But… What About My Age?
After enough people sit across from you and ask, while visibly bracing themselves for the answer: “But… what about my age???” You realize that you’re going to have to blog about it. The big, ever-present age question that you encounter from so many new writers who come to meet you, voicing their inner-most fears and concerns.
For the record, writers of every age have asked me the age question: As young as those in their late twenties, as old as those in their sixties and seventies.
The question of age can be asked in a million different ways: “Am I too old to staff?” “Is my age going to be a problem with agents and managers?” “Am I getting started way too late?” but it speaks to one simple, overriding fear: That despite talent, hard work, willingness to step out of their comfort zone, fight for their chosen profession and learn and challenge themselves at every turn, the writer asking it already has such a significant knock against him that talent and hard work and determination are just not going to be enough to matter.
So I’d like to break it down, from every different angle.
While I am the first one to advocate being as realistic as you can about your odds and understanding the hurdles that can possibly get in your way, let me start by telling you about one of my writers who, for the sake of this blog post, shall remain nameless. A woman and a mother who came to screenwriting as her second career, she arrived to the industry, I would venture to guess, well into her forties, if not older than that. Now, about ten years into her writing career, she is a sought-after content creator, having worked as a mid-level writer on a number of television projects, sold TV pilots, done feature assignments for major studios, and collected a number of produced feature credits to her name. Yes, she is an older woman, but don’t let anyone talk to her about age. Not because she is not aware that it could be a factor, but because she just doesn’t care. I’ve known this woman for years, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms: Age is just not a conversation she is willing to have. And her writing, her work ethic, her great meeting skills and her contributions to every room and every exchange have certainly allowed her that. So much so that her writer friends all unanimously agreed to nickname her Badass.
So yes, as a writer you can, without a doubt break in, even if you’re no longer a baby. But age can be a factor, and for the sake of this blog post, I don’t want to focus on the exception. Instead, I want to focus on those industry truisms I’ve come to know, and think them important enough to share.
Yes, staffing on a TV show is, for the most part, a young person’s game.
If you are a grownup past the midpoint of your life, staffing for the first time in a writer’s room, unless you bring unique expertise such as legal or medical experience, other relevant life experience to the table, or are best friends with the showrunner is probably not likely as your first break in the industry. Of course, if you manage to make a splash on the feature side or sell a pilot all of that can change. On top of which, many of my writers have staffed for the first time in their 30’s and into their 40’s, so by no means am I saying that if you’ve ticked past 30 and have yet to staff that your TV staffing dreams are pointless.
Life experience can be an important differentiator.
I work with, and am friends with, a number of successful writers who came to the industry as a second career. There is that work/life experience that immediately lands itself to expertise in writing, as mentioned above: Law, government, police, medical. But life experience, the very practice of living and having adventures in your life, that should ultimately feed into your writing and make you, at the end of the day, a more desirable scribe. After all, life experience is what informs your point of view, what informs the themes you sow into your work, and the emotional experience of your characters. Therefore, don’t devalue the worth that your life’s travels, experiences and adventures have granted you, as they can be huge assets factor when being considered for a writer’s room position or for a writing assignment.
No one knows how old you are when they read your screenplay.
If ever the age of the writer does not matter, it’s when he or she writes a great feature screenplay. With features, all the business is on the page; there is no question about what comes next, whether its creator would be game to slog it out in the room year after year three or four or five years down the line, whether the material at its core has been created by someone with enough in-the-room experience to create the kind of thing that can last. Therefore, if you’ve written a truly superb screenplay, the sort that can go on to win big screenwriting competitions and really stand out, no one should fault your age when considering whether or not to pick it up. That said, if you are further along in your years and not that amenable to collaborations or rewrites deemed necessary by production, don’t be surprised if the producers or executives in charge choose to bring on a second, younger writer for a polish, or even a massive rewrite. And equally, an agent or manager may not express interest in taking you on as a client, while your project is a property that they are more than happy to represent.
All of which is to say… feature writing tends to be kinder to older writers than TV writing is.
When choosing whether or not to take you on, reps will likely consider your age.
While reps should always consider the writing itself first, they will also give thought to the career ahead. Unless a rep feels that they can take your project as is, be it a TV pilot or an original screenplay, and find it a home within the industry, be it with a studio or network (a near impossibility for new writers), the rep would have to assess the current quality of your writing and its long-term viability in the professional space, combined with how long it will take to build you the sort of screenwriting career that can be to everyone’s creative and financial benefit. If a rep doesn’t feel that they could get a good 5, 10, or even 15 years of creative and financial viability out of you, and they don’t think that they can sell your existing material, then they might be hesitant to sign you and bring you onto their list.
