Hollywood Stories

John Fraim


The Santa Monica Cliffs, looking up the coast towards Malibu – John Fraim


One could do a lot of things in my hometown of LA to try and understand it’s (her?) soul. Many have tried. Many went into that perpetual past-time in LA in thinking in “Hollywood terms” of the next great story for America, and, increasingly, the world. There is that mentality of being in some grand wine producing area of France. Only on these sacred grounds of LA (and particular that collective fantasy of culture and society and politics called Hollywood) can true “Estate Grown” screenwriters emerge as a strong “Cabernet writer with a bitter aftertaste.” Or something like this.

I think following the trending screenplays in Los Angeles through the Black List, offers a fascinating way to understand story subjects, themes, hero’s and trends in the part of the LA thinking, the soul searching, storytelling that many feel more mission than even craft.

For example, one could do all types of things trying to understand how to be successful in the movie business by simply watching what was made (an impossible task considering all the television programming in addition to the films from Hollywood). A much better glance of what Hollywood is doing is by looking at the top screenplays of the Blacklist over the past few years. In this case, the winning Black List screenplays from 2013, 2014 and 2015. The 2016 results are soon coming out.

People study the list and pass it around with comments. Yet no one ever seems to want to place the top screenplays winning the Black List (and other “Black Lists” before this one, the great circulating screenplays in town, circulating between the top executives. They study it but no one attempts to place it into the perspective of the dynamics of cycles and how symbols move in cycles.

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The Black List equals a type of “collective unconsciousness” of LA’s desire to tell its story to the world. To perhaps write that story that helps one discover this soul of America in the fifteen-foot donut signs and a restaurant shaped like a derby. And a cowboy who rode a bull onto the set of his big dealership out in the valley. It was the city of dream, constantly trying to define itself in the stories being written as screenplays in the city.

There are a few excellent books out describing the history of American screenwriting. What is needed is a study that ties screenwriting history to a catalog of subjects, themes, hero’s of the stories that circulated around LA at a particular time in its history. A big question remains: has Hollywood had cycles of ideas from the large perspectives of things like gender and genre? How has the change in Hollywood story ideas (as expressed through looking at the subjects, themes and hero’s of the film) changed over the years? Has this change evidenced patterns and cycles? A repeating pattern? (Like an unseen music loop).

The below PDFs giving you access to the last three years of the Hollywood Black List can make you an “amateur quarterback” of popular culture. You can get a good a good perspective on the inner workings of America’s fantasies right now by looking at the Black List of today and comparing it with the “Black Lists” that have always existed in Hollywood. Not sharing via PDF but via carriers who scurried all over the city from the 30s all the way up to the Internet coming into Hollywood and ideas able to be passed electronically around town rather than via the old method of the transfer of tons of paper scripts around town each day.

Look at the three years of Black List winners below. How would you classify them? I’d classify them by story title, subject, hero and genre. (I would also want to match them up as to what studio is buying any particular “category” of ideas). The loglines posted for the winners is a tremendous tool to get in the inner workings of America’s collective unconsciousness, so to speak. What (if any) type of cycle(s) of ideas is exhibited by the screenplays listed on the Black List winners of 2013, 14 and 15?

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To be effective, one needs to have the current “hidden” distribution of the top story ideas in LA at a particular time. One certainly needs to be mindful of that emerging technology and media of the world. The medium of communication as Marshall McLuhan would say.

And that area called AI or artificial intelligence. We need to understand that there is not just a virtual reality and a mixed reality coming soon but also an augmented reality (like the type Magic Leap is creating). Our world will not be replaced by magic spectacles but rather “augmented” by this new type of reality. Stories need to match up not to just the trends and cycles and shifts of popular culture at a particular time. The main subjects and hero’s and heroines on its mind at a particular time in the life of the culture.

While we’re discussing story ideas, I think there’s a story in a guy who goes to Hollywood with this idea  – above – and how much goes against the grain in the town. He is a newcomer to the city (and “nation” called LA.) He doesn’t play by her rules as no one has ever told him her rules. He plays by his own rules. The only ones he understands. Hollywood might be blamed but aren’t many modern Americans guilty of staying under the “shadows” of others, of another great “tent” franchise.

The Black List is made up of those who have gone outside this mass culture trance represented by so many top people in Hollywood. Sure the famous list is passed among them. Yet, few know anything about what to do with the information it represents. For many of them, if a log line makes them chuckle a few seconds they are likely to invest millions in the idea.

These are those who have gone outside this mentality. Thinking just a little outside that particular “box” of screenplays each year that get made into a movie. The Black List winners is in the low hundreds. But there is also the expanded list of runner-ups. He is like a modern character of Raymond Chandler. But now, not in the old detective business of finding cheating husbands or wives having affairs. Now he is a detective trying to sniff out the scents of modern ideas in culture through his move back to Los Angeles. His hometown. After being away for many years. His move back to set up a business as described above.)

How do these things called “story ideas” happen? Do they only happen to certain people? Is the “mantle” of American storytelling given over to a particular group in culture? If so, is this group in Hollywood or Washington or New York? In Hollywood the ideas emerge. In New York’s Madison Avenue they are marketed. And Washington of course sits like a spectator in the stands, observing all the battling in culture between the two parties. Happy they have not – as yet – seen as participants in the battle.

Is a new perspective in stories coming with the election of a new American president? It’s an important question relating to the fantasies and symbolism of the American president to American society and culture. It is something that has received little study.

An interesting idea if we keep our eyes on the ball rather than all the distractions dangled in front of us all the time. It’s a difficult task for sure and few are really up to achieving it. As Freud observed in one of his final masterpieces, an entire culture might become neurotic. Neurosis might not be something in just the province of the individual. It might be collective. (As Jung always knew) It is interesting and informative that Freud came around to Jung’s views towards the end of his life.

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Some final thoughts.

Saw an interesting story on the Internet that Hillary is now hiking a lot around her home. What about the story of a woman who lost her run for the Presidency of the United States. Is still the winner of the popular vote in the nation. A fantasy on what this person does. One idea, she escapes from everyone in her life. All her handlers and everyone and disappears for a while as she hikes in the mountains and is completely by herself.

And so this story thing goes on. Taught by Hollywood screenwriting gurus in expensive courses. The secret passed onto a very few? Or something more than the content of the stories. Rather than usually invisible context of the story. The medium the story messages are contained within.

One can examine this forever and only come up with disagreements about story elements and plot points and all types of structural things. Like the secrets of magicians, these are all things to take one’s eye off of the major things of the story: the subject matter, the theme, the genre, the hero or heroine of the story. Everyone examines the fine intricacies of screenplays. Their spellings and grammar and how close they adhere to the standard formats. Yet few go outside the box of Hollywood.

Is there something that emerges from reading three years of the Hollywood Blacklist?

Any idea that emerges has to be a lot more interesting and important than something that simply popped out of one’s head, like an oversize headache.


A homeless person sleeps next to the Santa Monica Cliffs above the Pacific Ocean – Another “story” of LA – John Fraim





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