Ageism and Screenwriting

Many years ago, in Chicago, an older gentleman came up to me during one of my lecture breaks and asked me, candidly and directly, if his age was going to be a challenge for his screenwriting career. He was eighty four then, just survived a mean battle with cancer, and was given two to three years to live. Regretfully, and as much as I hated it, I had to tell him that unless he had that one Million Dollar screenplay ready to sell, his age will likely not work in favor of constructing and sustaining an ongoing screenwriting career. It was true in Chicago many years ago, and for people well into retirement age and with a short lifespan expectancy, I suppose it remains true today as well.

Ageism and sexism have long been the looming clouds for many a creative person trying to make their way in the film and television industries. Just yesterday I saw a copy of a letter from Disney written to an aspiring animator in 1938 telling her that there’s no place for her in the program because she is female. We’ve also all heard stories about writers being shut out over the years because of their age. Last month an article surfaced about older television staff writers no longer employable “in the room” shifting their careers to China, where their television writing is still deemed relevant.

So… Is ageism in Hollywood alive and well? Not necessarily, or, in the very least, not as aggressively as in years past. Despite all the daunting information out there, I find that there is more hope for older writers these days. The naysayers will tell you that if you’re a day over 28, your chances to make it as a screenwriter are dead. But instead of taking up theoretical arguments, I would rather share with you some facts and figures from my own day-to-day experiences with the entertainment industry that support one simple, straight forward claim: So far as age is concerned, things are getting better every day.

Late last year, I introduced three of my writers to my colleagues in representation. Not one of them is under 35. In fact, 2 are well into their forties. All three got signed for representation, and we are talking about major, MAJOR representation companies who took them on.

Just last week, one of my writers who had been staffed on TV in years prior, met with a manager in one of the biggest, most respected production/management companies out there. She got signed IN THE ROOM. An unquestionably pleasant woman, she is over 40 as well.

So… How, and possibly why, are things getting better so far as the writer’s age is concerned? The industry has changed immensely over the last 10 years, and the age of the writer has certainly benefitted from this current, changing trend. Gone are the days when a young agent or manager would arrive on the scene, and within days or weeks sell their first script. The age of the writer – and along with it the writers’ willingness to go out for endless rounds of drinks – has been sacrificed for writers who are strong in their craft, who continue to produce stellar, outstanding work again and again. With the end of the one-and-done spec market days, we are now in an age of building screenwriting careers, rather than having the ability to sell a single script. Agents and managers are a lot more eager to bank on writers who will produce for them again and again over a long period of time, rather than sign young writers whose potential is unknown and unproven, and who may never ultimately produce a script that can sell.

Instead of waxing poetic and in detail about every which way the industry has changed, let me share with you a personal anecdote that perhaps illustrates this best: A million years ago I was in charge of running the ScriptShark screenwriting contest, a mid-level contest that was well regarded enough by a slew of industry insiders to make it somewhat relevant. One particular year, my winner had a particularly impressive script, which got him a meeting with the hottest management company in town at that time. The managers could not have been more excited about the script they had read. But after they met with the writer, their tune had changed. Dramatically. “I can’t sign this guy, Lee.” one of the managers told me. When I asked how come, why the change of heart? I was given a simple answer: “He is, like, old.” Not yet having met the writer myself, I was confounded. I talked to him a number of times. He never sounded particularly geriatric. So I pressed. “How old is he?” I asked, to which I was told “Are you kidding? He must be forty or something.” To say that I was horrified would be an understatement. It was one of those moments when you feel exposed to the underbelly of the industry you work in. And boy, did I hate it. Certainly enough to remember it all these years later.

But, thankfully, this is not where this particular anecdote ends.

Fast forward to late 2013. I had just read script written by one of my screenwriting clients, and, thinking it was genius, decided to send it out to a slew of industry colleagues in the hopes that it will pique someone’s interest. Within days, I get an email from a manager friend, the same manager to have rejected the 40-something contest winning writer 10 years earlier and now one of the hottest managers in the business, saying that he loved the script, and asking to meet the writer right away. I should have been thrilled, right? But when my writer went in to meet a few days later, I could not have been more nervous. This writer wasn’t closing on 40. He was closing on 50. And despite the brilliance of his project, the meeting was taking place in-person, so there was not going to be any getting around that. There were moments I questioned my sanity for sending this writer, whom I had ample professional respect for and genuinely liked on a personal level, into that room. But to my surprise and delight, my very talented, very over-40 scribe got signed in the room that day, by the same manager who passed on a similarly talented writer simply due to age 10 years earlier.

So is there ageism in the industry? Yes. But every day I see it getting better.

The one place I do not see ageism let up is with the writers themselves. All too often I encounter writers, be it in workshops, seminars, or in one-on-one coaching sessions, who inform me that they know that their age is an issue, thereby making it a stumbling a block for their screenwriting aspirations. Let’s be clear about one thing: The only thing that a writer will not be able to do after a certain age is get staffed in a TV writer’s room for the first time. Otherwise, if your content is superior, the sky is the limit. In a time when so many age-anonymous vetting systems have been put into place, it is easier than ever to win the sort of accolades that can significantly move forward your work. A 9 score from The Black List does not go away once the readers find out you’re nowhere near college age. And screenwriting contests, from the Nicholl to Final Draft’s Big Break do not require you to give them your age before they tell you whether you’ve gone all the way. So while there will always be some level of ageism everywhere, it is ultimately in your hands whether you allow your writing, and by extension, your writing career, to be defined by your age.