The Black List: Identifying Screenplays in Hollywood

The Black List, an annual list of the year’s most-liked unproduced screenplays is a genius idea that seems so obvious in hindsight. Planet Money does a good podcast that explains what the Black List is and how it started. In short, it was started anonymously by Franklin Leonard, a junior producer working at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company who had to sift through piles of screenplays to find the best one for Leo to star in. Hollywood, like many industries, is a pattern matching machine, so the movies that end up being created are movies that are similar to previous movies that have been hits. Those movies, due to historical circumstance, tend to be written by white men, for white men, starring white men.

Franklin Leonard, while sifting through all those scripts, saw some incredibly interesting scripts that may have made great movies, but he did not feel comfortable surfacing those to his bosses as those scripts tend to be really different and really hard to explain (I forget the specific example that he used, but I’m sure you can think of many successful movies where the one-sentence synopsis sounds very peculiar). One day, he had an idea, which was to anonymously email all his connections in Hollywood (junior producers also sifting through mountains of scripts) to ask them for their top ten favorite scripts. Information is power in Hollywood, so most people would ordinarily be loath to share such information, but here was the catch: Leonard would compile the results and send back the ten most voted on scripts to anybody who responded. 90 people responded and Leonard had his first annual Black List.

The genius behind this idea is that he finds a way to extract information out of people who would have otherwise not been willing to share such info. And then, by compiling the results, he is able to provide everybody with additional insights. Junior producers who might be nervous about surfacing a really odd but intriguing script to their superiors can vote for it in the Black List, and if enough other people vote on that same script, they are able to receive validation from their peers. Win-win for all parties. In an industry that so heavily factors what was previously successful, this was a way to produce different movies from unique screenplays that many people thought were fantastic. Many of the screenplays in the Black List have resulted in massive hits such as Juno, which was written by someone living in Montana without previous screenplay experience. Additionally, the Black List touts its effect on bringing more diversity to Hollywood by surfacing screenplays from people who may have otherwise been overlooked. It has provided a way to bypass the gatekeepers.

I can easily imagine having a similar concept in other industries and the one that comes quickest to my mind is the world of VC-backed startups. It is similar to Hollywood in many ways. Silicon Valley also heavily indexes (some would argue over-indexes) on founders that are similar to previously successful founders, is a hits driven business, has a relative lack of diversity, and heavily values information and relationships. The biggest difference is probably that startups are much easier to get off the ground than movies as it takes far fewer people and can be done with far less money. Other than that, the similarities are eerily similar. Imagine a Black List that asks a group of VC associates for the ten most interesting companies/pitches they saw that year but that their firm passed on and then circulated the list to the VC community. Seems like it would be highly valuable to me, though I don’t know the inner-workings of the VC world.

Though I think the Black List is a genius idea, I do see some downsides, assuming its success and influence continues. I mentioned earlier that the Black List accumulates data that people otherwise would not share and then is able to provide a product that has value for both the accumulator of data and the people who provided the data. What else does that sounds like? Facebook and Google. When they started, they also accumulated data that people otherwise would not have shared and the value they provided was a free product that people loved. In the beginning, everybody celebrated how Facebook was able to bypass the gatekeepers in the mainstream media and provide education to the masses. But now, things have changed. Facebook and Google have become so powerful that they are now the institutions they decried. I think the Black List is far from that right now, but what makes it so incredible is that people provide their unvarnished opinion. I’m not sure about its current state, but in the beginning, nobody was trying to game the Black List. But as its power and influence grows, so will the amount of people trying to game the system. That’s the danger with any aggregator of information. Still, that’s pretty far down the line and right now, I would love to see a concept similar to the Black List emerge in other industries.

Beyond Mass Media Portrayals of Privilege

The two catalytic events of our time that have pushed forward the discussion of privilege, sexism, and racism are without a doubt the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter (most recently rejuvenated by the George Floyd protests). The conversations that have resulted from those two events are extremely important and I’m not trying to downplay them in any way. Instead, I want us to consider more than just the two simple frames our conversations have been forced into as a result of those two events and to shine some light on some less-discussed dynamics. But first, let me describe the range of conversation that each movement permits us to have.

