Film: The Hollywood Black List that screenwriters want to be on

The best films left in Limbo are being given a boost by an annual insiders' poll

• One of the unmade scripts deals with the life of Rupert Murdoch. Picture: Getty

DOUGLAS Adams once said of his long struggle to make a film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that "Getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it." It was 21 years between the announcement that a film was to be made of Adams's book and the start of filming.

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Such experiences are not uncommon in Hollywood, or in Britain's film industry for that matter, which may explain the fascination with The Black List, a now annual list of screenplays that have been batted around between stars, agents and studios without yet entering production. It provides both a telling insight into what Hollywood wants these days and gives writers a rare tool in their battle to see their work up on screen.

The list is put together by Franklin Leonard, a now prominent Hollywood executive. In 2004, he was so inundated with mediocre screenplays that he sent off an e-mail to all the other producers he knew and asked them which were the best screenplays they had read which had yet to be produced. He compiled a list and sent it out to friends, and it quickly became a viral hit. Among the films which have appeared on the list since are Juno, Lars and the Real Girl and, last year, The Social Network.

This year's list, just published, is based on the responses of 290 executives. In order to appear on the list, a film had to be mentioned by at least five of them. For writers, appearing on the list is a form of peer approval which helps their careers, regardless of whether their screenplays are turned into films. Now, at least, they are known to the industry as highly regarded writers.

This year's most popular yet-to-be-produced screenplay is College Republicans, by Wes Jones, which describes the university years of George W Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, as he tried to become national College Republican chairman. Next is Jackie, which tells of Jackie Kennedy's efforts to shape her husband's legacy during the seven days after his assassination. Third comes All You Need Is Kill, in which "a new recruit in a war against aliens finds himself in a time loop where he wakes up one day in the past after having been killed on the battlefield".

There are plenty of thrillers and heists, some of which have even been made since they were voted onto the Black List. Margin Call describes 24 hours in the life of an investment bank early on during the financial crisis. It will star Kevin Spacey and Paul Bettany and is scheduled to be shown at film festivals next year.

Some of the projects, one hopes, would be better in the execution than they sound in their short descriptions. Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter tells a story of the 19th-century US president who, after his mother is murdered by vampires, "begins a lifelong vendetta to rid the world of the heinous creatures". Are We Officially Dating is a "dating movie told from the male perspective about the lengths men will go to to avoid being officially in a relationship." The most profane title on the list is F***ing Jane Austen by Blake Burns, in which two friends angry at Jane Austen for creating unrealistic romantic expectations among women today get sent back to the 19th-century. The only way to return home is for one of them to get Jane Austen to fall in love and sleep with him. David Nicholls's adaptation of his popular novel, One Day, due out next autumn, is also on the list, named by ten executives.

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The screenplay most likely to incur a libel suit is Murdoch by Jesse Armstrong, which describes Rupert Murdoch at a family gathering trying "to convince his elder children to alter the family trust so his two youngest children by his newest wife will have voting rights in the company". In 1999 Murdoch divorced his wife of 32 years, Anna, mother of three of his children, and married the much younger Wendi Deng and had two more daughters.

Screenwriters have historically sat at the bottom of the Hollywood pile, far below stars, directors, producers and even their own agents. Hence the old joke about the starlet so dumb she slept with the writer. The Black List offers a glimmer of hope to writers lingering beside their laptops waiting for their agent to call. It's a form of much appreciated validation, regardless of whether their film is ever made.