World Reimagined

Franklin Leonard and a New Era of Innovation in Hollywood

Published
Feb 1, 2021

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Risk: the tug-of-war between innovation and the looming prospect of failure that is behind the scenes of every business and industry. And few industries see greater tension between innovation and failure than that of motion pictures. So, how do we innovate and transform a risk-averse industry, especially one that shapes our culture and how we see ourselves? In this episode, Gautam Mukunda is joined by the Founder and CEO of the Black List, Franklin Leonard, to discover what can be learned from his experience taking big risks in the film industry, which can lead to losses but also to monumental pay-offs.

You are always performing your way to freedom when the resources necessary to do what you do are so considerable.
Franklin Leonard

Follow @GMukunda on Twitter

Books Referenced:

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

Guest Info:

Franklin Leonard is a film and television producer, cultural commentator, and entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of the Black List, the company that celebrates and supports great screenwriting and the writers who do it via film production, its annual survey of best unproduced screenplays, online marketplace, and screenwriter labs. More than 400 scripts from the annual Black List survey have been produced as feature films earning 250 Academy Award nominations and 50 wins including four of the last thirteen Best Pictures and eleven of the last twenty-four screenwriting Oscars. Franklin has worked in feature film development at Universal Pictures and the production companies of Will Smith, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, and Leonardo DiCaprio. He has been a juror at the Sundance, Toronto, Guanajuato, and Mumbai Film Festivals and one of Hollywood Reporter’s 35 Under 35, Black Enterprise magazine’s “40 Emerging Leaders for Our Future,” and Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business.” He was the recipient of the  2019 Writers Guild of America, East's Evelyn Burkey award for elevating the honor and dignity of screenwriters. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, a Board member of American Cinematheque, and a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). His TED talk has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. 

The Black List

@FranklinLeonard on Twitter & @theblcklst on Twitter

@FranklinJLeonard on Instagram & @theblcklst on Instagram

Transcript

Gautam:

Innovation requires risk, but how do you innovate to transform a risk-averse industry, especially one that shapes our culture and how we see ourselves?

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Ten, nine...

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That's one small step for man...

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The reality can no longer be ignored...

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We stand today at the threshold of a great event.

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...that we live in an interdependent world.

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...two, one.

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The World Reimagined, with Gautam Mukunda. A leadership podcast for a changing world.

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I want there to be peace everywhere.

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We look for integrity, we look for intelligence, and we look for energy.

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Every country, including the United States, is going to get impacted.

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An original podcast from NASDAQ.

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Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity?

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Coming to a theater near you.

Gautam:

The lights go down. You have your popcorn, your soda. You shelled out 20 bucks on your ticket. But when the curtains open, for those two and a half hours, you're transported. You're enthralled, or not. You see yourself reflected on the screen, or you don't.

Gautam:

I'm Gautam Mukunda, and in this episode of World Reimagined, we're talking about risk, the tug of war between innovation and the looming prospect of failure that goes on behind the scenes of every business and industry. And few industries see greater tension between innovation and failure than the movie business.

Gautam:

Our guest this week is Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List. The Black List started as a list of the year's best unproduced screenplays. Many of them have become movies that you have seen, and that have won Academy Awards. Think the King's Speech or Little Miss Sunshine. Today, the Black List has grown into a fully fledged production company. We'll dispense first with the question he's most often asked: what inspires him in a script? Franklin borrows one answer from Chris Rock.

Franklin:

I was at a panel once and he was asked "Chris, how do you know when you're going to engage with a piece of material?" And what he said was, "If I'm reading a screenplay and I'm hungry and my wife asks me, 'Hey, do you want a sandwich?', if I stop reading the script to go eat a sandwich, I'm not coming back to your script." And it gets a good laugh. And I realized that what really he's saying here is that whatever the script is, whatever the emotional experience of reading the script is, is so immediate and so arresting, that other biological urges cease to be the priority.

Gautam:

But there are other ways.

Franklin:

I actually think another way to sort of recognize whether something is special is the level of jealousy that I feel that someone else made it. And I'd say, one really good recent example of that is the movie Parasite. I remain so profoundly jealous of everybody that got to be affiliated with that film, that that feeling of jealousy is never going to go away.