The Me Too Movement almost exclusively focuses the lens on the dynamic between men and women of the same race, specifically white men and white women. The movement argues that men, specifically white men, have used their position of power to silence, keep down, and sexually harass women (ranging from inappropriate jokes to unwanted sexual advances) with impunity. The George Floyd protests focuses on the indignities that black people have to suffer at the hands of the police, especially in comparison to white people, ranging from racially profiling to outright murder of black people.

So, in summary, the two resulting frames that get adopted by mass media are:

  1. Me Too Movement = focus on men vs. women, specifically white women in relation to white men
  2. Black Lives Matter = focus on black people in relation to white people

One relationship that was touched on briefly in the George Floyd protests but not in great detail, and which also intersects with the Me Too Movement, is the one between white women and black men. It was not really explored when Me Too was at its peak, but there was an implied undercurrent that black men were more privileged than white women, mainly because the movement kept pushing male privilege as a whole. After all, black men can join their fellow white male colleagues in oppressing and harassing women. However, that has now been flipped on its head during the time of the George Floyd protests. A video came out recently of a black male bird-watcher in Central Park trying to gently convince a white woman to leash her dog, per city rules. The woman was indignant and called the police, claiming that the man was threatening her life. Here the #BelieveAllWomen of Me Too runs against the systemic racism of Black Lives Matter. In a different time, that innocent black man might have gotten lynched.

So, does that mean that white women have more privilege than black men? Should the problems the Me Too Movement tries to address be subjugated below those of Black Lives Matter? I think such an interpretation is way too simplistic. One problem that many have with the Social Justice Warriors of the left is that they create a hierarchy of privilege based on the indignities you have to suffer. To simplify greatly, in their mind, white men have more privilege than white women and so the opinions of white men, especially when talking about the Me Too Movement are invalid. Similarly, white people have more privilege than black people. But such a hierarchy can be way too simplistic. There is no strict hierarchy. Privilege is fluid. For example, walking home at night from a party, a black man is almost always in a position of privilege in comparison to a white woman as he does not have to worry about the potential dangers that white women have to deal with. Conversely, when stopped by a police officer, white women are in a position of privilege in comparison to black men, and probably even white men. Let me repeat it again. Creating a strict hierarchy of privilege from which to evaluate the world is way too simplistic. Let me give a couple other examples that are close to my heart: evaluating privilege between Asian men and Asian women and between black men and black women.

Men are believed to have more privilege than women, so therefore Asian men must have more privilege than Asian women, right? After all, Asian men make more money than Asian women and can rise in the corporate ladder as a result of the patriarchal society we live in. That is certainly true to a certain extent. Yet, what if we consider the two in a different angle, that of sexual desirability? I think the importance of sexual desirability is obvious enough that I don’t have to argue for why, but if I do, here’s a quick summary.

From time immemorial the goal of the human race was to procreate and pass their genes onto the next generation. We have all been beneficiaries of the powers of natural selection. You cannot procreate and pass your genes onto the next generation if you aren’t sexually desirable. Instead, your genes will be wiped from the gene pool and you will miss out on a central part of the human experience.

So, why am I bringing this up in relation to privilege? Well, it turns out that Asian men are one of the two least desirable groups when it comes to dating. This also bears itself out when it comes to portrayals in mass media and the world around us. Most interracial couples involving Asians are between a white man and an Asian woman. The reverse is extremely rare. In fact, Asian men are depicted as being nerdy, feminine and without any interest in sex. No wonder they’re so undesirable! So how are we to weigh the privilege Asian men receive in the corporate world against the privilege Asian women receive in the dating world? I don’t have a good answer for you. My point is simply that you can’t put the two of them on a strict hierarchy.

I mentioned that Asian men are one of the two least desirable groups in relation to dating. The other is black women. Okay, you say. That’s a double whammy against black men when comparing them to black women. Not only do they benefit in the corporate world, but also in the corporate world? Black women must be lower in the privilege hierarchy then. Well, not quite. Black men face far higher incarceration rates than black women (1 in 3 black men vs. 1 in 18 black women, according to this site). It’s pretty hard to live a privileged life when you’re looking at the world behind the bars of a prison cell. And that’s not including the indignities suffered at the hands of police that I’m sure black men have to deal with a lot more than black women. Black men are constantly depicted as violent, a stereotype that extends beyond the United States and therefore bear the brunt of police harassment.

