Why Do Older Screenwriters Get A Bad Rap?

Since I’m always up for a bit of controversy, let’s open the Pandora’s Box of ageism in Hollywood. Why do older writers find it more difficult to break into the industry?

Generally speaking, the older you are, the more life experience you have, the more inflexible you are, the less advice you take from others, and the less likely you are to admit your mistakes. Middle-aged writers over fifty are at a different life stage, even if they are aspiring to launch a screenwriting career. Many have enjoyed other careers, raised families, and for some, screenwriting is almost a retirement hobby. In one’s sixties or seventies, life is at a reflective rather than a discovery or formative stage. There is a predisposition for the familiar, repetitive and safe. A lack of desire to explore new themes, structures or dialogue makes for unexciting cinema. Is it simply a generation gap, or are there more sinister forces at work?

My experience has been that older writers gravitate towards certain themes. These are either autobiographical stories or personal, earnest, important and portentous dramas. Such films may find a place in the festival circuit with their wine and cheese loving thespian peers, but most fail to cover their production costs. In my opinion, they aren’t always brilliantly crafted, and claims that they should be produced to provide intelligent, thought-provoking, sophisticated, cultural, boundary-pushing cinema and a welcome alternative to Hollywood popcorn fare are often unfounded. I have found these films derivative, self-indulgent and lacking in narrative structure more often than not.

One comment I’ve heard from younger assistants and interns, particularly in their twenties, is that writers who are old enough to be their parents, or grandparents, are often unable, or unwilling to accept the realities of the film business. They don’t care about audiences, box office or business plans. Their belief that their stories must be told should be sufficient to produce them.

When I was in my thirties, I was pitched a love story about a Welsh king. When I asked the writer some key business questions, I was rebuffed for daring to reduce her wonderful story of love and treachery to a dollar value. She continued her rebuttal, by scolding me for disrupting her pitch with such “trivial” matters. After all, I was far too young to understand the beauty and complexity of her script. Despite my saintly diplomacy, nothing I could say would sway her. I thought she was going to send me to my room and ground me for a week for being disrespectful to my elders.

On another occasion, I was providing coverage for a drama script set in the Australian outback about a girl trying to find her father who abandoned her as a child. While the potential for drama and conflict in this story was great, it was written in a dated, flowery, overly descriptive fashion. After explaining what scintillating prose he wrote, he was reluctant to edit it to a screenplay format. I further explained that the audience won’t read his words and he could only do them justice in a novel. His dialogue read like monologues as it often described internalized feelings. I commended him on his theatrical accolades, but screenplay dialogue must be shorter. I wasn’t lacerating his opus to fit in with my Generation-X attention-deficit disorder. I iterated that his writing style was not conducive to the screenplay medium.

He appreciated my comments, but I felt uncomfortable giving them. I felt he was my elder rather than my peer.

One remedy that has emerged has been co-authorship between younger and older writers. The young can worry about trends, business and merchandising, while the older can worry about story, structure, logic, subtext and theme. Time will tell whether this fusion will work. After all, younger people will continue asking for advice from their experienced elders. Or do they really know it all?

On a brighter note for our colleagues with more life experience, age is a positive attribute in TV writing for that very reason. Older writers have such a larger well of material to draw upon. Moreover, the main terrestrial TV networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) in the USA have an average viewership in the 50 year old age bracket. Even the youth-oriented FOX and CW networks have a viewership in the forty year old age bracket.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Cheesy Chuck says:

    Okay, look–the whole subject of ageism is cultural. Drag your butt out to the 405 at five in the PM on any given Friday and check your feelings about getting stuck behind a frilly red hat wobbling just above the head rest of a 1989 Buick Regal and tell me you’re not predisposed to blame your immobility on that damned old fart.

    Fact is, Boomers are self-absorbed, childish creatures capable of flexibility far beyond their years because many of them don’t have a care in the world other than for themselves. And THAT makes great writer material.

    The point is:

    The numbers are the same. Worthwhile writers are one in a thousand. There’s a whole lot more young writers out there trying to break in than there are old farts trying to do the same thing. The good scripts get interest, regardless of age. Yet when a dynamite script pops up and the writer wanders in wearing a few years…well, then that writer had better have magic in that flat booty and the ability to charm snakes whereas a recent grad with a bit of scraggly soul on his chin just has to be able to appear just a bit more on the ball than his peers.

    And let’s get real: the generation you’re referring to coined the phrase: “Never trust anyone over thirty.” So either the chickens are coming home to roost or the ageist viewpoint is just another hand-me-down a newer generation would rather inherit than question.

    A great script is a great script. Almost by definition, a great script will meet the numbers. Of course, working with someone that has not only brains but experiences in life beyond the writer’s box can be a challenge.

  2. John Buss says:

    Such complete nonsense! A script is movie quality regardless of who wrote it. I find it shameful that two people share such archaic, inflexible views. If someone has problems reviewing a script with an older writer, that’s their problem not the older writers.

    Every point made in the article and response can also be applied to a 20-something writer, especially arguing when their feelings are hurt because their baby/script was called ugly. Perhaps the lack of life experience is why so many vampire and zombie movies are a flopping waste of film. Perhaps “the theater is dead” because the largest segment of the market is being ignored.

    When you pass the “old fart” on the highway, be sure to intelligently give them a one-finger salute. They just may be your movie money you’re going to meet. More than likely, a driver of a 1989 Buick is a texting 20-something wannabe zombie scriptwriter on their way to wait on tables.

    Wake up, Hollywood! Time to start acting like a business and not a nursery!

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      The real question is why has this post offended you? Then there was the case of David Seidler, a seventy something screenwriter who played well with others and wrote “The King’s Speech”.

  3. John Buss says:

    That’s the wrong “real question.” I personally don’t care if you had written that Lithuanians cannot write a good script because they are too Lithuanian. I would find such archaic, inflexible stereotyping beneath anyone in today’s world. If profiling “ageism” like the above is okay, what “-ism” will you support next? Racism? Sexism? How about based on religious belief?

    Thank goodness that David Seidler and others found people with their focus on the quality of the script, not on the age of the writer. It’s not that they played well with others or did not. It’s the fact that they were “allowed” to play. It was not a case of someone feeling “uncomfortable” with their insecurities in working with someone older than themselves. It was a level playing field with the veteran team in life winning and everyone enjoying the final score.

    I enjoy reading your blogs daily and have posted my compliments in the past. They are informative and often reveal the sides of the scriptwriting challenge that I may have otherwise overlooked. I have always played well with all others, but you and the 29 others who “liked” this viewpoint cannot ever admit truly to yourselves that you do.

    The right “real question” is not why I was offended, but “Why did you think this view was a good idea?”

    1. Within this mess of an argument you have raised a valid point- that older screenwriters in Hollywood often aren’t even allowed to play. Older means over 35 years old in LA. And the average lifespan of a typical writer is around 5 years.

      I raised the issue of ageism in Hollywood to educate writers about how they are perceived by creative executives who are largely in their 20s and 30s rather than attacking an age group. I’ve spoken to numerous agents and producers and we’ve all had similar experiences with some older writers. It’s not openly discussed in Hollywood, although there was a huge age discrimination lawsuit launched by the WGA because studios systematically refused to hire older writers.

      You’re correct in stating that a quality script transcends the age of the writer, but can it be sold? That’s what industry folk are interested in. They don’t ask for your birth certificate when you submit your script. But when it comes to changing story elements, staying up all night for a polish etc. the “play well with others” issue rears its ugly head.

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