Franklin:

The other way I describe it is like look, at the end of the day, a screenplay is no different than hearing any other story, which is: if I keep wanting to know what happens next, and then when it's over, I'm a little sad that I can't spend a little bit more time in this emotional world with these characters and finding out what happens next, you're probably on the right track. Now, that is a different question entirely from do I think we should invest money in it? Do I think that this is going to be the next big thing?

Gautam:

And this is where risk enters the scene. In Hollywood, there's always a story behind the story you see on screen. No matter how riveting the plot, moving the characters, or elevating the script, the movie won't get made unless you convince an investor that it's worth the risk. So, how do you innovate in an industry that more and more gets its profits from retreading the same territory, remake after sequel after franchise?

Gautam:

This week's guest found an answer to that seemingly intractable problem. When he founded the Black List, Franklin Leonard created a way to find the hidden gem screenplays that were slipping through Hollywood's cracks. How does he negotiate taking chances on projects that the industry declined? What can we learn from his experience of taking big risks in a business where they can mean big losses? I wanted to take a moment to hear from Franklin about exactly how he created the Black List.

Franklin:

Well, it was sort of an accident, if I'm being honest. I was working at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company and my job was to find good screenplays, and I felt like I was doing a very bad job at my job. And so I took a survey of my peers and said, "Send me a list of your 10 favorite screenplays that haven't been produced. In exchange, I'll share with you the combined list." And I think it just so happened that I made the decision to do that when you could send a message to a hundred people and have them respond. I couldn't do that pre-email and pre-internet. So, the timing had a lot more to do with it than anything else.

Gautam:

As a movie buff, but an outsider to the industry, I wanted to know, first of all, from the perspective of a producer, what exactly should popular movies do for the audience? What's the goal?

Franklin:

There's this quote from Hayao Miyazaki from this manifesto that he wrote in the mid-80s. And it really sort of is this, for me, how I think about the kind of movies that I should be making. And I want to emphasize that it's specifically movies, because I sort of view that as a resource-intensive, popular art form, but the quote goes like this:

Franklin:

"A popular movie must be full of real human emotion even if it's frivolous. The entrance must be low and wide, so that everyone can be accepted in, and the exit should be high and purified. It shouldn't be anything that enlarges or emphasizes the lowness."

Franklin:

And that, for me, always felt like the right directional goal. That whatever it is, is something that everybody can be welcomed in. And the language around that part of the manifesto talks about how as artists, we have no idea about what a human being is experiencing emotionally prior to going into the experience of consuming the art that we create. They may have just been through a divorce, they may have just lost a child, they may have just gotten a promotion at work. We don't know. And so on some level, the experience of going into the cinema should be a refuge, and that should give people ballast for the life that they will meet when they leave the theater again.

Gautam:

Popular movies aren't just cultural ephemera; they can shape the world. A few years ago, I lived in China, and when I walked through Tiananmen square, you know what I saw? Chinese kids dressed up like Captain America. How much diplomacy is that worth? Movies can shape our character too. Blockbuster movies are to today's kids what fairytales were to kids a century ago, and fairytales are important.

Gautam:

Neil Gaiman, misquoting G.K. Chesterton, said that fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. How many parents have told their kids that they fall so they can learn to pick themselves back up? How many bullied kids have told their tormentor, "I could do this all day?" I bet you the answer is more than a few.

Gautam:

I'm not naive enough to say that all films are made with this sense of social obligation to their audience, but I do think that most of the best ones are. And if you aren't at least trying, then there's an ethical dilemma. Why spend millions on a product that isn't serving people?

Franklin:

But as I spent time actually working in film and thinking about the literal millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars that go into making these things, it's like, we should be trying to do that on some level at a minimum, because otherwise this money may be better spent.

Gautam:

So, how does a writer who wants to break barriers convince Hollywood's power structure that they have a product that will serve the audience? I understand how Christopher Nolan makes a movie like Tenet with all its confusing timelines and enormous budget. He's Christopher Nolan, he's got a track record. If he wanted to make a movie of the phone book, any sane studio executive would say yes in a heartbeat. But how does a newcomer find their opportunity in an industry that resists financial risk? I asked Franklin how many drugs you'd have to feed a Hollywood executive to get them to invest in a newcomer making Tenet?