My goal in writing this essay isn’t to invalidate the Me Too Movement or Black Lives Matter. I agree with the goals of both of those movements at a high level (though of course I have plenty of issues with some specifics). Rather, my goal is to highlight that the frames adopted by most large media organizations, and therefore the public, are only a subset of all possible frames and that privilege isn’t necessarily a strict hierarchy. There are plenty of other examples out there (for instance, the racism Jeremy Lin faced on his path to the NBA). You just have to make sure to look.

 

On Mèng Wéizhān’s Article About U.S.-China Relations

I read Meng Weizhan’s (孟维瞻) article about how to improve U.S.-China relations from Jordan Schneider’s newsletter, and though I agreed with many of the things Meng said about what Americans get wrong about China, I couldn’t help but notice that he gets a lot wrong about the U.S. For example, in the opening paragraphs, he states:

“In the American intellectual community, criticizing China has a few unspoken rules. First, you cannot say anything that violates American political correctness. For example, you cannot attack China from the perspective of civilization and race. Second, you can’t express disappointment in the Chinese people, though some conservatives feel this way in their hearts.”

Though American intellectuals may be more politically correct than most, and though the practice of criticizing anybody other than white men have grown more and more taboo over the years, Meng appears to have deeply misunderstood Americans. First and foremost, Americans have a long history of racial conflict and racial resentment, some of which has been targeted at Asians (the Japanese internment camps in WWII), and some specifically at Chinese people (The Chinese Exclusion Act). Yes, American intellectuals are politically correct right now, but that can turn at the drop of a dime if relations between China and the U.S. heavily deteriorate. Also, keep in mind that American intellectuals have to grapple with the atrocities being committed in China. It might ordinarily be hard to criticize a different culture, but it tends to be easier when said culture is committing atrocities such as locking up Uyghurs in concentration camps.

Seeing Coronavirus Like A State

People who analyze or manipulate data on a regular basis very quickly figure out how imperfect data can be. Scott Alexander has a great post about this. Take surveys for example. The data can be screwed up in many ways. People can misread and misinterpret questions; willfully lie in their answers, either to troll the survey-taker or because they’re embarrassed by their answer; or answer as their idealized self as opposed to their actual self. Usually, this doesn’t matter because if you collect enough information, you’ll generally be able to sort signal from noise and draw some conclusions. But, sometimes being off just a little can lead to mistaken beliefs that have dire consequences (see Brexit or Donald Trump’s election).

Now how does this relate to coronavirus? Well, take the CDC’s website for example. It tells you on May 9, 2020, there were 1,274,036 cases of coronavirus and 77,034 deaths. The precise count leads you to think that the numbers are accurate, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though these numbers are prominently displayed, if you click on the “About the Data” footnote, it brings you to a section explaining that those numbers are based on “confirmed & probable cases”. Don’t let the word probable fool you. For a probable case to be reported, someone had to say, “this has not been confirmed by a laboratory test, but they displayed the symptoms for it.” This means that a large number of asymptomatic cases go uncounted and who knows how many deaths. On a theoretical level, we know that the reported cases aren’t accurate, but we don’t really grasp how inaccurate they are. We probably think, “Okay, so obviously there’s not exactly 1,274,036 cases and 77,034 deaths, but that means that there’s probably around 1.3 million cases and 80k deaths.” But the reality of the situation is those reported cases can be off by orders of magnitude. Instead of 1.3 million cases, there could be 2.6 million, or 3.9 million. Instead of 80k deaths, there could be 160k deaths, or 240k deaths. We just don’t know. With deaths especially, we won’t know the toll until months later when we can compare how many people have died compared to the baseline. And that’s the problem. You might say that those are just numbers I made up, and I would concede your point. But, what’s important to remember is that the numbers reported by the CDC everyday is the absolute baseline. A year from now, we might discover that there were actually 160k or 240k deaths by May 9th caused by coronavirus, but we will definitely no discover that there were less than 77,034. Fog of war is dangerous indeed. Here, we mistake precision for accuracy.

Corona

Okay, so what’s the point of writing this article? What’s the punchline? Is it to say that the CDC’s data collection is useless? No, that’s not it at all. I’ll get to the punchline but first I want to emphasize that it is important to be collecting this data and even though it’s inaccurate it’s better than nothing; what I want people to understand though, is that these numbers serve as a base and can be off by many orders of magnitude. So now the punchline.

