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.