Franklin:

You would kill a Hollywood executive before you got a first-time filmmaker to convince them to give them the money necessary to make Tenet. They would literally overdose on the drugs before they got anybody to sign it. But look, here's the thing though, if you think about Chris Nolan's career, he made Following for almost no money. And then he made Memento, which was similarly sort of non-traditional in terms of the timelines and how it told the story and all of those things, but the budget was lower.

Franklin:

And so, I think that... I always talk about it in terms of earning your freedom: the more success you have with nontraditional things, the more likely it is that someone's going to give you a ton of money to try another non-traditional thing. And then if you blow it, you take a few steps back in terms of the money that you can command, and then you have to build it back up again. But again, you're always sort of performing your way to freedom when the resources necessary to do what you do are so considerable.

Gautam:

The person who greenlights a newcomer script has to watch out for their own set of possible pitfalls.

Franklin:

I'm more often than not the person who's either advocating on behalf of the person who's actually the creator, trying to get the resources necessary, or I'm on the other side of the table and saying, "Hmm, I don't know man, this might be too weird. I love it, but I'm going to lose my job if I greenlight this and it doesn't work."

Gautam:

I couldn't help but think of my friend and colleague, the legendary organizational scientist, [Mike Tashman 00:10:11], and his explanation of the productivity paradox. The paradox was simple, yet profoundly important. Companies that focus on quality, that implement systems like Six Sigma, for example, get better at it. They improve their processes and make fewer mistakes. That's a huge win. But at the same time, as they get better at quality, they get worse at innovation.

Gautam:

Mike explained the paradox. He showed that you improve quality by reducing deviation. You iron out every possible bug in your processes so you can repeat them 10 million times and get the same result every single time. When you're trying to eliminate defects, that's the right way to go. But innovation is a product of the increased deviation. It's new, something you haven't done before. It's risky; most innovations fail. But if you can't deviate, you can't innovate.

Gautam:

Franklin's description of having to turn down the too strange, or the story that is perhaps compelling, but may be rejected by audiences, reminds me of Mike's realization: as you decrease risk by improving your processes, you decrease variation. You can't innovate without risk; eliminate risk and you eliminate innovation.

Gautam:

Consider Jeff Bezos's response to the failure of the Amazon Fire Phone. He said basically, "If you think that's a failure, you wait and see what we're going to do next. We're going to fail way bigger than that." I think this was one of the most interesting things an American CEO has said in a really long time.

Gautam:

Think about it in the context of baseball. Supposedly, Joe DiMaggio was never thrown out going from first to third, even once in his entire career. We used to consider that a sign of how good a base runner he was, but actually, it's a sign that he nearly as good as he could have been. Why? Well, you definitely don't want to get thrown out, but the easiest way to make sure you never are, is to never advance from first to third, or to only do it if you are absolutely 100% certain that you will make it. But if you only run when you're sure, you're going to miss out on all the times you would have made it if only you'd been a tiny bit more aggressive.

Gautam:

Bezos understands what DiMaggio didn't: if you never fail, you're not trying hard enough. I wanted to know, what was Franklin's Fire Phone moment? Did he have one?

Franklin:

I would say though that I don't yet have any experiences of spectacular failure, and I don't consider that a statement of merit about me. And in fact, one of the things that I've sort of come to the conclusion about over the last several months is that I haven't dared spectacularly enough so that I don't have a spectacular failure on my record. The things that I've done, whether it be launching the Black List or launching the Black List website, have worked. But I think part of the reason that they worked is that they were on the conservative side of sort of daring greatly, if they were daring greatly at all. And I think that probably an indication that they both have worked as well as they have is an indication that I wasn't daring greatly enough.

Franklin:

But the one thing that I will also say though, about the Amazon and the Jeff Bezos thing with the Fire Phone, is that it is very easy to say that when you know that your company will survive, that your brand, that your identity as a creator will survive regardless of that failure. The Fire Phone was never going to end Amazon. And so, all good. Take the $170 million write-down and start again on a new, oh my god, we may embarrass ourselves within a spectacular failure, but we've got a couple billion to sit on just in case things go badly.

Franklin:

I know for me in launching the Black List website was terrifying because I knew that if it didn't work, there was not going to be a buoy for me to latch on to and continue my career in Hollywood without having to really dig myself out from under. And so I think it's a lot easier to dare when you know that there's going to be a soft landing in the case of failure, and I just think it's important that we acknowledge that.

