How I'm Living Now: Franklin Leonard, Black List Founder

Franklin Leonard HILN - Publicity_H 2020
Courtesy of Emma Holly Jones

Riding out the pandemic in his L.A. home, Leonard has seen industry downloads on his Black List website rise more than 60 percent compared with this period last year.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus crisis, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

The fact that Franklin Leonard is so busy during the nationwide lockdown would seem to be a leading indicator that at least a few sectors of Hollywood are staying busy, too — namely those whose jobs involves mainly writing, or reading. "The one thing people can — and seem to want to — do right now is read great scripts and develop material," says the Black List founder, who is hunkered down in Los Angeles with his fiancee and their dog, "and finding great scripts and writers for people is quite literally what we do." In an email exchange with THR, Leonard offers his thoughts on how the pandemic will be processed via art, how the industry will look different when everyone is back to work, and the welcome return of soccer.

Let’s start easy: How are you doing? 

I’m incredibly lucky. My family, my friends, my team, and I are all healthy, safe and sane. Add to that that somewhat improbably, the Black List is actually as busy as we’ve ever been. The one thing people can — and seem to want to — do right now is read great scripts and develop material, and finding great scripts and writers for people is quite literally what we do. Industry downloads on the Black List website are up more than 60 percent compared with this period last year, and through that and more personalized recommendations, we’ve been introducing a flood of new, previously unrepresented writers and their exceptional work to folks throughout the industry and at a very high level. Like I said, very lucky.

I feel like in 3-5 years we're going to be getting Oscar screenplay acceptance speeches like, "I wrote this in five days in April 2020." What do you think? Is this going to be a fertile period for art, or will most of us be lucky to come out of this with a few hot new tracksuits?

This moment is going to be a fertile period for art of all sorts, but I don’t necessarily think that the best of it will end up having been made during this period. You don’t have to write King Lear or create calculus for your pandemic to be a creative success. You have to survive. Period. Whether we like it or not, all of our future work will be informed by the experience of having lived through this moment, and that’s enough. And I suspect the best stuff about this moment will come with a bit of remove and time to have processed it.

Maybe more importantly, there will be a profound need for storytelling in the wake of this radical change in human society. I don’t think there’s ever been a single event in human history that has affected all of humankind while we all were simultaneously aware — minute to minute — of how the event was affecting us on that scale. Not the Plague. Not the Spanish flu. Not the World Wars. Not 9/11. This is a singular event in human history, in part because of our ability to share information worldwide at the stroke of a key.

The processing of this moment will be similarly unprecedented. Sure, we’re all going to have to process it individually, but we’re also going to have to process it on a community, nationwide and worldwide scale (and many levels in between). Truly, the only way to do that is shared storytelling, which is now shareable worldwide, at the stroke of a key. As an eventual audience member, I’m incredibly excited about what will be born of this era whether it is conceived during it or not.

What does your day look like now?

A five-second commute to my desk in the dining room at 9 a.m. and then some marathon of emails, Zoom meetings, phone calls, podcast interviews and various online speaking engagements until about 7 p.m. I try to work a 3-6 mile run in there somewhere most days. And the rest of my time is spent with my fiancee, Emma, and our dog, Nick.

What’s been the easiest adjustment? And the hardest?

The Black List team worked from home for the first five years of our existence, so much of this has been a return to form for us. And honestly, I’ve been traveling so much over the last five years that I’ve welcomed sleeping in my own bed for multiple consecutive weeks. The hardest part has probably been separating the work day from the not work day. But I’ve never been great at that, so I don’t know that anything is all that different. 

How do you measure productivity now? What's a "good day"?

A good day is one where I wake up and the people I care about do too. Beyond that, you do what you can do to keep things moving forward as they should be moving forward, to be innovative where there’s the instinct and the opportunity, and to give everyone else in your orbit the freedom and opportunity to do the same. I’m incredibly lucky that my team has previous experience working from home and has really taken things to the next level during this very strange moment. But we’re all very lucky to be safe and to know that the folks we care about are safe as well. It’s a luxury, and we can’t forget that. 

