The Black List & Market Devices


I recently listened to an interview with Franklin Leonard*, curator of The Black List, a list of the year’s top un-produced screenplays. I was struck by the language that he used and how clearly he described the performativity of the tool as a market device.

In my PhD thesis I argue that the theory of market devices (MDs) (Callon et al 2007) is the most appropriate conceptual framework for understanding the independent film industry (as opposed to, for example, the linear Film Value Chain, or neo-classical rational economic action). In particular, I show that in charting the assemblage and anchoring of Digital Engagement Metrics’ (DEMs) constructive role in the market, the theoretical language is especially useful. This is because the legitimisation and anchoring of DEMs’ role is currently ongoing. It can be traced, and therefore more about the assembly process can be uncovered than were the calculative processes already to have been black boxed. I think this type of research opportunity is something Latour has been pointing to in speeches and articles in the last couple of years, and where most major contributions can be made.

I have taken other key film market devices to be: the finance plan; the sales estimate sheet; and the recoupment chart; as well as DEMs. They are assemblages, or agencements, active combinations of human and material agencies coordinating and co-producing action. Each of these tools exist as calculative frames, bringing multiple parties of the independent industry together in a network for economic transaction. These networks are dynamic, negotiated, and overlapping,by inserting themselves into the market making process of a film they contribute significantly to that construction.. They also interact with, and can be complemented by, other similar tools such as The Black List.

The affordances of digital technology allow more MDs to emerge. Whilst not essential to the functionality of the Black List’s core concept, its dissemination and extrapolation into a larger business in its own right is facilitated by the internet. For an introduction to the basics of what The Black List is and does, please see the links in the opening paragraphs, what I will concentrate on here is its display of market device characteristics.

What I find encouraging about Mr Leonard’s comments is the explicit recognition of a market construction role that The Blacklist plays through its evaluation and valorising capacities. The calculations, operating through a ranking produced by a network of experts and creative materials not only place a value on each screenplay, but also add value to that screenplay by the fact of measurement.

If you’ve written a great script, eventually it will probably fall into the right hands, but that eventually could be literally decades. I hope that what the Black List does is create a far more efficient marketplace for that material. There’s a distinction for me between causation and correlation, and I think that the correlation between scripts that are on the list and their success every year means there’s more attention to the scripts that are on the list and we’ve created a virtuous cycle, where we have a catalyzing effect, but we’re certainly not getting the movies made.

The valorising results of the list contribute to its performative effects. The scripts are judged the “most liked” (i.e. they should be produced) by industry professionals. The historical correlation of such valuations with successful films produced from the list (Oscar winners e.g. Argo, Juno etc.) leads to increased attention list scripts in forthcoming years and an assumption that the market is moving to produce more of these films. Thus those deemed most worthy of being produced (via the list) are being materialised in the market. This construction is co-produced not just by the creative material, the online portals, the networks of evaluators but also in their combined interaction with the industry at large which subscribes to belief in such judgements and acts accordingly.


*Excellent Name.


Callon, M., Millo, Y., & Muniesa, F. (2007). Market devices. Blackwell, London.

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