Franklin:

Because I think that people talk about this all the time in the context of entrepreneurship, it's like, pursue your passion, go big. It's like yeah, it's really easy to do that when you've got mommy and daddy's money to go back to if it doesn't work out. If you're struggling to keep the lights on and food on the table, and you've got a kid in the second grade, maybe keep that job and don't go pursue your passion, because you know what? Odds are, it's not going to work. And the people that are telling you to go to pursue it, have been lucky enough that they and everybody they know has a very nice cushion to land on if it doesn't work out for them.

Gautam:

There's a lot of mythology about entrepreneurs as being inherently risk-taking, but management research, most famously by Robert Brockhouse, shows that actually, entrepreneurs' risk tolerance looks a lot like that of normal managers. Research by [Fairlane Kaczynski 00:15:07] shows that people who inherit wealth are more likely to become entrepreneurs because their greater resources make it considerably easier for them to do so and decreases the risk if they fail. And Hollywood is no different.

Franklin:

That's true of a lot of artists, too. I would bet right now, if you go to LA and gather a group of aspiring professional screenwriters in Hollywood, the vast majority of them grew up upper middle-class, if not, better off. And I would bet that their average household income, 3-4x minimum the average in the U.S. It's almost as if the traditional markers of talent are not actual markers of the talent that have anything to do with the actual art itself.

Gautam:

While most filmmakers may be from a homogenous and privileged group, today movie consumers are as diverse as it gets. Blockbuster movies may be the only remaining form of popular culture that crosses racial lines and social classes. And when the lack of diverse representation in entertainment becomes a global conversation, how do those at the top of the industry respond to calls for change from underserved communities, especially when Hollywood executives have long considered investing in diverse representation to be inherently risky?

Franklin:

But your point about the film being homogenous is very true, unfortunately.

Gautam:

One of my dear friends is a former screenwriter in Hollywood, and he and I had an argument about this once, where I said, "Look, Marvel did more movies starring guys named Chris than it had non-white characters." This was before Black Panther. And I was like, "It seems to me, there's a huge global audience that is not being spoken to." I knew nothing about your industry and his answer was, "It'll never get funded, because executives will say, 'it doesn't work'". And then Fast & Furious, which is not high art, but is sure as heck high commerce, and it's sort of distinguished by its incredibly diverse cast. It seems like there is a fairly obvious market opportunity here that homogeneity is preventing people from seeing.

Franklin:

Massive. And what's interesting about your argument is that you're right. There was extreme resistance to the kind of stories that you're talking about in Hollywood for years. And oftentimes when they happen, they were despite themselves, right? Like, I actually worked on Fast & Furious 5. In fact, I started working at Universal Pictures Monday after Fast & Furious 4 had come out. And that movie made, I think, a hundred percent more. Twice as much in its opening weekend than Universal, the studio that released it, thought it was going to make. And the reason they were caught so unaware, happily, by the success of their movie is they had underestimated the size of the Latino and Black and Asian audience for it. So they were just like, oh my god, that's right. All of these people wanted to see themselves represented in what is ultimately like a pretty sort of lowest common denominator action car movie. And literally, part of my job on day one was get with the team that made Fast & Furious and figure out what the next one's going to be.

Franklin:

And then we made Fast & Furious 5, and that one was set in Brazil. And I think it made almost a billion dollars. And that franchise makes a billion dollars every time a new one comes out. Fascinatingly similar thing at Marvel. They were making all of these giant movies starring guys named Chris. And I want to give some credit to Marvel here, because the guys who were running that company, you know, all white guys, but the guys who were running that company knew that there was a global audience for it and put a plan in motion so that they could then launch Black Panther and Captain Marvel. And notably, Black Panther I think is the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, a top 10, even adjusted for inflation. And Captain Marvel is the second-highest-grossing first sort of origin story in Marvel movie.

Franklin:

So there is a massive audience for movies about women, movies about people of color, movies about the LGBTQIA+ community, movies about people with disabilities, which the industry doesn't even talk about, right? Because there are billions of those people around the world, and they would like to see movies about them.

Franklin:

And here's the other thing. Most people don't care if the person that they're watching a movie about is Black, Brown, whether they love someone of the same gender as they are, whether they were born the gender that they currently represent, whether they have a disability or not, what they want is a good story well told. That's it. That's all people want. And if you deliver them that, they're going to go, and they're going to pay you money to make it. So there's just a massive commercial and financial opportunity from just making better movies and making them in a way that, in aggregate, better represents the world as it is, and not the world west of the 405 in Los Angeles.

