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Hollywood’s talent pool

Newsletter-turned-Web site now a screenplay launch pad

Dino Sijamic of Cambridge put The Black List online. Dino Sijamic of Cambridge put The Black List online. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / February 23, 2012
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Dino Sijamic does not yet know where he will watch the Oscars on Sunday night. But the Tufts University graduate student does have a rooting interest.

Sijamic runs The Black List, one of the movie industry’s most influential websites. For $20 a month, industry players can subscribe to, read, and rate unproduced scripts.

Getting picked for The Black List can help writers open doors at major studios.

And that is why Sijamic has a particular interest in Sunday’s Oscars picks; Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, nominated for their screenplay for “The Descendants,’’ were discovered after one of their earlier screenplays scored a coveted spot on The Black List. If Rash and Faxon win an Oscar, they will join 20 other Black List honorees who have scored Academy Awards.

The Black List was started as an annual newsletter by Harvard graduate Franklin Leonard in 2005. Last October, Sijamic transformed it into a website ( with regular updates - and in the process has made it a must-bookmark page for Hollywood. It is scoured by agents and referenced freely in Hollywood press stalwarts like Variety and Deadline.

Leonard says Sijamic gets the credit for making the newsletter into the influential force it is today.

“I’ve worked in Hollywood for nine years, so it’s my area of expertise,’’ says Leonard, 33, who is vice president of creative affairs for Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment. “But to say Dino’s role is considerable would be a great understatement. He built the entire site.’’

Sijamic has become an industry player while living in Cambridge. He does his programming at night, when he is not attending the Gordon Institute Master of Science in Engineering Management program at Tufts or working as a systems engineer for Akamai Technologies.

Though he has been to Hollywood parties with Leonard, he does not drop names or use industry lingo.

“I sort of stay in the back and push the technology forward,’’ Sijamic says. “I’m really passionate about the technology and where we can apply it to The Black List. I don’t get too taken aback by the glamour end. I generally don’t speak with a lot of people. Franklin is usually the one who carries off all the interviews.’’

Sijamic, 26, was born in Bosnia and lived in Turkey and Prague before his family moved to the United States and settled in Medford.

He met Leonard a few years ago through his cousin, who is Leonard’s girlfriend.

Leonard had started The Black List out of frustration with how little time he had to discover unconventional and well-written scripts among the endless pitches for big-budget star vehicles.

For kicks, he asked 75 friends and colleagues in Hollywood to send him the names of their favorite unproduced scripts. That became the first year’s crop of The Black List, a group of films that included quirky future hits “Juno’’ and “Lars and the Real Girl.’’

A lot has changed since then. What was once considered an underground appreciation club has become an industry player. And with Sijamic turning The Black List’s once-a-year event into a live website with regular updates, its influence is poised to grow.

The Black List now includes many films that production companies have already optioned, though not turned into films. Some selections - Quentin Tarantino made a recent list - have earned the ire of those who believe that established talents or works already in the production pipeline should not be highlighted.

“Basically just a list of already sold scripts from big writers with studio execs/agents pushing things they want to get a buzz,’’ one Web commenter wrote. “A real Black List would consist of great unsold scripts or great scripts lingering in development hell. And studio flacks wouldn’t be the ones voting.’’

But young writers like Josh Zetumer, 30, say that scoring a slot can help set you apart from the scores of others with unproduced scripts.

“The Black List is a way to quantify heat and to give everybody an industry standard for good material,’’ says Zetumer, who has had three of his scripts on the List. “I’ve got people in companies that otherwise wouldn’t be reading my stuff getting curious about what I’ve written.’’

Graham Moore, a 30-year-old writer, says The Black List gives studios more confidence in less established writers. He notes that he pitched a movie to Warner Bros. just after his script for “The Imitation Game’’ - about World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, who was persecuted for being gay - was announced as the 2011 List winner. The studio bought it.

“To have something strange and difficult and tiny get such widespread recognition has been surreal,’’ Moore said.

Sijamic originally signed on in 2009 to turn an annual e-mail to subscribers into a fluid, ever-changing document. It took him almost two years to create the codes and algorithms required, much of his work done in the early morning hours after his full work days. In October, the site launched.

Leonard will not reveal the names or number of subscribers. But “suffice it to say that there are multiple A-list actors, directors, and studio presidents as well as agents at every major agency and producers at every major studio,’’ he said.

That reach is what helped Noah Oppenheim sell “Jackie,’’ his script for a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis biopic, after it ranked second on the 2011 Black List.

Will a movie get made just because it ranks highly on the list? No, he concedes. “Jackie,’’ while optioned, is not yet in production.

“Even beautiful scripts, more often than not, require Leonardo DiCaprio to get them made,’’ said Oppenheim, 33. “But I do think the List gives you a boost. Everyone out there needs as much assurance as they can get before they write a huge check.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

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