JON'S QUESTION: Can older writers get into Hollywood writing programs?

Today’s reader question comes from Jon, who lives in Iowa and writes in response to Monday’s post about the network and studio writing programs (NBC’s Writers on the Verge, the Disney Fellowship, the FOX Diversity Program, etc.).  Jon writes…

“Why there isn’t such a program for we victims of age discrimination?  I’m being facetious, but I suspect that even with a good script or writing samples, someone in their 50’s, like me, would have a hard time getting a meeting.   Do the diversity programs look for young talent, or just new talent?  It should be the latter but I suspect its the former.”

Well, Jon, age discrimination is always a hot topic in Hollywood discussions, so I’m glad you asked.

First of all, there are many “older” writers in Hollywood—especially in television, where shows’ head writers and producers have spent decades working their way up the ladder.  David Chase, who created “The Sopranos,” is 63 years old.  Writer/director Nancy Meyers is 59.  Carlton Cuse, the showrunner of “Lost,” is 50.  Howard Gordon, who runs “24,” is 48.  Linwood Boomer, who created “Malcolm in the Middle” and this year’s CBS pilot, “The Karenskys,” is 54.

Secondly, a lot of studio diversity programs DO consider age a part of “diversity,” at least in theory.  I was in the Warner Brothers Drama Workshop a few years ago, and they made a conscious effort to find “older” writers… there was a woman in my program who was from northern California and had two college-age children (she commuted to Los Angeles once a week for our classes).  So while I can’t speak to every studio’s program, I think many of them DO try to seek out talented older writers.

Having said this, it doesn’t always happen… but that’s not necessarily because of a malicious “age discrimination” conspiracy.  I think because Hollywood is youth-obsessed—especially when it comes to actors, actresses, models, etc.—we like to apply this to other areas, too, but personally… when it comes to writers… I don’t think there’s a ton of age discrimination.

Now, I’m not saying that makes it easy for “older” writers to suddenly break in and get writing jobs, but I am saying this…

I don’t think a dearth of older writers is necessarily due to “age discrimination.”  I think it’s more due to a couple other factors.  Specifically…

1)  Breaking into TV-writing or screenwriting is a full-time job.  More than full-time.  As I often point out on this site, breaking into screenwriting takes MUCH more than mere talent… it often means spending years working in the trenches of Hollywood, learning the business and—most importantly—building up a solid Rolodex of contacts and relationships.  Most people who have already spent many years building another career (regardless of their actual age) are very hesitant to do this.  

I frequently have “older” people come to my classes and seminars asking how to break into Hollywood… and when I say the BEST way of breaking in is to get a PA gig, an internship, or some kind of assistant job… starting at the bottom and working their way up… they scoff, telling me this is unrealistic for someone their age or of their professional stature.  Well, unfortunately, it’s HOW IT WORKS… whether you’re 22, 42, or 62.  

I suspect, if I were to suddenly switch careers and try my hand at being a contractor, or a lawyer, or a plumber, or a politician, I’d have to start at the bottom… learning the ropes and working my way up.  Hollywood is the same way.  Yet somehow, people always think that because Hollywood is about “art” or “creativity,” the rest doesn’t matter; if someone’s creative, talented, and intelligent, they should just be allowed in.  But this isn’t true… Hollywood IS a business… and many of the rules, official and unofficial, that apply to other industries apply here as well.

Having said that, if you have the time, energy, and tenacity required to try and break in—and breaking in IS a full-time job—it can be done… no matter how old you are.  I have a friend in his 40’s who left a successful banking career to break into TV writing.  He had to start at the bottom, working as a PA for less than $500 a week, but he worked his way up the ladder.  Nine years later, he’s now writing on staffs and selling pilots.  It was a long road, but he was willing to do it.

2)  Sometimes Hollywood employers ARE reticent to hire “older” people into entry-level jobs… because they’re afraid older people will quickly get bored and move on.

And there’s truth in this… as there is in every industry.

I have another close friend who works in the financial industry, and she’s spent the last several months job-hunting.  Although she needs a job, she’s frequently told she’s overqualified; places don’t want to hire her because they assume she’ll get bored or frustrated and leave.  She hates hearing this… especially because she WANTS the jobs she is applying for… but I think this is the way the business world works, from Wall Street to Hollywood Blvd.  She may be as passionate and hungry as a 60-year-old writer trying to break into screenwriting, but the thought that someone is over-qualified and could leave is daunting to employers.

3)  There’s also, for better or worse, the difference between being a good writer… and being a good writer “for your age.”  In other words—the expectations of a 25-year-old writer are different than that of a 50-year-old writer… people expect the 50-year-old writer to be better, more seasoned… which I think is fair.

About ten years ago, Hollywood was all abuzz when Riley Weston, a 19-year-old prodigy, was hired to write on “Felicity”… and then fired when the producers discovered she was actually 32.  Many people cried “age discrimination.”  But I knew one of the execs who covered the show, and she had an interesting honest take…

“Riley was good,” she once told me, “for a 19-year-old.  Her talent was very raw, a great find in a 19-year-old… but for a 32-year-old, she wasn’t that impressive.  You expect a 19-year-old to be a little green… but a 32-year-old should be more ‘refined.’  They should be more ‘cooked.’  Riley wasn’t.”

There’s truth in this. If you’ve been writing for 50 years, or even 32, you SHOULD be more seasoned.  You should have honed your craft, found your voice, learned how to mine and tell your own personal stories.  If a 50-year-old—or even a 32-year-old—is displaying the same level of skill as someone almost half their age… whether they’re a writer or an architect… yeah, I’m gonna hire the younger person… because they have more time ahead of them to grow and be molded. 