There are two main points that I want to get across. The first is just how important it is for government and people to act once just one case has been reported. We already knew that coronavirus was a big problem in Wuhan, so when the first case was discovered in the U.S., we should have started taking precautions and creating contingency plans. To be clear, we shouldn’t have panicked at that time, and shouldn’t even panic now. But, once the first case is officially reported, it should be clear to everyone that there is already many more cases in the U.S. Just because the CDC says that as of a certain date, there is only one official case in the U.S. doesn’t mean that there is only one case in the U.S. I hope my previous sections make that clear. This virus and other viruses can remain asymptomatic for multiple days, so if we discover just one case, we have to think about not only all the people who have symptoms who just haven’t been discovered yet, but also the asymptomatic carriers. The ship has sailed for this pandemic but it’s a lesson we should learn for the future.

The second is to emphasize how inaccurate comparisons to the flu are. During the early stages of the coronavirus, people would compare the reported numbers to the annual flu numbers. The only problem, as pointed out by an ER doctor in Scientific American is that the flu statistics are estimates, not actual cases. He details how he’s only seen one person die of the flu in all his years as an ER doctor and that his colleagues have had similar experiences. What he ultimately realized was that the 25,000 to 69,000 annual flu deaths number cited by Trump is an estimate from the CDC based on multiplying reported numbers by a coefficient determined by an algorithm. That ultimately represents our best estimate for annual flu deaths, but comparing that number to reported coronavirus deaths is irresponsible. Actual annual counts of flu deaths over the last six years range from 3,448 to 15,620, much lower than the estimates.

Ultimately, I believe that having data on coronavirus across the U.S. is helpful, but citizens should remember that those numbers are not a representation of reality and definitely should not compare those numbers, which are most likely undercounting as is, to estimates. The map is not the territory.

Where The Comparison to Past Tragedies Falls Short

Many people and media outlets have compared the coronavirus to The Great Depression, WWII, 9/11, and other tragic events. These comparisons are apt. Unemployment is reaching levels not seen since The Great Depression; Americans, and people around the world are all bound together by this event we’re all experiencing, like we were in WWII; and the coronavirus will certainly reshape American policies as much as 9/11 did. Let’s hope we don’t repeat our past mistake of pursuing an unending war abroad while spreading racism and xenophobia at home. Yet, when I compare past tragedies to this one, I think there’s one aspect in which our current predicament is unique.

In the past, whenever we faced a life-shattering national event, we not only united as a nation, but we were also able to embrace our friends, our neighbors, and our family. Yet now, that is the one thing we cannot do. Sure, we can Zoom or call them, but as everyone can attest, virtual experiences just cannot compare to actual ones. There is just something unique about being physically close to other people and I’m sure someone can easily make an genetic argument for why that is the case. Regardless, that is now lacking. Those of us who are lucky are able to be with our nuclear families, but we still miss out on the other close bonds in our life. We even miss out on the little interactions with strangers. I can imagine people in line for rations decades earlier commiserating with their fellow man or cracking dumb jokes. Fortunately, we now aren’t facing nation-wide rations, but unfortunately, being at least six feet apart causes us to miss out on these little interactions.

I wrote this in part because I was thinking about David Brooks’s piece on the nuclear family in The Atlantic. I highly recommend reading it in full. Go ahead, I’ll wait. In summary, there was a multi-decade trend towards the nuclear family which had devastating consequences because it reduced our kinship with our grandparents, other relatives, and family friends. Happy families that are well off do pretty well in this system, but single-parent households and households with less means end up worse off in this system because they no longer have the broad support network previous generations have. In a way, we’ve all been forced to live in that word right now. We’re pretty much cut off from everyone besides the people we live with and there’s early studies (though probably take it with a grain of salt for now) that show mental health deteriorating.

