Older Writers - Part II - Writer's Digest

Older Writers - Part II

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Hey, folks--

Sorry I've been awol for a few days... I was actually out of town with very little Internet access, and I just got back late last night-- so I haven't been able to post for a while!

Second of all, thanks for the posts and emails re: last week's ageism question from Jon in Iowa.

First-- kudos to Lisa, who is moving to L.A. to be a TV writer after discovering "that the main thing holding me back is
me and not my age
." Congratulations, Lisa-- I'm so excited for you, and please keep in touch and let me know how it goes! I'll probably need you to hire me someday!

And then Jon wrote in with a follow-up 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?"

Well, Jon-- I think it often can be "easier" for a first-timer to sell a project in film than it is in TV (and "easier" does not mean "easy") because of exactly what you say: selling a project in film doesn't require a long-lasting relationship with the writer.

Having said that, 2 (and a half) things:

1) There are many "older" screenwriters working in Hollywood today. Playwright David Hare, who wrote "The Reader," is about to turn 62. Thomas McCarthy, who wrote the Oscar-nominated "The Visitor," is 43. Susannah Grant ("The Soloist") is 46. (Although for the record, I don't think 40's is that old in Hollywood anymore.)

1.5) A caveat just to torpedo my own thesis: last summer, ICM settled a lawsuit from a bunch of over-40 writers who sued ICM for age discrimination. Click HERE to read.

2) It's still incredibly hard for a first-timer to sell something, and I think the obstacles that face older newcomers are the same obstacles facing younger newcomers. Namely: it still takes an infinite number of man-hours to write a sellable script... and it still takes contacts and relationships.

A little over a year ago, Hollywood was abuzz with the story of Michael Martin, a 27-year-old toll-booth-worker who wrote a spec feature called "Brooklyn's Finest"... and sold it. People loved-- and were shocked and amazed-- by this underdog story... which I think is relevant here because MICHAEL WAS ONLY 27. In other words-- it's shocking to Hollywood when ANY "noboby" sells something... even if he's only 27, which is certainly not old by Hollywood screenwriting standards.

Now, a couple other interesting (and often overlooked) things about the Michael Martin story...

A) Michael wasn't exactly a first-time screenwriter. He'd studied film in college, so he had some knowledge, and maybe even some contacts.

B) Michael submitted "Brooklyn's Finest" to a contest... and contests are open to anyone, regardless of age. He didn't win... and contests don't always (even rarely) result in scripts making their way to producers, but his managed to get to someone. If the script is as good as "Brooklyn's Finest," the same thing could happen to anyone, anywhere, of any age.

C) "Brooklyn's Finest" didn't sell immediately. It actually landed Michael a job... writing "New Jack City 2." I think this is important, because many screenwriters NEVER sell anything-- but make a very nice living getting hired onto projects and doing rewrites. But in order to do that... you must LIVE IN LOS ANGELES (or maybe New York, like Michael) and have the time and flexibility to take meetings, meet the appropriate contacts, nurture the appropriate relationships, etc. And like we discussed before, "older" people often don't have that flexibility... not because they're "older," but because they often have lives and lifestyles-- full-time jobs, families, obligations-- that don't allow them to commit to the 24/7 lifestyle of being a budding screenwriter. (Of course, Michael Martin blows that whole theory to hell, but Hollywood is an industry of exceptions... and he is CERTAINLY an exception. So the next Michael Martin we read about could be a 59-year-old plumber in Dallas!)

So what's all this mean? Selling ANYTHING in Hollywood, especially for a newbie, is hard... near impossible... whether you're a 27-year-old in NY or a 64-year-old in IA. Is it harder for someone older? Yeah, probably. Does that mean there's ageism? Not necessarily.

But as writers, I think the question we should be asking ourselves-- no matter how old we are-- is NOT "Why can't I sell something?" It's "How can my work be better?" And once it's better: "How can it be even BETTER?" And once it's even BETTER: "My work's not good enough... how can I make it still BETTER?!"

The truth is: THOSE are the questions that will make your script good enough to sell... no matter your birth date.

Also, for a great article on ageism, check out "How Old is Too Old To Be a Screenwriter?" by D.B. Gilles, author of "The Screenwriter Within: How to Turn the Movie in Your Head into a Salable Screenplay" and "The Portable Film School."

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