Of course, by “skill,” I don’t just mean sheer talent.  I mean the whole package: talent, social skills, business acumen, etc.  Hiring someone is an investment… and hopefully a long-term investment.  That’s not saying older people are gonna kick the bucket sooner, or even retire, but younger people have– strictly numerically speaking– more time in which to invest.  And yeah– there’s a learning curve.  So all things being equal– talent, acumen, interpersonal skills– I’m probably gonna go with the person who can give me the most time.

Along those
same lines, younger people tend to be able to dedicate more time to a job, whatever that job is.  They don’t have the demands of marriages, families, hobbies, etc.  And– especially in television– writers can often work 16-hour days.  I want someone who can easily work those hours.  Maybe it’s unfair to think an older person has more responsibilities than a younger person, but I think it’s an assumption based in truth.  (Even as I write this, I feel like I’m maybe reinforcing age-ism and prejudice, but realistically– MOST older people DO have families, marriages, etc… there are always exceptions, but let’s be honest– as we grow older, our lives grow.  It’s a simple fact.  When we’re younger, we’re less fettered.)

4)  Lastly, I think aspirants of ALL AGES underestimate exactly how many amazing writers are trying to break into Hollywood… which means the bar is set INCREDIBLY high, no matter how old you are.  There are plenty of bad writers, to be sure, but Hollywood is full of thousands upon thousands of extremely talented storytellers—both working and not working.

I think people often look at bad TV shows or bad movies and say, “I could write something better.”  Or, “These writers are terrible.”  The truth is—many of these bad TV shows and movies come from highly talented writers and beautifully written scripts… but there are a million factors that can transform a wonderful script into a horrible product: bad acting, low budgets, personality clashes, misinformed rewrites, time crunches, bad directing… you name it.  

Again, this isn’t to say there aren’t bad scripts, it’s just to say that the bar is set VERY HIGH for writers in Hollywood… and you can’t underestimate that, no matter how old you may be.  BUT—in the context of age-ism—it’s very easy to look at an “older” writer who doesn’t seem to be getting her break and say, “She’s so talented… but Hollywood won’t hire a 55-year-old writer.”  Yet the truth is: what’s keeping her out is probably the exact same thing keeping out all the 25-year-olds… she’s talented, but she’s not talented ENOUGH.

So all of this is to say…

I am SURE there’s subtle age-ism in Hollywood… just as the whole world is full of subtle racism, reverse racism, sexism, and every other ism.

But I also think there’s an infinite number of other things keeping writers of ALL ages out of Hollywood… yet when that writer is older, especially if they’re older and somewhat talented, we like to scream “age discrimination.”

Sometimes it is.  Most of the time it isn’t.

So, old fogies, I’ll tell you what I tell all them young whippersnappers… if you want it, and you have the time, energy, and commitment to go after it– you’ll get it.  It won’t be easy, but hey– it ain’t easy for anyone!

Now… on a totally unrelated note… a music recommendation: go buy the new Great Northern album, “Remind Me Where the Light Is,” which just came out Tuesday… it’s AMAZING!

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3 thoughts on “JON'S QUESTION: Can older writers get into Hollywood writing programs?

  1. David

    I think the advice of ‘start as a PA or intern’ is valid and DOES work for people looking to break into television at any age, but there’s a subtlety to the business that may be missed by some.

    I have worked in various aspects of the television business for over 15 years in NYC and I have found that ‘crossing-over’ from one area of the business to another is very difficult and often requires taking some major steps back (or sometimes just a major stroke of good luck.)

    For example, I have known people who have worked their way up in say network news, on-air promotions, sports, documentaries, etc. and when they attempt to jump over to another area of the industry they find it more difficult that anyone would have ever expected – getting work and promoted ‘within’ that area is fine, but once you leave it’s as though you’re in a different industry altogether.

    I don’t know if the same holds true in Hollywood between 1/2 hr sitcoms vs. hour-long drama, sci-fi vs. primetime soap, etc. but whenever I talk to anyone here looking to break into television, often people switching from another career, I advise them to really think about ‘which’ part of the business they think they’d like to work in because, for example, if you start out as an intern or PA in On-Air Promotions and work your way up to writer/producer, you’re likely to find yourself pigeon-holed there and that nobody outside of promos will appreciate the fact that you CAN write longer than :30.

  2. Jon

    Chad: Your comments on ageism were very straightforward and helpful. I have a followup question. Do you think your comments apply equally to feature film screenwriting, as
    opposed to TV writing? As you pointed out, a TV writer will be looked at with the thought, "Can this writer function on our writing staff on a day to day, season to season basis?", versus a one time feature film writer, where the script should speak for itself, it’s either good or it isn’t, whether written by a 24 or 64 year old. There is no continuing relationship with the film writer, like there would be in TV. Do older writers face slightly fewer obstacles writing a feature film as opposed to trying to write for TV?

  3. Lisa

    Thanks for this, Chad. You answered a lot of questions I’ve had about being older and becoming a writer at 40. After meditating on it yesterday, I’ve developed a plan to get going. The benefit for me is that I have a couple of friends working on successful shows currently, who have all been wondering if I would return to Los Angeles. None of these friends are writers, but who cares? I’ll happily start as a PA and work my way up. I discovered that the main thing holding me back is me and not my age.

    Thanks again for the inspiration!