. Could it mark the beginning of a new era for film in Vegas?


For the slots-deprived, lamenting the Gold Spike’s move from boutique casino to Zappos playpen, there’s consolation to be had in at least one area: It’s entirely possible a future Oscar winner will be hashed out there between September 30 and October 5.

Six aspiring screenwriters were selected to take part in the inaugural Black List Screenwriters Lab to meet with four screenwriter mentors in Downtown Las Vegas. For a community constantly seeking the heir to CineVegas, this could very well be its spiritual successor in terms of talent and artistic ambition.

Franklin Leonard was working as a junior executive in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company in 2005 when he wanted to go on vacation and get a little work done. But instead of grabbing the latest stack of scripts, he sent an email to his colleagues across several companies asking for the best scripts they’d read. The Black List was born. (James Spader’s The Blacklist would have to wait eight years.)

“I was reading as many screenplays as I could get my hands on, and the vast majority of them were mediocre to bad. I knew also because I was working for one of the biggest stars in the world, I must be seeing the best material. Most of it still was not good. It left me with this reality that one of two things was happening,” he says. “Either the job was to read terrible material, or the job was to find good material and I was bad at my job. One of those two things was happening, neither of them was good, and it probably meant that my mother calling me once a week to ask about law school was something I should take more seriously.”

The Black List, which compiles the best scripts that haven’t been made into movies, has become an annual touchstone for Hollywood movers and shakers. Of the 600 or so scripts that have made the list since 2005, 200 have been produced, three of the last five won Best Picture Oscars and seven have taken Best Writing Oscars, whether original or adapted. That includes last year’s Original Screenplay winner Django Unchained and Adapted Screenplay winner Argo, which also took Best Picture. Screenwriter Chis Terrio, in fact, said that Ben Affleck found Argo because of its inclusion on the Black List.

But the Screenwriters Lab is a new project as the Black List pushes into unexplored territory, becoming a screenwriting clearinghouse where aspiring writers can upload scripts, and executives can peruse content curated by a collection of former frontline studio script readers.

The mentors include Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips), Kiwi Smith (10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde), Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Runner Runner) and Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married). The participants come from across the country and are working on a wide range of projects, from Jan Arnold’s Afronell, about a teen musician in South Central trying to break into the ’70s Los Angeles punk scene to Nick Malik’s Year of the Woodcock!, which follows “a delusional cripple who blackmails his estranged brother into finding him a date for the biggest night of his life.”

It was, of course, an encounter between Leonard and Tony Hsieh that put the wheels in motion. Leonard came to one of Hsieh’s catalyst weekends in April, facilitated by a mutual Harvard classmate, and the entrepreneur offered Leonard use of crash space in the Ogden. Now six months later, that’s where the bulk of the Lab will take place, with mentors and writers pairing off at whatever Downtown locations strike their fancy.

“In a world where the Internet exists, there’s no excuse for a culture where people are like ‘We’ll move out to L.A. and start networking.’ A) you shouldn’t have to live in L.A. to be a good writer. And B) your ability to network doesn’t determine whether you’re a good writer or not,” he says. “Most of the great writers I know are terrible networkers, because they’d rather be at home writing. I’d rather work with a writer who’d rather be at home writing than at a club talking to an agent trying to get them to sign. For us it’s about making sure the gap between being a working screenwriter and an aspiring screenwriter is being a good screenwriter.”

Inarguably, no matter how you feel about the Downtown Project and its vision for the future of Downtown, this is a win for the area.

Whether Las Vegas can ever be a film mecca is wide open for debate. Movies shoot here all the time, and always will, for location. It will never function like Pittsburgh or Toronto—convenient metropolitan stand-ins where the skyline is ambiguous enough to pose as Any City, U.S.A. Nor will it ever be Los Angeles or New York City.

What Vegas can be, though, is Park City, Utah. Or Austin, Texas. A place with a vibrant enough film culture to support a strong festival (we’ve done it before) and enough ancillary events (and shoots) to make this a permanent outpost of the movie-making machine—not just a location backdrop for Ocean’s 14, 15 and 16. (Unless that’s the only way we can get Clooney to hang out. He’s so dream—er, cool. He seems really cool to hang out with.)

Something like the Screenwriters Lab is a strong step in the right direction, and coupled with our CineVegas past and Las Vegas Film Festival present, proof that the future can accommodate more than what we’ve got going on now.

Because otherwise, I’m going to have to go to L.A. to fulfill my lifelong dream of being an extra in the next Star Wars movie, and I really don’t like putting all that wear and tear on my car.

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