Gautam:

You are not one of the white guys who dominate Hollywood, right? And so when you decided to take this risk of disrupting the power structures, tell us that story. How did you decide to do it? And did this consciousness of difference play a role in it?

Franklin:

I do think that launching the Black List website that allows anybody on earth to upload a screenplay, have it evaluated, and if it's good, we can then tell Hollywood, and then those people will then come to you and say, "Hey, I know you live in Wichita, Kansas, but you wrote a great screenplay. We should talk about that." I do think that had a lot to do with my own experience of difference. Like as a Black kid coming from the deep South, I'm acutely aware of the fact that like, if it weren't for my having been a giant math nerd in high school and having gotten into Harvard, there was no scenario that I could have walked into Creative Artist Agency and gotten a job as an assistant day one of my arrival in LA. I just happened to sort of stumble into a position to get that access.

Franklin:

But there are a ton of people all around the country, all around the world, who are more than I will ever be, who didn't find themselves in a situation where they could... my father was a doctor in the army, and so sent us to the private school in my hometown. So I got the education that I did, which allowed me to go to Harvard. But there are more talented people than I am everywhere who don't have those luxuries. And so I'm acutely aware of the fact that being different and... I think I'm more aware of the privilege that I do have, even though I don't necessarily have like white, straight, cis male privilege. And as a consequence, I'm acutely aware of the ways in which a failure to deal with those access issues is not only bad for the people who were trying to find their way in, it's actually bad for the culture that they're trying to find their way into, right? Hollywood is less good, the movies and television that we make are less good, they make less money because we're not efficiently sourcing the best talent. The more efficient, the better we get at finding the people who are really talented around the world at telling stories, at producing movies, at lighting scenes and all of those things, the better all of our work is going to be.

Franklin:

And I joke about it all the time. Hollywood right now is a little bit like if you ran a basketball team, but you only put people on the roster who were friends of the people who own the team. Like if you built a team like that, and you went out there and you had to play against LeBron James and Steph Curry, you are going to get destroyed, because other teams are going out and saying, we need to find the best basketball players on earth, and we're going to destroy you when we play you. Hollywood's like, eh, we'll just stick with the people we know. That's not effective, right? That's not going to create anything incredible. And so I'm really excited about a world that is going to be fueled in part by the internet and the fact that we all have phones in our pockets around the world, where we're going to be able to find talent that wasn't findable before, and everybody's going to be better off because of it, both the audience and the industry.

Gautam:

The weird thing about the conservatism of Hollywood is that it's one of the industries where radical innovations are most rewarded. Think about it this way: you're a studio and you finance a movie. What's your worst case scenario? That it bombs. Theoretically, you might lose 100% of your investment. That never actually happens, but suppose it did. Your losses are kept. What's special about movies is that your profits aren't. Your movie could be the next Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or Titanic, or Black Panther. That's virtually infinite. So Hollywood studios exists in a world of limited losses and rare, but potentially unlimited gains. One massive hit can make up for a lot of disasters. You should gamble on innovative movies that break the mold. Why don't they?

Franklin:

And a lot of it, I think, is a middle manager problem. Where like, if you got a piece of infinite success, you may be more inclined to take a big risk, but you're not, as the person that makes the decisions about what gets made and what doesn't, or who gets supported and what doesn't, don't get a piece of it in the same way. Instead, they're guarding against the failure, because they don't want to lose the job that they've endured sort of endless misery to sit in the big chair.

Franklin:

So they're guarding against the failure that... Basically your job in Hollywood, as a green lighter probably should be to find the best things that will make the most money. In practice, it ends up being, how do you avoid saying yes to things that other people would say no to and having those things fail? Because the only time where you really are at a risk of losing your job is if you say yes to something that gets made, fails, and then everybody's like, well, how could you make that decision? You're an idiot. But if you say yes to something that everybody would have said yes, then no one can really hold it against you. So everybody's always playing defense, not really playing offense, if that makes any sense.

