Every year, Hollywood bestows upon us the Black List, a list of the best unproduced screenplays read that year, as voted on by a couple hundred movie executives. For some reason it is charmingly named after the single darkest and most shameful period in Hollywood history. Go figure.
Personally I always find the list fascinating. Sure, a few of these entries go on to be real movies–past entrants include Pan, American Sniper, Argo, The King’s Speech, Faults, and Slumdog Millionaire–but it’s more interesting to see what Hollywood likes and admires but never actually gets around to producing. Sometimes they’re fascinating glimpses into genres and storytelling styles that American mainstream cinema has yet to fully embrace; other times, they’re absolute howlers at which we are all invited to point and laugh.
Establishing a new tradition here at the Kraken, today marks the First Annual Black List Awards, picking and choosing the very best, the very worst, and the very rest from this year’s list. It should be noted that these (completely unserious) decisions are based entirely on the title and log-line for each entry. I haven’t read any of these scripts, and I can only hope that someday I too will have a script on this list that nobody has read. For now, enjoy the awards!
First up, we have an exceptionally popular category, Based on a True Story. Hollywood just loves its true stories, or even better, “true” stories, perhaps because they combine a built-in audience familiarity. the opportunity for flashy, mimic-y performances (hello, Oscar bait) and the potential for the kind of self-important seriousness that also looks good on a hook cast in Oscar Pond. This year’s Black List is rife with these stories, whether they’re oddball biopics (BUBBLES, this year’s most popular entry, explores the life and times of Michael Jackson from the perspective of his pet monkey) or ripped from the headlines dramas (STRONGER: “The true story of Jeff Bauman, who after losing his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was an integral part of helping police to locate the suspects”). Let’s take a look at the best and worst of this year’s Based on a True Story entries.
Best-sounding script based on a true story:
REAGAN by Mike Rosolio
When Ronald Reagan falls into dementia at the start of his second term, an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander-in-chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie.
I don’t know about you but that made me laugh out loud. What a fantastic satirical premise! Plus, I love carefully executed alt-history that could be real because the true events are supposedly kept secret. I so want to see this movie.
BLACKFRIARS by Chris Bremner
Set around the Blackfriars massacre of 1978, the true story of a Boston police officer and a con man-turned-witness who become unlikely friends hiding out in Bermuda, ultimately perpetrating a con on the Boston DA they’re tasked to serve.
I don’t know what the “Blackfriars massacre of 1978” was (some kind of massacre, I’ll bet), but I give this movie props for being one of the few based-on-a-true-stories to not sound like a dreary slog. This sounds like a period version of USA’s White Collar. Add the fish-out-of-water-ness of a bunch of Bostonians hiding out in Bermuda, and you just know this could be a really light, fun buddy comedy. I’m imagining Mark Wahlberg as the cop, Matt Damon as the con, and Ben Affleck as the humorless DA getting the ring-a-ding or whatever. Whatever cons are called. You should be aware that in my imagination all three men have ’70s porn ‘staches.
Worst-sounding script based on a true story:
CHAPPAQUIDDICK by Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
A historically factual look at what really happened when Ted Kennedy drove off the road into a Martha’s Vineyard bay with Mary Jo Kopechne in the car.
It’s true that none of the based on a true story entries actually sound awful, but this one about a tired political non-troversy starring not-the-most-interesting Kennedy sounds pretty damn boring. How boring? When I say the word “Chappaquiddick” my mouth falls asleep. Weirdly enough, there’s another Kennedy movie here (MAYDAY 109: “A young John F. Kennedy struggles to save the crew of his PT Boat after it is sunk by a Japanese warship during World War II“) that at least promises to have some explosions. Plus MAYDAY 109 fits into another of this year’s extremely popular genres, Ocean Drama, not to mention Presidential Fan-Fic–a category that not only includes MAYDAY 109 and REAGAN but also THE VIRGINIAN, a movie about a young George Washington fighting in a war, and BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS, a movie about a young Andrew Jackson fighting in a war, which in turn are just one of several movies about fighting in a war, some of which feature Ocean Drama. The Black List is weird subgenre turtles all the way down, man.
WHITE BOY RICK by Logan Miller, Noah Miller
The true story of Richard Wershe Jr., the only successful white-boy gangster/drug kingpin in an African-American-dominated 1980s Detroit ghetto.
Could this be the basis for a good movie? Sure. Is the story of the only white kingpin in a black neighborhood really the story we need to hear right now? Probably not. I have yet to see a great movie about, you know, the black criminal experience in 1980s Detroit. Somebody write that movie, please. And then make it an HBO show from David Simon. You know, as long as you’re taking requests.