What have you learned about yourself in this period?

That I love being home. I’ve traveled more than 100 days each of the last six years, and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. But I don’t think I had a full appreciation for the peace that comes from just being in one place — my place — for an extended period of time.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about staying sane right now?

Remember how lucky you are.

When the industry starts to come back, what do you think will be the biggest change, if any?

Hopefully it will inspire us to treat each other better, but that might be a hope against hope. I suspect the more practical change will be a substantial reduction in face-to-face meetings, which I suspect most of us will welcome.

What are you watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve?

Watching: Normal People, The Plot Against America. A rewatch of The Wire. Like everyone else, The Last Dance. Reading/listening to: scripts, as usual, but a lot of books on tape: Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens; Jeffrey C. Stewart’s Alain Locke biography, The New Negro; David Leeming’s James Baldwin biography; and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Playing: The only video game I allow myself to indulge in, FIFA.

So, you're a well-known soccer fan. Have you gotten desperate enough to start hooliganning online for a Belarusian team yet? How are you getting your sports fix?

I’m not going to lie, it’s been hard. The Last Dance has helped a lot, though waiting each week for two more hours has been suboptimal. I am proud to say that there’s been no Belarusian football hooliganning for me. The Korean League returned [May 8], and the German Bundesliga [returned May 16], so I think I might just be OK.

What or who has become your go-to news source during this period?

I feel like I’ve curated my Twitter follows pretty effectively, so that ends up being my primary source of news. I lean heavily on folks like Yamiche Alcindor and Daniel Dale for reporting and fact-checking on the White House, but I try to read widely from as many perspectives as possible, especially those who are particularly affected by this moment but often aren’t part of the conversation. For example, folks like Judith Heumann (one of the subject of Netflix’s documentary Crip Camp), Alice Wong and Jen Brea have taught me so much about the reality of this moment for the disability community and the extent to which they’re being shut out of the conversation at profound, mortal danger to its members.

Have any politicians or other public officials particularly impressed or even comforted you? Could be anyone from California Gov. Newsom to viral Italian mayors threatening to disappear people caught outside without masks.

At this point I’m a fan of any public official who listens to the recommendations of scientific and medical experts about the best way forward to protect their constituents. It’s a frighteningly low bar, and the only ones who seem to be clearing it are Democrats. Needless to say I’m particularly proud to be a resident of Los Angeles and California. My political preferences and the folks I’ve praised are no secret to anyone who follows me on Twitter. That said, there are three Republicans who probably deserve some notice: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. I have criticisms of all three, but they seem to be the rare Republican officials at least somewhat paying attention. It probably makes it easier for Baker and Hogan that they’re in Democratic states, but DeWine was the first in the nation to close schools and Ohio went for Trump in 2016, so that’s something.

Are you dusting off any old hobbies or finding new ones?

Running was never a hobby, but I’ve found myself doing it consistently, which couldn’t be further out of character for me. I’ve been playing a bit of (bad) online chess as well.

What are your go-to comfort foods during the lockdown?

My fiancee, Emma — in addition to being a brilliant filmmaker with a feature coming next year — is also a brilliant cook. Literally anything she makes would fall under that category.

Is there a cause that's become particularly important to you in these times?

I’ve been struck by the extent to which the crisis has been particularly acute in communities of color, particularly black communities. It isn’t terribly surprising given the structural realities of racism in the United States, but the reality that we may all be caught in the same storm but in radically different boats (and some of us with no boat at all) has been hitting home for me quite hard. That plus the Ahmaud Arbery story has been a reminder that the work that so many of us were doing before the pandemic continues during it and will continue long after it ends (to the extent that this era will ever actually “end”).

What’s on top of your to-do list once this is all over?

Emma and I meant to be getting married this fall, so that.