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Moonlight, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire: How one big idea led to 48 Oscar wins

Can't watch another generic Hollywood film? Former data analyst turned film executive Franklin Leonard discovered a novel solution: The Black List.

Nilofer Merchant: Franklin Leonard is this relatively young man as we pick him up in the story, and relatively powerless in Hollywood standards. And he keeps imagining that Hollywood could find more original scripts, scripts that reflected this range of humanity instead of these trite scripts that were coming across his desk.

And so he thought: one day I’m just going to see if I can do this better. He was embarrassed, however, to actually ask that question because he thought, if I was good at my job shouldn’t I already be seeing those scripts?

But he went through his Rolodex, found the 89 people he had met during the course of his first year in Hollywood—mind you, his job was like schlepping coffee as one of his roles—but he thought, I’ll just ask these people to help me. And he created an alias because he was worried his boss might find out that he was doing this, and he sent out a note saying: "Send me the scripts you’ve seen in the last year that you’ve loved but haven’t been put into production." And people did that and he said, “In return I will roll up,”—he turned out to be a McKinsey analyst in his prior life—“I will roll up all that data and send it back to you as the sort of give-get mix.”
It turns out that this thing that he created, which is called The Black List, ended up finding really novel and new ideas that didn’t fit the prototype of what Hollywood kept creating over and over again. They found really fresh and unusual ideas. 'Juno', the story of a young, pregnant teenager actually wanting to keep the baby. I’m trying to think of some of the other scripts. 'Moonlight', which was a really original idea. 'Lars and the Real Girl', which was about a boyfriend relationship with a sex doll. It was just some really unusual ideas.

And I asked Franklin, “What did he do, and what did he do right?” He said, “Well, I just shone a bigger light onto a problem or opportunity.” And as I was listening to him I was thinking, no, actually that’s not what you did. And I don’t mean to offend you, Franklin, but I think you actually did something much fresher than that: you asked a brand-new question and then you gave people the permission to join in your purpose, which is to find original fresh ideas.
And that tilt was drastically different than how Hollywood was sorting it already. Hollywood was sorting by this question, which is: How do we make money? And Franklin, by asking the question he did—which is: “What do you love? And in the anonymity of this email process I will basically shield you from the repercussions of not picking what your boss might want,"—actually got people to surface their own original interests, their own passions, and then gather it together in that nice distributed network way to actually be able to do something with it. And the numbers are unbelievable in terms of how many awards those movies have received and recognition.
But I think the best part about it is it showed the power of an individual connected in meaning with others having that ripple effect to actually change an industry. And that’s what I think the profound impact of any of us are, however young or powerless we are by society standards, we can raise our hand and say, “I have a different question I want to ask,” and how do I actually mobilize other people around those questions that I think matter?

So in the course of my career what I just kept noticing is actually novel ideas can come from—actually, in fact, they do: innovation is almost always from the edges, not from the core and the people who have been trained the same. And so why is it that every company who wants innovation keeps choosing models of business that keeps them doing the same thing?
And so if I could be the one to either come up with that idea and raise my hand, or be the one to find those ideas on those adjacencies then maybe we could actually find a way to drive growth. And that’s how my career just kind of going from Apple to Autodesk to different places, a combination of me raising my hand and saying, “I might have a completely alternative point of view, let me at least offer that,” to me saying, “You know, let’s at least ask more open-ended questions to figure out what kind of divergent thinking we might be able to bring in the room.”
“Onlyness”—it’s not a word in the English dictionary, but I think it should be, because at its simplest it says that each of us, standing in that spot in the world only you stand in, get to count. It means that quite possibly every one of our ideas matter and need to weigh in. And sometimes people ask me how I came to the term or why I came to the term, it’s because I think so many people’s ideas are dis-counted, not because their ideas are bad but because of the power of the person that’s bringing that idea.

And I was just simply trying to say, actually we need those ideas in our economy, in our growth, for our prosperity, for dignity—and so why not move to a place where each of us get to count, and then in this new hyperconnected age those ideas actually have a way to connect and scale?
So that’s the “-ness” part of the “only” part, to actually say: each of us standing in a spot in the world only you stand in, now in a connectedness world, can actually scale those ideas and have an impact in the world.

Can't watch another generic Hollywood film? Here, marketing expert Nilofer Merchant tells the incredible story of former data analyst Franklin Leonard who shook up the repetitive Hollywood formula with a single innovation: The Black List. In 2005, when Leonard was working as a development executive for a film production company and lamenting the same-old, same-old scripts that were being turned into movies, he came up with the idea to email 75 fellow producers to get a list of the scripts they absolutely loved that year, but that were skipped over for production. From that annual list of rejects come films like Moonlight, Juno, The Revenant, Argo, American Hustle, Slumdog Millionaire, The Descendants. Sound familiar? That's because they're all Oscar winners. The 331 films from The Black List that have been produced to date have led to 241 Academy Award nominations and 48 subsequent Oscar wins. Merchant lays this out as a practical lesson in innovation: what can you or your company gain by inviting ideas in from innovators on the fringe? What happens when you stop asking, "How can we make money?" and start asking people, "What do you love?" Nilofer Merchant is the author of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."