Our next category is just plain Drama, that old catch-all. To make it interesting, I’ll narrow the field a bit.
Best-sounding Ocean Drama script:
RESURFACE by Pete Bridges
An underwater earthquake decimates a research crew working at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, leaving two survivors with limited resources to ascend 35,000 feet and reach the surface before their life support runs out.
I’m always a sucker for stories about surviving with limited resources. But the most important thing this story gets right is that there are two survivors. Two survivors means conversation, means drama, means we’re not just sitting bored watching a single person think to themselves or talk to a volleyball or whatever. Also, who doesn’t love trenches? Ocean Drama rating: Exploding Underwater Spaceship.
Worst-sounding Ocean Drama script:
A SPECK IN THE SEA by Jeff Pope
The true story of the rescue of lobster fisherman John Aldridge, who fell into the ocean in the middle of the night 40 miles off Montauk with no life vest and no way to signal where he was. Based on the article “A Speck in the Sea” by Paul Tough.
If there’s one thing I find boring, it’s movies about people by themselves in a man versus nature scenario. The one exception is when deadly animals are involved–Open Water, for instance–but I think this movie would have led with that in the description. Also, he fell into the ocean! It’s his own damn fault! At least JFK had his boat blown up by the Japanese. Ocean Drama rating: Sad Lobster.
Best-sounding Coming of Age Drama:
THE WRETCHED EMILY DERRINGER by Chris Thomas Devlin
Gleefully terrifying her small town as a serial killer known as “The Misfit Butcher,” 13-year-old Emily Derringer becomes annoyed when a new killer comes to town and residents begin attributing his sloppy murders to her. In a macabre coming-of-age story, Emily must deal with her competition while also taking on the other trials and tribulations of junior high school life.
Shut up and make this so you can take my money!
THREE MONTHS by Jared Frieder
After being exposed to HIV the weekend of his high-school graduation in 2011, a punk gay teenager from Miami attempts to start a new relationship with someone from his support group as they try to endure the three months it takes to get accurately tested.
This is super interesting for multiple reasons: a neat temporal structure, a ten-minutes-ago period setting, the very specific character and situation. Plus, it’s great to see some diversity in this category. I would definitely watch this movie.
Worst-sounding Coming of Age Drama:
THE WATER MAN by Emma Needell
A young boy tries to save his mother from terminal cancer by seeking out the town’s bogeyman, The Water Man, who is fabled to have conquered death.
You’d think it would be hard to dislike 27 words as much as I dislike this log-line, but I do. Come on, “the Water Man”? What kind of a name is that? This movie is designed to end with a heartwarming lesson about bullshit, and the Water Man will be an irascible old man with a heart of gold played by an aging, toothless character actor. Ugh.
WISH UPON by Barbara Marshall
When Claire, a 16-year-old misfit, finds a magic box that promises a chance at the life she has always wanted, she never could have guessed that each wish would demand a deadly payment.
Little girl, have you even seen Wishmaster
Have you even seen Wishmaster, bro
Our next category is Comedy. Now, I freely admit it’s basically impossible to judge a comedy based on the description of the plot–the number one determinant of comedy success is bound to be the cast, not the concept. So feel free to take these next judgments even less seriously (if that’s possible) than everything else in this post.
Best-sounding Comedy script:
PANDEMONIUM, SPLENDIDLY MANAGED by Brett Conrad
A local Phoenix newscaster at the pinnacle of local celebrity slowly descends into the depths of madness as he sees his world around him start to crumble piece by piece, all while trying to become a game-show host in Los Angeles.
I can tell this would make an awesome comedy because I’m not even sure it’s a comedy. In theory it could be a horror film, or a The Weather Man-style dramedy. But it’s the game-show host part that convinces me that it’s probably a really outre satire of local television celebrities. That and the wonderful title. I would definitely watch this.
CUT AND RUN by Zoe McCarthy
A female urologist and a retired hooker form an unlikely friendship when they team up to take down a notorious sex trafficker in Miami.
This seems designed to be a raunchy comedic vehicle, and whether it’s good or not really depends on the pair. Dr. Sandra Bullock and hooker Melissa McCarthy? Eh. Dr. Amy Poehler and hooker Kristen Wiig? Now we’re talking. Ooh, or Dr. Tina Fey and hooker Amy Poehler! Maybe I just want Dr. Amy Poehler and hooker Amy Poehler, unlikely friends. Somebody make that movie.
Worst-sounding Comedy script:
THE SET UP by Kari Granlund
Two co-dependent female best friends’ friendship is put through the wringer after a blind date gone awry sends them on a dangerous, all-in-one-night adventure with a drug dealer.
