“Information has always been currency,” says Shane, who insists on sharing only his first name. He’s an assistant to a television director. Hollywood, where Shane works, is like any other industry town—built on professional connections, on who you know as much as what you know. These days, that often means digital networks, and in Hollywood they’re called tracking boards—usually email listservs or private Facebook groups that disseminate privileged information, including job openings, deals, leaked screenplays, and the latest film and TV screeners. They’re the digital manifestation of all those informal connections that power the West Coast dream factory, with all the pros and cons that implies.
First of all, they’re exclusive. To get in, you have to know someone. The more established boards market themselves to anyone, though anyone likely to access them tends to be already privileged enough to know they exist. At elite board Beth’s Job List, joining is free but requires extensive industry credits, union affiliation, and a member’s referral—all in exchange for ads for sought-after jobs posted exclusively to users. With hundreds of people vying for the same job, by the time these leads leak to other boards, the positions have usually been filled.
Exclusivity tends to reinforce the status quo, as networks help those with access while remaining virtually invisible sources of power to those on the outside. A few Hollywood job boards, like NextGenFemmes, with its mission to “foster a community of young female professionals to build successful leaders in the entertainment industry,” welcome new members and seek to build new kinds of networks. Other boards, like Binders Full of Women, Comedy Ladies in L.A., L.A. Women’s Film Crew, and Women of Cinematic Arts also cater to women, but there are far fewer well-known boards for people of color and other underrepresented groups.
In addition to being exclusive, some sites turn a profit from the information trade. They’re connection brokers, promising access for a fee. The two most popular tracking board sites, the Tracking Board and TrackingB, charge annual premiums. TrackingB’s About page describes the site in the dramatic cadence of a spec script: “Key information is exchanged. Connections are made. Projects are tracked as they heat up or cool down. Writers are discovered. And big deals are made.”
“Money for networks seems like an oligarchical perversion.”
Adam Insider, the anonymous founder of TrackingB, is similarly humble, saying, “You name the studio, agency, or production company, and we’ve got someone from there on our board daily.” Although Insider does not disclose how many viewers visit the site, he says it’s “in the thousands.” (Online estimates indicate about 11,300 desktop visits per month over the last six months.) To access his site, subscribers pay $99 a year; at the Tracking Board, it’s $79.
But only those who can afford the price benefit. “It allows the rich to get richer and more connected, and while the buy-in isn’t crazy high, the principle of it reeks of exclusivity,” says Jen, who works as an assistant to a major television star and would only share her first name. “I see the core of networking as being based on things a person can control: their charm, their work ethic, their personality/likeability factor. Money for networks seems like an oligarchical perversion.” (Though the question follows: When has Hollywood not been an oligarchy?)
Shane disagrees: “It’s smart. Capitalizing on information? This industry is about money, and people will go about any means to obtain it.” To Shane, it’s the entertainment business. And many of the hopefuls subscribing to tracking boards see the cost as an investment in their future—buying information that might help make them successful.
“A subscription to the industry’s elite tracking board is a small price to pay for being in the know,” says Insider. He sees himself as peddling a particular kind of creative content—insider knowledge. “There will always be a need for those creating content to monetize it,” he says.
Perhaps, but Christopher Lockhart, a story editor at William Morris Endeavor, criticizes tracking board websites that take advantage of struggling subscribers. “These enterprises are desperate attempts by people trying to earn a living after getting squeezed out of a studio job or never selling a script,” he says. “It’s their career plan C.”
“People are aspiring to something that is highly unlikely; it’s critical that we treat them with the respect they deserve and help them get as much information as possible.”
Indeed, caveat emptor applies here: There’s no guarantee that the sites provide legitimate, useful information, or that their anonymous founders have any clout within the industry.
Adam Insider can at least claim to have industry experience. Though his real name is not published on TrackingB, he was outed in a 2013 press release as Adam Rodin, now the co-producer of CBS’s Extant. He doesn’t think his identity matters, though: “In general, I would just rather the site, its industry reputation, and its success stories take center stage… TrackingB is bigger than me, and a brand unto itself.” (Rival site Tracking Board had its own anonymity controversy when Deadline named the site’s founder, only to later redact the name following a denial. Tracking Board did not respond to an interview request.)
By contrast, Franklin Leonard is the founder and CEO of the Black List, a major database of scripts that aims to connect writers, who pay for the service, with a select group of industry members who use it for free. Its annual list of the industry’s most beloved, unproduced screenplays—past selections include American Hustle, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and Juno—has turned the Black List into a tastemaker.
Leonard emphasizes his site’s transparency as an important selling point, one that mitigates the fact that he, too, is selling hope. “People are aspiring to something that is highly unlikely; it’s critical that we treat them with the respect they deserve and help them get as much information as possible,” he says. The Black List is his creation, and he monetizes it like TrackingB and Tracking Board, but he makes his identity public, believing it makes him more accountable to his subscribers.
“The biggest thing for me is transparency,” he stresses. “We’re hyper-transparent in the process by which we operate.”The site allows writers to track exactly how many people are looking at, reading, and responding to their script. “If their script hasn’t gotten traction, they know to stop giving us their money.”
“The industry will always be exclusive. Whatever way someone breaks in—hard work or nepotism, for example—is fair.”
Of course, it’s difficult to say what consequence that transparency has, since so many variables have to line up simply to get a screenplay read. In theory, the Black List should make it easier for less well-connected writers to get strong material read by executives. But does that actually level the playing field? Can such a playing field be leveled? The elite executives and agents still ultimately hold the decision-making power, because they control the money that needs to flow to get a movie made. Words, writers are all too aware, come cheap, but it’s still money that talks.
“We work in an art form that requires an extraordinary amount of capital to make,” Leonard says. That’s not going to change any time soon, even though it’s cheaper than ever to make a movie. But ultimately he believes online networks can become improved versions of their real-life counterparts—maybe shortening the path between a great idea and a great movie, by putting those ideas in front of people who can make them into reality.
“Technology has allowed these networks to become more formal, more efficient, and more comprehensive in their sharing of information,” he says. His hope? “That the industry will be a semi-perfect meritocracy to the extent that such a thing is possible.”
“The industry will always be exclusive,” says Lockhart, the story editor. “Whatever way someone breaks in—hard work or nepotism, for example—is fair.” Although he works for one of the world’s major agencies, in his spare time he volunteers his industry wisdom to a Facebook group that he founded where he publicly critiques hundreds of writers’ pitches. No money is exchanged, and anyone can join. He believes his group is just another way for people to connect, and he wants to offer the knowledge he’s accumulated to those less in-the-know. And, like Shane, he recites a similar mantra: “Information is power in this business.”
Illustration by J. Longo