Gautam:

Some of my research is on that question. Studios are bureaucracies, and as the sociologist Max Weber pointed out: bureaucracies exist to reduce risk. If you're a studio executive, maybe you greenlight a dozen movies a year. If you make all of them sequels to already successful intellectual property, then the odds are 10 or so of them will hit and you'll get promoted. If you try to innovate and fail though, it's not just that you'll lose money, people will point and laugh at the person who had that dumb idea. Did you hear about the guy who greenlit a movie about space wizards who use swords to fight people who can blow up planets? I mean, how dumb is he? Oh wait, that's Star Wars, but you get the idea.

Gautam:

An executive only gets to make a certain number of bets, so it makes sense at the individual level to do everything possible to make sure they're good ones. Organizations of all kinds, from studios to venture capital firms, evaluate ideas to judge if they will succeed, and throw out the ones that are unlikely to work. I call that process filtration. Filtration increases your median performance. A lot of ideas that look bad actually are just that: bad. And by throwing them out, you increase your odds of success.

Gautam

The problem is that the most innovative ideas also look really dumb when they're first proposed. You want to make a movie about an archeologist with a bullwhip. Are you crazy? That's what makes them innovative: the fact that they're different from all the things that people have tried and succeeded with in the past. Filtration and pushes out the worst ideas, but it also pushes out the best ones. And that's a huge problem for organizations that are trying to innovate.

Gautam:

This isn't just about Hollywood. If you're a venture capital firm making investments, you're in the same boat. Your worst case is you lose your investment. Your best case is Apple, or Google, or Microsoft. Limited losses, infinite gains.

Gautam:

It's not even just about ideas. When organizations choose leaders, they filter the candidates. The more they filter, the higher their odds are of getting a good leader and the lower their odds of getting a bad one. But they also decrease their odds of getting a great leader. A thorough filtration process would never pick Steve jobs to run Apple, but he might be the greatest CEO of all time. That dilemma, that fundamental trade-off between filtration and innovation, is one of the most important and least understood issues facing almost every organization. Because of it, companies in blockbuster-driven industries like movies almost always end up way too conservative for their own good. So when workplace or industry culture seems so crystallized and it's conservatism, how do you disrupt it and incentivize risk taking and innovation?

Franklin:

By just the very nature of how we approach the form and business is creating those spaces where people can do those interesting things, and the people sort of who are from non-traditional backgrounds are able to have the space to respond to the context they're in and to innovate, because that's what's appealing to us. Like, I don't think I'd be working in film if the goal was to make a bunch of things that were exactly like the things that have already existed. And that's both because it doesn't interest me from a professional pursuit perspective, but also because on some fundamental level, all of my professional pursuits are driven by a desire as an audience member to see more good stuff that's unlike the stuff that I've already seen. And so I don't necessarily know that I even think about how to create those environments, so much as that's literally the whole point, because if I'm not doing that, what am I even doing?

Gautam:

So Franklin, what's your context? What's the one that you created? What's the thing in your environment that you're like, this impacts my work powerfully, this is the thing that's speaking to me, that's shaping the discourse I'm part of?

Franklin:

Sort of thing that I've never really understood about Hollywood is how much they undervalue writers. And there's a tendency in Hollywood to take that story and then say, "Okay, thank you for your work. Goodbye." And so a lot of my work as a producer, but also the work of the Black List more generally is to make sure that people recognize the value of writers and the contributions they make to these things that everyone around the world watches and loves. And also to make sure that they're included in the process of making the thing, because that will make it more likely that those things are better. That is the overwhelming driver in my work right now, for sure.

Franklin:

Like, you can make a bad movie from a good script, right? That's possible. But good luck making a good movie from a bad script. And if a writer does not do their job well, the rest of the work is kind of going to all be for nothing. And the fact that people in the industry don't recognize that and want to celebrate the seventh-billed actor in a movie over the person that literally did the thing first, I can't make any sense of it. And again, ironically, it's also just bad business.

Gautam:

Speaking of writers, I asked Franklin to name one book that he would recommend to our listeners.

Franklin:

I mean, the most obvious answer to this question for me is always James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. The one that I'd add to that, I actually just finished reading David Blight's biography of Frederick Douglas.

Gautam:

Oh yeah.

