How Hollywood Chooses Scripts: The Insider List That Led to 'Abduction'

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Titles as banal as the new Taylor Lautner flick and as celebrated as The Social Network have shown up on an annual survey proclaiming the industry's most promising screenplays

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If you've ever wondered what Jason Bourne was like in high school, you're in luck. Today sees the release of Abduction, a bland-looking thriller starring Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner. Lautner's complete inability to emote—what some people would call "acting"—precludes him from most roles, but not from woodenly scowling through a by-the-numbers action flick.

The movies that make it off the List and into theaters tend to be vehicles for young, up-and-coming stars

Make no mistake: Abduction is a Lautner vehicle, engineered to transition the young actor from Twilight heartthrob to plausible action star. There's something almost aggressively banal about Abduction's trailer, which feels like it's been cobbled together from the remnants of other, better action films (and the trailer's all we have to go off of, as the film wasn't screened for critics). Lautner actually speaks the line "not if I find you first," which is somewhere between "I was born ready" and "I gotta got me one of those!" on the "lines screenwriters should never used again" list.

That's why it's so surprising that as recently as last year, Abduction was listed as one of the most impressive unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. The film ranked among the 76 movies featured on 2010's "Black List"—an annual poll in which almost 300 anonymous studio executives weigh in on the most promising screenplays floating around in Hollywood. Each year's Black List—which is ordered by the number of "mentions" a script gets from the executives surveyed—is a singular opportunity to look into the minds of the people who determine which movies you can see at your local theater.

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The Black List is the brainchild of former Universal development executive Franklin Leonard, who was frustrated with the needle-in-a-haystack process of finding the best unproduced screenplays. In a speech, Leonard described the maddening process of separating the good scripts from the bad:

"It's a little bit like walking into some kind of members-only bookstore that has all of the best and exclusive titles in the world. But it's all organized alphabetically, and all of the covers are exactly the same. And your job is basically to not come home until you find the best book there."

Los Angeles is a city of dreamers, and most of them are dreaming about hitting it big in Hollywood. Roughly 50,000 screenplays are registered with the Writer's Guild of America each year. Hollywood studios release about 150 movies per year. All things being equal, an unproduced screenplay has a .3 percent chance of being made into a feature film by a studio. As of last year, 68 of the 168 films from 2005's inaugural Black List had been made into feature films. That's more than 40 percent. Even screenwriters whose Black List films haven't make it into production have successfully parlayed their recognition into contracted screenwriting jobs. For a struggling, undiscovered screenwriter, making it onto the List is like being called up to the Majors. It worked for Abduction screenwriter Shawn Christensen, who only had two short films to his name before Abduction was Black-Listed; his next film, Enter Nowhere, is currently in post-production.

Scrolling through each year's Black List is like looking into a Hollywood parallel universe. There are scripts that sound promising (2008's Butter: "A small town becomes a center for controversy and jealousy as its annual butter carving contest begins"). There are scripts that don't (2009's Streets on Fire: "Two cops, reluctantly partnered, try to bring down a drug syndicate while navigating the streets of Chicago"). There are scripts that sound terribly brilliant (2009's Comic Con: "To save their beloved neighborhood comic shop, a justice league of comic geeks must plan and execute a daring heist at Comic-Con") and scripts that sound brilliantly terrible (2010's Fucking Jane Austen: "Two male friends angry at Jane Austen for creating unrealistic romantic expectations among women today get sent back in time to the 19th century. The only way for them to return home is for one of them to get Jane Austen to fall in love and sleep with him").

There's no single trait that defines the films on the Black List, but there are certain trends that run throughout. The movies that make it off the List and into theaters tend to be vehicles for young, up-and-coming stars. Juno, which launched the careers of both star Ellen Page and screenwriter Diablo Cody, was a top-ranked Black List screenplay in 2005. Some actors seem to traffic exclusively in Black-Listed screenplays: Michael Cera, who appeared in Black List films including Juno, Youth in Revolt, and Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, or Jesse Eisenberg, whose Black List films include Adventureland, Zombieland, and 30 Minutes or Less. Each of Taylor Lautner's fellow Twilight stars have at least one Black List film to their names: Robert Pattinson (Water for Elephants), Anna Kendrick (next week's 50/50, formerly titled I'm With Cancer), and Kristen Stewart (Adventureland and the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman). There's even a Black List precedent for Abduction: 2008's Eagle Eye, which made the List in 2007, was a similarly dopey September thriller designed to launch Shia LaBeouf's acting career past the Transformers franchise, and it debuted on this same weekend two years ago.

More than anything, the Black List shows that there's no single formula for box office success. Each List reads like a time capsule of Hollywood's hits and misses. Scripts that were turned blockbusters (The Hangover) and Oscar winners (including Slumdog Millionaire) sit alongside flops like One Day and the remake of Arthur. The all-time top vote-getter in Black List history is The Beaver, which thudded into theaters in May for a domestic gross of less than $1 million. An amazing screenplay is only a first step, and a truly great movie needs great writing, great directing, great acting, and great timing to succeed at the box office.

Or they could just have Taylor Lautner take his shirt off. That might work, too.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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