Vehicles are all well and good, but you gotta give your cast something to work with. This sounds like a bland female rehash of the Tina Fey/Steve Carell movie Date Night, from the temporal structure to the criminal element. It sounds unoriginal and boring, and not even–well, okay, making them both Amy Poehler might work. But you can only make that movie so many times.
Runner up (TIE):
PRECONCEPTION by Jake Morse, Scott Wolman
A couple on the verge of parenthood embarks on a pre-baby bucket list.
SENIOR YEAR by Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli
A cheerleader wakes up after a 20-year coma and returns to sit at the cool table and try to become prom queen as a 37-year-old woman.
Here we see the double-edged sword of the high concept when it comes to comedy. PRECONCEPTION has no premise to speak of, and sounds like just another movie in the recent trend of films hyperfocused on one tiny, possibly invented period in or type of romantic relationship–there’s the part before you get married for a long time and the part after you break up and the friends with benefits and the part where you’re frenemies but still dating and so on and so forth forever. Now it’s the part before you have a baby when you do all the fun stuff because having a baby is the death of all dreams, apparently. If you’re watching this movie, you’re on an airplane and they’ve run out of booze or you’d be asleep instead. In such an emergency, your seat cushion doubles as a self-asphyxiation device.
Meanwhile, SENIOR YEAR has an absurd premise of the sort that makes absolutely no emotional sense within the context of the movie but makes for a deceptively amusing trailer. If you get stuck with this one between LAX and DFW, make sure to smother those sitting next to you into sweet, sweet unconsciousness before holding the cushion over your own face.
Next up, Science Fiction, with the lesser included category Scripts About Astronaut Conspiracies.
Best-sounding Sci-Fi script not about an Astronaut Conspiracy:
CRATER by John J. Griffin
On the moon, five teens take an unauthorized and adventure-filled road trip just before one of them is to be sent away on a 75-year journey to another planet, leaving behind his best friends.
At number 5, CRATER is super high on the list, which solves my only concern about this concept–done well, it could very well be fantastic. Done poorly, it’d be dumber than a box of those rock spiders from Apollo 18. I’m a sucker for both coming of age stories and stories that begin with the phrase “On the moon” and then a comma, which explains why I’ve seen Apollo 18. I guess what I’m trying to say here is, fuck Apollo 18. Oh, and that CRATER sounds really good.
HAMMERSPACE by Mike Van Waes
A terminally ill teenager looking for answers about his missing father finds a key that unlocks an opening to an alternate animated dimension and a new friend who helps him repair his broken family.
Not only does this sound super interesting, not only does it sound like another entry in the tiny, tiny genre that I love of live action movies with extended, embedded animated sequences, not only am I hooked from the log-line alone, but “Hammerspace” is probably the best title on this list. (Hold on, adding a Best Title category. See below.)
Worst-sounding Sci-Fi Script not about an Astronaut Conspiracy:
MORNINGSTAR by David Birke
The war is over. A bitter and uneasy truce has been reached with an invading alien race, and a new Cold War has begun. Fueled by suspicions of an alien spy in their ranks, the United Nations Intelligence Division entrusts their top agent, Martin Webber, with finding the mole.
This sounds like bad self-insert fan fiction, the cinematic equivalent of a mass market paperback found at the bottom of the rack in a supermarket inside an airport. But to be fair these things always come down to creature design. Hey, you know what better movie I came up with after 30 seconds of thought? The exact same plot but flipped, so it’s Alien Martin Webber who has to discover the human among them pretending to be an alien. That would be waaaay better. Somebody should write that movie.
BOY by Mattson Tomlin
A teenage boy is born with special abilities and spends his childhood switching names and cities so as to keep his identity hidden. When he loses control and accidentally kills his father, he and his mother have to go on the run.
The title is super generic, but whatever. The real issue here is that the log-line doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like it doesn’t want to admit it’s a superhero movie (“special abilities”), but every superhero knows that hiding your identity doesn’t require moving and changing your name all the time. (And if he’s doing all that, isn’t he on the run already, essentially?) Add to that the uncomfortable Oedipal thing this script has going on (kills his father, runs off with his mother), and this is one Black List entry I’m fine not reading, if that’s okay.
Bonus entry–holy crap, there are two entire scripts about an Astronaut Conspiracy:
There’s PALE BLUE DOT, about a female astronaut arrested for the attempted murder of another astronaut, and ARES, a “survival story” about an astronaut who crashes in the desert and whose mission was “part of a larger conspiracy.” Of the two, I’d say PALE BLUE DOT sounds better. But more importantly, why are there two of these?!?!?!?