A few months back, a gentleman in his late 70’s came to see me. He was frustrated that his writing was good enough to get him general meetings at some very high places, but that thus far those meetings netted nothing concrete. I explained to him that often general meetings are taken in order for an executive to assess whether they would want to be in business (long term) with an existing content creator. This man loudly stated that he had no intention to be at it for long – he wanted to make some money and get out, retire, goal sail the high seas in 3 to 5 years tops. Therefore, even if his writing was that strong, there was no long-term business to be built with him, which is what most reps and execs are often and ideally looking for.
If you are an older writer, selling your TV show may not be a natural next step.
Over the years, I’ve met many older writers, in their 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s whose only writing sample was a television pilot. While there is no doubt that they’ve brought passion, life experience and a seasoned point of view to the writing, TV pilots are rarely purchased from writers without previous industry experience, and even less often bought from those inexperienced writers who are on the older side.
Because making a TV show is a significant financial investment for the company behind it, aspiring to span many years and many millions of dollars, networks, premium cable, basic cable and streaming companies prefer to purchase new shows from those writers who have been on the inside, who have seen how the sausage is made and, better yet, have taken part in the making of it. Writing a pilot is one thing; sustaining a show over episodes and seasons is a whole other. Those older writers who do find success in TV tend to be those who are able to get a meaningful showrunner/Executive Producer attachment onto their material, one who could see them through the challenges, hurdles and difficulties of making and sustaining a successful television show.
Want to learn more about this? Check out my previous blog post: BREAKING INTO TELEVISION WRITING: WHAT’S POSSIBLE, WHAT’S PROBABLE?
Regardless of your age and particular moment in your life’s journey, I will tell you this: If you want to write, write. Write no matter your age. You don’t need my permission, or anyone else’s. Sure, write with some realistic expectation of what paths might or might not be available for you to travel, but don’t let this quell your passion. Simply continue forward with a better understanding of what challenges might come your way, and what could – or could not be – on the horizon.
Utter BS. Just look at the statistics. Out of almost 500 scripted series in production, not one has a staff member over 50. This mysterious woman you are talking about, if she actually exists, is an anomaly.
Hi Michael, I completely understand your frustration, but let me assure you that this mystery woman does exist. That said, as mentioned in the blog post above, staffing is indeed a younger person’s game.
Saw the premiere of Geena Davis’ This Changes Everything last night. Important information – highly recommended.
Another thing to take into consideration for “older” writers is that staff writer pay is low and the hours are long. If you’re married and have a family, that often just doesn’t jive with that lifestyle. It’s one of the reasons I threw in the towel on that dream. I couldn’t handle a 50% pay cut from what I make now for double the hours.
Hi Devin, That is completely understandable! Starting at the bottom with TV is not for everyone, and you have to make a decision about what’s best for you based on the entire construct of your life, and all that it requires for you.
I’m a little old. Thanks, this gives me some hope 🙂
If you’re good enough you’re young enough.
I’m 63, and this is why I focus on features (mostly romantic comedies). I’d be out of my element in nearly any sitcom writers’ room.
Thank you for your blog. It is important to be realistic about which avenues are more or less likely in our careers. I keep writing because it brings me joy. Producing things independently at the low budget level is accessible to everyone and can be a great learning tool. Working around younger writers and filmmakers keeps me young 😉.
I agree! Producing your own content can be incredibly energizing and satisfying!
Hi Lee, I appreciate your insight and candor…
But, after watching the screening of ‘This Changes Everything’ in the theater last night, I plan to BE the change – as well as encourage all women, young and old, to embrace that philosophy and take action. My scripts will now include a ‘gender’ pass as Geena Davis recommended.
Thank you so much for your thoughts! I love your passion, and would love to see you pursue it and indeed be the change! I am rooting for you over here.
Sorry, I do know that this blog post is about age. I just wanted to add that I am a 65-year old woman writing screenplays and trying to break in.
Great post Lee – you are always encouraging. I am keenly aware of the motion media industry’s emphasis on younger talent…which is a fairly organic calculation for the reasons you cite. I cannot help thinking an affable, driven older person with deminstrable talent has a shot. Cheers, Mick
Lee, thank you so much. You’ve saved me years of frustration in my future, trying to get my scripts sold. I’m just going to produce my own stuff and have done with it. At 66, my odds in an industry full of slim chances, are downright skin and bone. After feeling really sad, I’m so relieved.
Great post, Lee! Exactly what I needed to hear. As a writer on the “wrong side of 40” I’m finally — finally! — on my way to ushering my first feature script toward the finish line… As Virginia said above, working with younger folk is what also keeps me young 🙂
Great post, thank you! Geez, maybe it’s time all us ole timers band together and start our own production company…
Great post! It all comes down to the writing. To the story. Thank you very much!