EXCLUSIVE: Meridian Entertainment and The Black List have formed a multi-year partnership that will empower the screenplay advocacy service founded by Franklin Leonard to produce and finance three to five English language films each year. Pictures $15M budget and under can be fully financed by Meridian, but the venture is also open to co-financing arrangements as well.

It is a bold move, as The Black List goes from championing well written scripts to becoming an active cog in getting them turned into feature films. Meridian develops and finances TV/film projects in the Chinese market and is the controlling majority owner of United Entertainment Partners, one of China’s largest film distributors whose hits include the wildly successful Wolf Warrior 2. Run by chairman and former journalist Jennifer Dong, the company makes this its third partnership with a U.S. film venture, following one with James Schamus’s Symbolic Exchange and another with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse.

The former Focus Features chief Schamus is the liaison between Meridian and The Black List. Schamus has been guiding the Chinese company into the independent space, and said this move was partly borne of his nostalgia for his indie origins, when he made no-budget films with emerging filmmakers including Ang Lee, pictures that often hit big and led to lasting relationships with star creative talent. He first approached Leonard at Sundance several years ago about connecting Meridian into Black List’s ongoing search for overlooked gem screenplays, and turning them into low budget indies Meridian could finance. This deal resulted from those talks.

Emma Holly Jones

Leonard said that since The Black List’s inception, more than 325 Black List scripts have been produced, with a long list of big grosses and accolades. The Black List has a staff of eight, and operates a paid evaluation service that nurtures writers and their material and helps get them noticed by agents and the industry.

Leonard began his career as a development executive at production companies that included John Goldwyn, Appian Way, Mirage and Overbrook Entertainment. Along the way, he hatched the Black List as a survey in which he and other development executives identified their favorite scripts. Screenwriters have always been an undervalued lot in the movie making food chain, and the Black List’s annual selection of top scripts grew to become an event that created bragging rights for writers and their reps, and a boost of momentum for scripts that are often overlooked by busy execs focused on high concepts with obvious commercial potential. Since exiting Will Smith and James Lassiter’s Overbrook in 2012, Leonard’s principal focus has been on building the Black List into a branded enterprise.

James Schamus
Mark Mann

“This all started under the idea that screenwriting is a profoundly undervalued component of what makes a movie great,” Leonard told Deadline.

Now, instead of simply telling Hollywood a script is great, Leonard said, “it’s even better to be in a position to say to the writers, we have the money to help you make the movie. If they’re not interested, so be it. We want to be an asset and an additive thing for all these projects and we thought the best way to do that was to actually bring money to the table that could actually get some of these movies made.”

How will the production deal intermingle with the script finding services of Black List?

“”We will continue to run labs for screenwriters we find through the website, and continue the annual survey exactly the way we’ve done it in the past, and nobody owes us anything,” he said. “We are not going to be limited to scripts that are on the annual survey, nor are we going to be limited to scripts on the website. We are looking for great screenplays, period. We are constantly evaluating completed scripts. When we find something exciting that we believe could be viable for our business parameters — which means budgets under $15 million roughly — we’ll show it to Meridian and if they share our excitement, we will reach out. If it’s a writer with no producer, director or talent attachments, we’ll work with them to find producers and talent who can carry the film off. We’ll finance it alongside that. If there’s already a team around the writer and the script, we’ll assess their needs and if we can meet them, they will be able to go off and make the movie. We’re not going to be the kind of producer/financier telling people to make changes in the second act of their script. We’re going to be the ones trying to provide the artist what they need in order to make their movie. Certainly, I will have opinions, but those notes will be offered not as directives of what people have to do in order to get the money.”

Leonard stressed that the annual list and the paid services Black List provides will not be used to leverage producing opportunities, noting that he resisted past suggestions that The Black List attach itself for fees to scripts it championed, because it wasn’t adding any value to the equation. That changed because of Schamus and Meridian, whose chairman said this was an opportunity for the Chinese company to take a further step into the independent pond, where so much talent now in the mainstream got discovered.

“Meridian strives to make films that not only bring artistic and commercial achievements but also move and inspire the audiences,” Jennifer Dong told Deadline via e-mail. “Our partnership with the Black List provides an excellent cradle for such projects to come. We like to work with writers and filmmakers that share the same aspirations as us in telling stories that’d make a difference in the world. The scripts that came out of the Black List platform have been made into films that created much impacts on the history of filmmaking and influences over the audiences all across the globe. We are proud to contribute our strengths and power to bring more Black Listed scripts to the screen.”