Guest Post: The Black List of Hope

Rory L. Aronsky.

A few Saturdays ago, during my usual volunteering time at the Green Valley Library here in Henderson, Nevada, I had a conversation with one of the shelvers, first enthusing about wanting to see Into the Woods, being that Stephen Sondheim is one of my heroes (she had gone to an advance screening), and then turning to her desire to be a screenwriter. I told her that she should pursue it, because while it’s never easy, it is possible.

Back in November, it was announced that an Air Force dentist, stationed in Palmdale, California, sold his spec script to Paramount. It’s called Matriarch, about a prison psychologist demanding that a serial killer tell her the location of a victim before that victim is executed in 48 hours.

I lived in Southern California for nine years, and have been to Palmdale many times. There’s not a whole lot to do there. Neither was there much to do in the Santa Clarita Valley, where my family and I lived, hence why we sometimes went to Palmdale for something different. In Palmdale, when you find something to do, you stick with it, lest you get caught up in the sheer emptiness of the area. So this dentist, in his off hours, decides to write a screenplay, gets it done, and sells it. He has an inside line to Hollywood right now. I told that library shelver this story, that this is how it was possible. It doesn’t always happen this way, but you can watch movies, and study screenplays, and form your own ideas, and write your screenplays. This might well have been a case of sheer luck, but you can’t get in line for possible luck until you’ve done the work.

Matriarch could be a fresh, tense screenplay, or it could be a cliché-ridden attempted thrill ride disguised as an intelligent thriller. I don’t know. I haven’t read it, nor do I have such access to it. But that this still happens in a time of sequel after sequel and hyped-up big budget movies gives me some hope. It also gives me pause.

I reviewed movies for a little over 10 years, first in a small capacity for the local newspaper at the end of middle school and all throughout high school, and then for various websites. I quit because I was tired of basically the same thing year after year: Hollywood dumps its embarrassments in January, summer is for big budgets and even bigger special effects, and the fall and winter are groveling time for Oscars. That won’t change very much this year, save for the new Star Wars movie coming out before Christmas.

I don’t like this trend, but I begrudgingly understand it: Get in, make money fast, and get out. Hence the sequels and franchises. But why is it that in the 1970s, creative risks were taken and the same can’t be done today? From what I can see, Hollywood back then wasn’t making it with such musicals as Paint Your Wagon, which featured Clint Eastwood singing. They were veering toward bankruptcy. They needed something new. They could also do it in secrecy if need be, since media outlets weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, and social media would have been a fancy way of saying you had a chat with your next-door neighbor.

Today, people know a lot more about Hollywood, especially in the wake of Sony Pictures being hacked. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it makes the business practices and obvious human characteristics of executives more interesting, if not less vapid. The latter would be impossible. But that’s not the main issue.

March will bring In the Heart of the Sea, about the whale attack that inspired Moby-Dick, directed by Ron Howard. It’s fortunate that Howard, bankable as he is with his movies, can decide to make, say, a movie about David Frost’s interviews with Richard Nixon, and a studio will snap it up. If Howard’s interested in it, then we have a chance of getting some worthwhile movies. However, who looks after the orphans? By orphans, I mean the yearly Black List, billed as a look at the best unproduced screenplays of the year, ranked by 250 agents, development executives and others, meaning those who actually have a stake in what gets produced in Hollywood, or who simply pretend well enough to have a say in it.

Even though I don’t write movie reviews anymore, and I go to far less movies than I used to (though my DVD count remains the same), I love reading this list. Once a year, it lets me experience having a split personality without actually having one. I rejoice in such creative screenplays being written, and at the same time, I despair of any of these ever being made. I certainly hope they would be, but none of them are sequels or adaptations or “accessible.”

The second-best screenplay of 2014 was Rockingham, a look into the frenzy of the O.J. Simpson trial, through the eyes of his sports agent and detective Mark Fuhrman. Adam Morrison, the screenwriter, could have written it from the perspective of Judge Lance Ito and Kato Kaelin, but he chose to go for the less obvious. That’s where it matters; that’s what makes it more interesting.

I also like the sound of Moonfall by David Weil, about “the investigation of a murder on a moon colony,” and The Munchkin by Will Widger, about a “little person private eye” who investigates the disappearance of an actress in 1930s Hollywood and uncovers conspiracy after conspiracy at MGM.

Owing to my love of presidential history, I’m partial to LBJ by Joey Hartstone, which would only work if master historian Robert Caro was brought on as an advisor, having written about the life of LBJ his entire professional life. However, after Bryan Cranston had such success with All the Way on Broadway, in which he played LBJ, and with the play set to become a miniseries on HBO, executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, I’m not sure how much room there would be for this one, although I wouldn’t mind both.

There’s one more I have to mention: Wonka by Jason Micallef, which is a “dark reimagining of the Willy Wonka story beginning in World War II and culminating with his takeover of the chocolate factory.” It might sound like I’ve been decrying a lack of originality in Hollywood. It’s there, of course, but if a story can be successfully twisted to a new perspective, I’m all for it, especially this one.

Matriarch, by Eric Koenig, that Palmdale dentist, is on the Black List, way down the list, but still respectably in the middle. Further down from it is The Founder by Rob Siegel, a biopic about Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, which is becoming a movie, directed by John Lee Hancock, who most recently directed Saving Mr. Banks. So despite my despair, there is some hope in a few of these screenplays being produced.

If anything, at least Professor Pasghetti by Jeff Feuerstein should also be made. A famous children’s author who loves drugs and hookers, going on a journey of self-discovery with the eight-year-old son of a dead stripper? Yes! Let’s see that double life!

Star vehicles, franchises, prestigious biopics. That’s as far as Hollywood seems to want to go with movies, and will go no further. The most we can hope for with many screenplays on the 2014 Black List is that smaller outfits grab them and make them. There are independent companies with the means to do so, and I hope they do. To seek out this kind of entertainment instead of it automatically going for whatever’s playing in the major theater chains would be well worth it.


Rory L. Aronsky is a former film critic, and a current book reviewer for BookBrowse ( He’s also the co-author of “What If They Lived?”, with Phil Hall, published by BearManor Media and available on Amazon.

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