Franklin:

He's getting recognized more and more these days. I've been thinking a lot about Douglas in the context of sort of 21st century American history. And particularly, a fact that I only found out recently from another college classmate, [Dara Lewis 00:30:05] , that Douglas was the most photographed American of the 19th century. And that that was a very deliberate thing, that he sort of sought out the opportunity to be photographed. And whenever he was, he was photographed in the way that all of us can immediately conjure that image, right? Like the suit, the starch collar, the hair, the sort of very imperious bearing. And it was because that he wanted to define the notion of black people visually for the world.

Franklin:

And when I think about that in the context of the ways in which Hollywood creates these images for the entire world about how we all see each other, I'm struck by the fact that these things that he was thinking about literally during the civil war, he gave a series of speeches about photography during the middle of the civil war called Pictures And Progress, we're still contending with these realities now.

Franklin:

I'm also struck by another sort of weird fact of history that Douglas died less than a month before the first ever movie screening. Like the Lumière brothers screened their first 48-second film less than three weeks after Douglas's funeral, which is sort of as a quirk of history, like someone who is so focused on like visual representation, one can only imagine what he would have thought of the notion of film.

Gautam:

This really spoke to me. I remember once saying to my friend Danny Glenn, who was a guest on a previous episode, that if I ever had kids, thanks to Hollywood, when they thought of heroes, they'd imagined people who look like him, but they never imagined people who looked like me. And that seems like a problem in both a business and a societal level.

Gautam:

The last few years, we've heard lots of talk about representation in film and television. Too often, that gets portrayed as simple bean counting: there are so many actors of such-and-such a race on screen for such-and-such an amount of time. It's easy to make fun of that attitude, but that's not what it's about. We care about representation and entertainment because movies and television and tell the stories that create our culture and our images of ourselves. Ancient Greeks huddled around the fire while it's light kept the wolves at bay and heard tales of Achilles and Odysseus. Today, we huddle around the light of our electronic fires and hear tales of Batman and Katniss Everdeen, of T'challa and Hermione Granger, of Elle Woods and John Shaft. And when people can't see themselves in the stories that bind us together, well, then they're not really part of the us, that's why it matters. I asked Franklin the other question I always ask at the end of these conversations: who is one person he knows that he most admires, and what impresses him about that person?

Franklin:

Yeah, it's weird for me. I sort of have the standing rule to not brag about knowing famous people, because it's a weird thing in Hollywood. Here's what I'd say: the person who I most admire that I could reach out to, the thing that I admire most about her is the fact that she accomplished what she accomplished having none of the advantages of any of the people that could even remotely be considered her peers. And on top of that, she both publicly, but also quietly, does an extraordinary amount to send the ladder back down. And that for me is kind of the thing, right? I live and sort of function in a world of a great deal of excess and a great deal... with a lot of people that have more than they can ever need and more than they could ever want. And a lot of them just hoard it.

Franklin:

And I'm particularly inspired by the people who are looking to take the plenty that they have and make more plenty for other people who are putting in the work and doing things that bring joy and bring good things that they may not even have a direct contact with. So again, and to the extent that any of that is all true, I have to give a sort of shout out to my parents, because those are the values that they raised me and my siblings with. And I think at the end of the day, I'm probably just like a physical embodiment of that, more than anything else.

Gautam:

Hollywood has blind spots. Everyone does. Sometimes those blind spots are willful and Franklin is finding them in an industry who's processes seem calcified, letting billions in profits slip through the cracks, and audiences along with it. This business, like all businesses, requires risk to make innovation happen. But step back and view the world from a larger perspective and you'll see that inclusion and representation aren't really risky at all. They're different, but that's not the same thing. What's really more risk, funding a movie that might be the next Black Panther or Captain Marvel, or passing on it? If you can't exist without big hits, then you'd better start swinging for the fences.

Gautam:

Audiences that still see few faces that could be theirs on screen will want you to succeed when you try. That story stretches beyond Hollywood. If you cut yourself off from everything different for fear of risk, then you guarantee that the next Steve Jobs will end up working for whichever one of your competitors is wise and brave enough to see that increasing your talent pool isn't really risky at all.

Gautam:

How are you trying to see what's in your blind spots? How are you trying to reach out to communities that your industry might previously have ignored? What are the obstacles and rewards of doing so? I'm @gmukunda, G-M-U-K-U-N-D-A on Twitter. Tell me your story.

Audio:

World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world. An original podcast from NASDAQ. Visit the World Reimagined website at nasdaq.com/world-reimagined-podcast.

 

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