Oddly enough, PALE BLUE DOT and ARES are not the only pair of hyperspecific ideas that happened to have occurred to two different screenwriters at the same time. Let’s explore some Weird Pairs.
Best-sounding Weird Pair:
Want a pair of insane revenge stories? I know I do. And nothing motivates vengeance like family. First up is BARE KNUCKLE, a movie with a complicated premise about a bare-knuckle boxing champion who ships the Irish husband of the woman he desires to the Civil War, only to see him return for bloody revenge; then there’s CARNIVAL, about an expert knife-thrower who “hunts down the members of a powerful crime syndicate who murdered his sister.” These both sound pulpy and bloody and ridiculous and I want badly to see them made. I’d give BARE KNUCKLE to director Joe Cornish and CARNIVAL to director Joe Wright. Or maybe vice versa.
Next up, two movies about Killers with the word Green in their name. Both seem like rehashes to me. GREEN RIVER KILLER, based on a graphic novel about the decade-long hunt for the serial killer, seems pretty Zodiac-esque, while CASTLE DRIVE (“Based on real events, the story of the writing of Fatal Vision, the 1983 bestselling true-crime classic that chronicles the summer journalist Joe McGinness spent with “Green Beret Killer” Jeffrey McDonald while he was on trial for the brutal murder of his wife and children“) sounds like it might explore the same kinds of ideas as Capote, which was also about a true crime author who got to know a man on trial for murder. Both sound pretty interesting, but I have to give the edge to the manhunt, just because Zodiac is one of my favorite movies. That said, it’s entirely possible that CASTLE DRIVE ends up emotionally twisted and GREEN RIVER KILLER rote and dry.
Worst-sounding Weird Pair:
This year’s list is pretty light on horror movies, so why are two of the only horror movies on here so similar? It’s one thing to make a creepy house movie, but these are both movies about people with medical conditions in creepy houses, which is just esoteric enough to be weird. Neither of them sound very good, either–ELI, about a boy with an auto-immune disorder who goes to live in a “clean house” that turns out to be “sinister”, and BED REST, about a pregnant woman who “starts to experience paranormal events” when confined to her bed. Like basically every other horror movie on this year’s list, they sound vague, not very scary, and not very original, either. Where’s the demented premise, the shocking gore, the truly unnerving concept? As always, it seems we must look to the independent scene for actual good horror these days.
Here we have “reimaginings of Weekend at Bernie’s“, ie., body disposal movies. This weird pair is BUMP (“After an accidental hit-and-run, a young lawyer’s entire life unravels over the span of one night as he attempts to dispose of a corpse that turns out to be much more than an innocent victim“) and the aptly named MOVE THAT BODY (“Five friends rent a beach house in Miami for a bachelorette weekend and accidentally kill a male stripper“). BUMP actually sounds like a remake of the Korean thriller A Hard Day, although that one’s about a cop, not a lawyer. MOVE THAT BODY is just a gender-flipped Weekend at Bernie’s, but I suppose this is what feminism truly means for our world. As I think I’ve indicated, the problem here isn’t necessarily that body disposal movies are bad, but that it’s very, very well-trodden territory. And from a comedy perspective nobody’s ever beating The Trouble with Harry anyway.
Weird Pair I can’t believe even exist:
How in God’s holy name are there two movies on this list about the mafia-like politics behind the making of The Godfather? I BELIEVE IN AMERICA and FRANCIS AND THE GODFATHER are both about about that exact thing, although the latter sounds slightly more down-to-earth, largely concerning Coppola butting heads with producer Robert Evans. I don’t think either of them are likely to succeed, even if they do end up getting made; it’s very, very hard for movies about great movies to do well. As an aside, movies about movies seem to show up year after year on The Black List and then go nowhere (two come immediately to mind: THE MUNCHKIN, a script from a year or two ago about a little person investigating a conspiracy involving the production of The Wizard of Oz, and JURASSIC PARK, a script about teenagers skipping school to see Jurassic Park in theaters). My guess is that the executives who vote on this list give these scripts a nod for nostalgia’s sake, but consider them too meta for mainstream consumption. Which is probably true. Screenwriters, stop writing these movies. It doesn’t seem to work, and for every Shadow of the Vampire there are a half-dozen “FRANCIS AND THE GODFATHER”s that never make it.
Speaking of which, I see what you’re doing there, THE FISHERMAN. “A fisherman sails out of Martha’s Vineyard in search of the shark that killed his fellow sailors while they were stranded in the water for four days after their ship was attacked by a Japanese submarine.” That is just Jaws. That is just a movie about the monologue from Jaws. Don’t think I didn’t notice.
