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It matters that 27 percent of the scripts on the 2015 Black List are female-driven stories

While the number of female directors helming the year’s biggest films is still paltry, there are a couple of bright spots in the film industry for women.

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After years of statistical stagnation, circumstances finally seem to be crawling in the direction of parity when it comes to the ratio of films featuring female leads, at least according to this year’s Black List.

Since 2005, Franklin Leonard has published an annual survey culled from film industry executives that asks them to submit lists of up to 10 screenplays they most liked, but which went unproduced. Leonard, 37, then tallies the results, and the top vote-getters make up the Black List.

In the list’s inaugural year, Juno, written by Diablo Cody, was the second-highest vote-getter, bested only by Things We Lost in the Fire. Cody made the list again in 2007 with her screenplay for Jennifer’s Body.

The Black List quickly became a go-to in the film industry for spotting talent and upcoming projects. More than a third of the 987 movies that have been featured on the Black List have been produced as features and released in theaters. Three of the last six films that won the Best Picture Oscar were Black List films, and nine of the last 14 winners for best screenplay made Black List appearances, too.

Now 11 years old, the Black Lists from each year contain valuable data about movie-industry trends: among them, what’s interesting to screenwriters and studio execs, and the sorts of movies that executives think should get made even if they’re not necessarily guaranteed blockbusters.

The lists also offer an opportunity to examine if there’s been any progress in terms of gender parity. Of the 81 scripts on this year’s list, 22 of them (or 27 percent) are stories that would explicitly require female leads, which represents an enormous uptick.

Maybe all that talk about the lack of roles for women is starting to pay off.

The Washington Post conducted an analysis of 10 years of Black Lists by examining the log lines (a brief description of the project) for each script on the list from 2006 to 2015. We did not include 2005 because it contained about three times as many films as subsequent lists, and log lines were not available for each screenplay. We did not include ensemble casts, scripts written with couples as co-leads, or log lines in which gender was left ambiguous.

Because of this, Hunger Games, which made the 2010 Black List, was not included in the count, despite the fact that it was eventually made as a starring property for Jennifer Lawrence. Its log line was: “Based on the book by Suzanne Collins. In an America of the future, young boys and girls are forced to participate in a televised battle to the death.” Similarly, Butter, which Jennifer Garner toplined, was also excluded. However, these instances represented a minute number of exceptions, not the rule.

The graph functions as a measure of how many films on each Black List actually begin with women in mind. As you read through Black List log lines a pattern quickly emerges: Almost everything is about men (or boys) doing stuff. Men killing people, men solving mysteries, men falling in love, men falling out of love, men going to space, men on voyages of self-discovery, men crafting genius works of art, men going to war.

Men, men, men, men, men.

When women are mentioned, it’s overwhelmingly in roles that support the main male character’s story. This has been the case in the male-dominated film industry for decades: Men get to drive interesting and important stories on screen while women serve mainly decorous purposes, save for a few properties that actually allow an actress to be considered for an Oscar for best actress in a leading role.

The lack of parity in opportunities for actresses – not to mention pay – and for female directors to tell stories, has dominated the discussion for the last couple of years, and it seems that things may finally be shifting.

There was an 11-point jump in the ratio of Black List scripts featuring women in lead roles between 2014 and 2015. If growth continues at that clip (which we admit is unlikely), we could see parity in those scripts in less than three years. This year, Leonard estimated, 40 percent of the Black List’s 700 or so voters were women.

As the Black List’s profile has grown in Hollywood, so has its influence. Leonard’s site now hosts a script database that connects writers with buyers and representatives. (The script for the HBO film Nightingale, which starred David Oyelowo, was discovered that way.) He began a podcast this year, The Black List Table Reads, which features the best scripts that are submitted to the site.

“The diversity issue – I don’t want to talk about it in terms of diversity; I want to talk about it in terms of parity and meritocracy – is one that means a great deal to me,” Leonard said.

“I grew up as a black kid in south Georgia. I was acutely aware of the way in which access issues affect the aspect of parity in all facets of American life. So for us, it’s really important that we are raising the profile, not just of people who are already doing great work in the field, but people who are showing promise that they can do great work and … providing an example of people who have come before so that people who think they don’t belong, or that the stories they’re interested in telling, know that there’s a reason to continue to fight.”

Sundance, through its writers and directors labs and fellowships, has played a large role in nurturing the careers of female and minority filmmakers such as Gina Prince-Bythewood. Next year, 41 percent of the films in competition will boast female directors. That’s important because of the role the festival plays in setting the agenda for what filmgoers can expect to see throughout the year in terms of movies that aren’t major studio blockbusters or the standard fare of sequels, reboots and franchises. This year, Tangerine, Brooklyn, Dope, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and others were Sundance films. Me and Earl was a Black List script.

“That’s a high for anybody in this business,” Leonard said. “I think they deserve an extraordinary amount of credit for having numbers that high. And I say that not to suggest they have some aggressive affirmative-action program. I say that because it means not only are they being conscious about making those choices, but it means they’ve done a helluva lot of work to gestate filmmakers who could make great films that could then be submitted to Sundance. … I’m actually really excited for Sundance this year for that reason.”

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