Arnon Z. Shorr
A Screenwriter's Black List Strategy to Keep you Sane
Updated: Nov 24, 2022
The Black List website (www.blcklst.com) is a familiar destination for many screenwriters. It's a place where we can get (pay for) unbiased feedback on our screenplays.
I like the site. It's less expensive than other evaluation services, and it's well-known, so a flattering evaluation can have value when trying to sell a script or get a film off the ground. Perhaps its biggest weakness is that the evaluations are short, lacking some of the depth and detail that you might get from more expensive services. But in some ways, this can be helpful, too - not in the individual evaluation, but in the 'constellation' that forms when you get feedback from multiple readers. (More on this later!)
In addition to written feedback, your screenplay gets a series of scores - ratings on five aspects of your screenplay (Premise, Plot, Character, Dialogue and Setting), plus an overall rating (which is not an average, but a separate category that the reader assesses.)
When you get multiple evaluations, their scores are combined into an "Average" (I'm not sure how it's calculated) which becomes your screenplay's publicly-viewable "grade" on the site. All other evaluations are private, unless you permit the site to make them available.
It's very tempting to put a lot of stock in a script's Black List score. This isn't entirely misguided - high scores can have real-world consequences. Very high evaluation scores (8 or more) earn free months of hosting on the site and free additional evaluations. Screenplays with a high average score from multiple evaluations are included in the site's "Top Lists" - organized in weekly, monthly, quarterly (the most useful) and yearly categories. Producers regularly scout these lists for potential films to produce.
Between the written feedback, the scores, the dangling carrot of 'rewards' for high scores, the monthly 'hosting fee' and the evaluation costs, what's the best way to make the most of The Black List's features and services?
Initial Feedback - The First Evaluations
When you've written your screenplay and polished it to a point where it's ready for some unbiased feedback, it may be a good time to get a couple of initial evaluations. I like to do this before I subject myself to the expense of screenplay competitions - it's a way of 'testing the waters' with a script. If it scores well, screenplay contests might be worth the expense. If it scores poorly, I had better improve it before submitting it anywhere!
So I start with two evaluations on blcklst.com.
Why two? There are three reasons:
1) Screenplay evaluations are subjective! Two people reading the same script will often have very different experiences of it. You should never make significant changes to a script based on only one evaluation (unless you wholeheartedly agree with the evaluation). The more evaluations you get, the clearer the 'constellation' of feedback.
2) To get an evaluation, you also need to pay to 'host' your script on The Black List website. If you're paying for the month of hosting, you might as well get a bit more mileage out of it with an additional evaluation.
3) There are a few 'hidden perks' to getting multiple evaluations on The Black List. If both evaluations score well (averaging more than 6.15 or so - this figure changes) your script gets listed in the quarterly "Top List", where it's more likely to be spotted by industry readers on the lookout for new screenplays to acquire. Also, if your screenplay gets two evaluations with a very wide disparity between them (say, a 7 and a 4), the site provides you with a free additional evaluation - a sort of 'tie-breaker' to see which of the extreme scores was the 'fluke'). You can't get these 'hidden perks' with just one evaluation.
The Second Round - Improving the Score
If you're getting high scores on the first round of evaluations, that tells you your script is likely to be well-received, and you can skip this step.
But more likely than not, you've got some work to do! Read the evaluations carefully, and see if there are common notes between them. This is especially important when there are big disparities in the scores.
I once submitted a script for two evaluations. The first scored an 8 overall (which triggers a 'hidden perk' - two free evaluations!) The second scored a 7... then, on the same draft, those free evaluations scored a 6 and a 5. What was I to do with that range of responses?
It turned out that all four evaluators identified the same problem in the screenplay. The first one thought it was a minor flaw in an otherwise spectacular piece. The last one thought it was crippling to the story and fatal to the screenplay. By looking at all the evaluations together, I was able to discover the common issue and address it on the next editing round. Once you've fixed up your script based on the feedback you've received, it's time to upload the new draft and get new scores.
BUT WAIT! Before you do anything, take a look at your current average. If it's 6 or more, you're in reasonably good shape, with a good chance of hitting that quarterly "top list" if you just get one or two more high-scoring evaluations. If it's below 6, consider starting fresh. The Black List allows you to wipe the slate clean for a new draft! This resets your score and clears all the old evaluations out of the way. When you're ready, and after you've decided whether to keep or get rid of your old evaluations, get yourself two more evaluations.
Rinse and Repeat
Keep going like this. Get feedback, improve your script, get more feedback, improve, get feedback, improve, etc.
Your goal is twofold: use the service as an inexpensive way to get feedback that will make your screenplay better, and get on those top lists!
Once you're on the quarterly top list, you may still have tweaks to make to your screenplay, but it's in better shape than most of the spec scripts in circulation, so you can feel confident about sending it out.
Staying On Top
Every three months or so, your script will 'age out' of the quarterly Top List. If you haven't sold it yet, or if you'd like to boost its visibility, get two more evaluations.
Of course, there's no guarantee that these two evaluations will average above the Top List minimum (The Top List only counts your evaluations that occurred within its timeframe - so the quarterly list only looks at the average of evaluations from the last three months). Be prepared for that! But if your last round of evaluations was particularly strong, there's a good chance you'll hit the mark.
The Lucky Streak
If you score an 8 or higher, The Black List provides you with two free evaluations. If those score 8s, you get two more free evaluations from each of them. This can go on and on until you hit the site's limit (by which point you've likely got one of the highest average scores on the site).
This hasn't happened to me yet, but a screenwriter can dream, right?
When to Stop
At a certain point, you've got to stop throwing money at your screenplay. When should you stop paying for Black List evaluations and hosting?
Of course, if your screenplay is doing well in the writing contests, drawing attention and getting buzz, you probably don't need The Black List anymore. Bravo!
But the harder plug to pull is on a screenplay that just can't seem to improve. No matter how many times you tweak or revise it, you can't seem to break past a 6. If you've gone a few rounds with evaluations and revisions, and you can't seem to break through, consider putting that screenplay aside. Not forever! Heaven forfend! Just long enough to write a few others, build more skills, tell other stories, and let the ideas percolate. If there's something about your screenplay that consistently fails to 'click' with readers, you're more likely to figure out what it is if you give yourself some distance and time away.
As of this writing, I've got one screenplay on The Black List, and may add another soon. If you'd like to see it (and you're a member of the site) check it out here:
As you can see, with 10 evaluations, I've had this thing on the site for a while (and got the benefit of two free evaluations from an '8' score, plus a couple of other freebies for contributing to The Black List blog.)
How do you use The Black List? Have you ever gotten a lucky streak? I'd love to hear from you!
UPDATE 11/24/22 - If your script is being well-reviewed and you're wondering how to play the screenwriting game, check out my latest blog post: A Screenwriter's Contest Strategy to Keep you Sane