What’s in a name? Would Vertigo be as great if it were called Jimmy Stewart Wants to Bone a Dead Woman? I doubt it. And names are even more important when a movie is just a script and a script is just a pitch and the pitch is just a name and one sentence in a Deadline article about an annual list of movies that won’t get made. Here are the best and worst and punniest titles on this year’s Black List.
PANDEMONIUM, SPLENDIDLY MANAGED wins this one for me, because it’s so esoteric and hard to remember, yet also so evocative of tone. It’s this year’s “Synedoche, New York.”
HAMMERSPACE, as mentioned above. I just love the idea of that very nerdy concept moving into the mainstream. Plus, I’ll bet there’s a way to make the idea of an extradimensional space that has what you need into something achingly poignant.
Let’s move on to the terrible titles, of which there are many.
AN AFRICAN WESTERN by Chloe Castellon, Ridgeway Wilson
When a young African woman’s village is destroyed by a “Christian” paramilitary unit and her sister is kidnapped, she uses every weapon at her disposal on an odyssey to save her last living relative.
I have no quibble with the movie itself, which might be neat, or the concept of a Western-style movie set in Africa, which is so “duh” that it’s surprising it hasn’t happened yet. But this is such a lazy title, particularly when Western titles are often so beautifully expressive–think of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” or “The Three Burials of Meliquades Estrada.”
LANDSLIDE by Will Staples, Tony Camerino
The story of America’s search for terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the man who played a key role in tracking him down by using psychological warfare. Based on the book How to Break a Terrorist by Tony Camerino.
This title is guilty of multiple sins. It’s boring; it’s misleading, because it could easily be the name of a disaster movie, or maybe a biopic about Fleetwood Mac; and there’s a better title right there! Just call this movie “How to Break a Terrorist.” That shit grabs you.
MILITIA by Henry Dunham
After a shooting at a police funeral by a suspected militia member, a recluse ex-cop and fellow militiaman must interrogate the suspected gunmen in his own militia before copycat attacks start a nationwide war between cops and militias.
Gee, I wonder why this is called “Militia.”
THE BOY by Owen Egerton
Sixteen years after stabbing a classmate to appease a legendary phantom known as The Boy, a repentant woman returns to her hometown to live with her sister and nephew. But as he continues to haunt her, she must face her deepest terror and discover the truth about The Boy before he claims her nephew.
There’s really nothing wrong with this evocative horror movie premise that renaming the phantom “The Slitherbog” or something equally weird/creepy wouldn’t fix. But “The Boy”? Come on. It’s such a lazy title that there’s another movie on this list called BOY already (the Oedipus superhero one). Step up your game, horror screenwriters.
Also, there’s a special place in Lazy Movie Title Hell for movies named after their characters. I’m looking at you, MISS SLOANE, ELI, and LOU.
CROOK COUNTY by Gita Pullapilly, Aron Gaudet
A whistleblower’s harrowing journey into an undercover FBI operation in 1980s Cook County, Ill., sending him toe-to-toe with corrupt judges, hustling defense attorneys and Chicago mobsters and ultimately resulting in the largest number of convictions of government officials in the history of the U.S.
This is such a genius little earworm, isn’t it? Just one little added letter conveys a strong point of view while still reminding you of the subject matter. Beautiful.
GREAT FALLS by Andy Friedhof
After negligently killing a hunter with their patrol car, an alcoholic Sheriff’s Deputy and her superior officer must decide what to do with the only witness to their crime — a death-row inmate only days from execution.
Multi-layered, ironic, just this side of twee, this is a very nice title for the same reason that the movie sounds interesting–small but meaningful stakes.
Honorable mention titles:
Just from hearing the titles, I want to see these:
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
DO NO HARM
BOOMTOWN (I can’t be sure this is a pun, because the movie’s description is explicitly about oil and only implicitly about explosions, but I’ll bet it is)
SEPTILLION TO ONE (My only complaint is that since this is a romance about lottery-high odds, it should really be called SEXTILLION TO ONE)
HUNTING EICHMANN (now that’s to the point!)
That’s it for this year’s Black List Awards. Honestly, I left at least a dozen interesting movies on the table (including a lot of historical spy or crime movies, a couple extra revenge thrillers, and a number of decent-to-neat-sounding scripts of all kinds). You can explore the full list here at The Hollywood Reporter to see what I may have missed.
All joking aside, it’s a weird and prideful honor to have a script on this list, and I wish all of the authors success in getting theirs picked up. See y’all next year!