If there’s any good that comes out of this, it’s that we prioritize our relationships with other people more. David Brooks, in his piece, says that the younger generations are already trending towards that right now. I think that being in quarantine will accelerate that trend. There have been many predictions about the long-term effects of the coronavirus. One of them is that remote work trends will be accelerated as white-collar workers realize how useless some meetings are and that they can do most, if not all, their work from home. I think that is true to a certain extent, but I think the other end of this is also true. We will also place added emphasis on in-person meetings because it signals how important we feel the meeting or the meeting’s attendants are. After all, if I could have done this meeting remotely, but I decided to personally fly across the country to attend this meeting, then you’d probably understand how much I value the meeting. Similarly, I think people will place additional value on in-person gatherings with the people the really care about. We’ll text and call some friends, but for those we really care about, in-person gatherings will always reign supreme.

Viewing Michael Jordan’s Flu Game Through Today’s Lens

1997 Finals, Game 5 against the Utah Jazz is one of many legendary moments in Michael Jordan’s career that people list when they tell you why is the GOAT, or when they tell you what a fierce competitor he was. There are conspiracy theories that he was actually hungover instead of sick with the flu and probable theories that he had food poisoning. I’m not here to litigate any of those debates. Instead, what’s been on my mind with the epic MJ documentary about to come out, and with coronavirus at the top of everyone’s mind, is whether MJ should have been in the game at all.

First, I’m going to assume that he actually had the flu, though I know that may have not been the case. So, the question is, given all that we know now, should Michael Jordan have played in the game if he actually had the flu, and if the answer is yes, how bad does the disease have to be for him to not play at all? To be honest, I really struggle with the question. On one hand, I think it should be an emphatic yes. It’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals for Christ’s sake with the series tied at 2-2. How could he not play? The seasonal flu is not very deadly especially for healthy, young men. But, on the other hand, what if he got other people sick? He could’ve passed this onto his teammates or even his opponents, who might have symptoms severe enough to force them to sit out the next game. If that were the case, then letting Michael Jordan play might punish the other team. If Michael Jordan does not play, what happens then? Are we going to treat the flu like an injury and just say that it’s tough luck? Players get hurt all the time, even in the Finals, yet we sit them out and play the series without them. But the flu is different. What if MJ insisted on playing? In the Finals, players would only sit out if the injury was so bad that they could not play so we accept that and let the series go on. But in MJ’s case, he would be forced to sit, not because he can’t play or won’t play, but because he’s not allowed to play. And it’s not like he’s some bench-warmer. He’s the best player on the team and the NBA’s premiere player. Forcing him to sit when he can play might cause riots, or at least a Twitter riot.

“Okay,” you might say, “the flu’s not that bad, so let him play.” But then, where’s the cutoff? Are we going to let a player play if he has coronavirus? Evidently not, based on the NBA’s decision last month. This is not just armchair philosophizing. This is a dilemma the NBA is probably confronting right now (or if they’re not, they should be). The NBA, and all the other major sports leagues, cannot and will not wait 12-18 months for a vaccine. They are all scrambling and creating contingency plans to get games going as quickly as possible. On the NBA side, the most common idea floated is getting all the playoff teams in one city and placing them in a bubble, testing everybody multiple times a day. There would be no fans watching the games, but at least the games will be broadcasted on TV, which is where the bulk of revenues come from anyways. So then the question becomes, what happens if one of the players contracts coronavirus? This would most likely be during the playoffs and maybe even in the Finals. What happens then? Does it get treated as a two-week injury, or do they play the games regardless of who is sick? If it’s regular season games, then nobody will complain about sitting, but what if it’s Game 5 of the Finals with the series tied 2-2 and the best player on one of the teams, say Giannis, gets it? My guess is that they would just sit him out and they would play the rest of the series without him. People in the media and on Twitter would go berserk, but the NBA probably cannot afford to just postpone the Finals for two weeks. There’s TV spots already booked, advertisers already lined up, venues already rented out, and probably a ton of other logistical issues that I’m not thinking of. Even if the games can be postponed again, what’s the ramp-up period back? Would Giannis be okay to play right after two weeks? What if he’s out of shape? Or, what if other players aren’t game ready and get hurt? The NBA probably doesn’t want to think about this and instead probably wants to just hope for the best, but I think they should have a plan in place. I lean towards playing the games without any infected players, but it’s dependent on the situation. It’s one thing for one player to be infected, but another story entirely if say five players between the two teams are infected. The reason I lean towards just playing the games, though, is that injuries happen all the time. Many championship runs were won on the backs of injured opposing players, and ultimately contracting coronavirus is not that different.