In Screenwriting, How Old is Too Old?
A few weeks ago, I found myself talking to a talented writer I’ve worked with for some time, who appeared unusually on edge. Always lovely, humble and forthcoming, the writer soon acknowledged his added layer of screenwriting stress and explained it this way:
“I just celebrated my birthday. On top of the usual stress of getting my work vetted and my screenplay out there… and just trying to make a living… I’m worried I’m getting too old to break in.”
Now, this is by no stretch the first, or tenth, or even hundredth time I’ve heard this concern from a writer – of almost any age – that I work with. The question: Am I too old to break into screenwriting? is the second most popular question that I get asked, second only to how many screenplays or pilots should I write in a year?. So yes, it’s a thing.
And writers are not the only ones thinking about their age. A few years ago, in those long-forgotten pre-pandemic days, I had coffee with an agent friend who had around that time signed a longtime client of mine, who, for the sake of this blogpost, I’ll call Sarah. The agent went on and on about how excited he was to work with Sarah, but then suddenly turned to me with: “Can you believe how old she is? I had no idea!” The joke in all of this? Sarah and I are almost exactly the same age. We are separated by months, not years. That said, the agent in question was not deterred by Sarah’s age in any way, and has since gone on to help build an impressive career for her, which included selling two of her TV pitches as well as staffing on prestige TV. And he still has no clue how old I am.
Back to the conversation at hand: Me, getting ready to address the basic question being asked: As I get older, is the shot at a screenwriting career getting away from me? The writer clearly sweating it, outwardly nervous about what I was about to tell him. But once I told him my experience with writers of various ages breaking into the industry, he surprised me with: “Really? I never knew that. That’s good to know.” Which is the very thing that made me decide to write this blogpost. Because, well, everyone should know it.
I’ve written about ageism and screenwriting previously. There’s no doubt that screenwriting, and TV writing in particular, does favor the young(er), especially when it comes to TV staffing. Still, we continue to hear stories about writers breaking in at various ages. I remain a big proponent that nothing in this industry is impossible, and that great, cinematic stories are not exclusive to a particular age group.
It’s important to note that what I told that particular writer on that particular day is not drawn from rumor or hearsay. It’s drawn from well over a decade of working with professional and emerging writers, observing the paths countless writers traveled in their journey to break in, which lead me to tell said, post-birthday nervous writer this:
Most of the writers I work with – and specifically those who broke in while working with me – have broken into screenwriting in their 30s and 40s. And when I say MOST I do mean it, literally. And I’m not trying to get off on a technicality. It’s not that 51% of the writers I’ve had the privilege of supporting were in their 30s and 40s. Well over 80% of the writers whose breaking-in journeys I’ve been allowed to observe were in their 30s and 40s when they broke in.
There are writers I’ve worked with who have broken in in their 20s, but those are more few and far between. Many of those were writers who started out in support staff positions in writers rooms right out of film school, and then went on to be promoted by their showrunner to staff writer, progressing in their screenwriting career from there. Of course, there are also those feature writers who were able to gain traction in their 20s, though in my experience it usually takes longer to not only develop the writers’ voice, but also to build real traction in the feature space.
On the flip side, my friend and client Amadou Diallo has been vocal about breaking in at an older age (having secured his first staff writer position in his early 50s, bringing a ton of valuable lived experience to the table and working consistently since then), while other writers have brought with them the experience of working in law, medicine, education and psychology that enabled them to break in past their 30s and 40s. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of observing writers staff, sell and work their way up the screenwriting ladder, regardless of age.
In my work as a career coach, I am asked all the time, by writers of every possible age: Am I too old? When will I be too old? Will my age be the deciding factor for me? While it’s important to understand the challenge you’re setting yourself up for if you are an older writer coming into this industry (and, let’s face it, in this industry nothing comes easy!) I always tell writers to let the writing do the talking, not their age. Especially if they are writing features, a space in which age is less of a priority. Don’t let your age walk into the room five minutes before you. Don’t let your age decide your fate. Lived experience is a tangible commodity in this industry, so rely on your storytelling voice, on critical screenwriting knowledge and the lived experience that informs it when setting out to build your screenwriting career. So as long as your stories are timely, relevant, brilliantly executed and current to the needs of the industry, and as long as you remain determined and active on behalf of the construction of said career, you give yourself a real, fighting chance for screenwriting success.