Thursday, June 29, 2006

How Old is Too Old to Be a Screenwriter? (Part One)

I recently read an excerpt from the introduction to Stephen King’s epic volume The Dark Tower series in which he personalizes the Evil that chases us all into grave. King calls him the “Patrol Boy”... "One day you’re nineteen and full of x%&!!@#, and then you’re dead!"

Okay, it hurts to ask. But the question just doesn’t seem to go away – especially, in an age of graying boomers, quantum career-shifting, and the compromises of mid-life. How old is too old to be a screenwriter?

More and more writers over 40 are asking this question. (Heck, even guys in their mid-thirties in tinsel town sweat bullets over it – especially TV writers!) But what about the host of would-be-scribes out there that just never took the plunge until later in their lives?

First, the bad news – the Big A’s: Ageism and Access are linked. Ageism is not hard to understand. In Hollywood think, a 22-year-old will write a more commercially viable script than a 47-year-old or 52-year-old. And, they might be right, especially, if the plot has to do primarily with high school kids, keg parties, pot smoking, or panty raids.

Seriously, there are a lot of wonderful young writers in Hollywood, today, who talk about a reality those who are over forty don’t know about (or would like to forget!). Still what’s missing in many of those scripts is depth of experience. Consequently, all you get are thin movies about something topical that doesn’t even exist by the time you start the next project. It’s not that screenwriters over 35 aren’t capable of writing dumb, inane and just plain awful scripts, too. Dog dirt on the page is “dog dirt” at any age! But when it comes to stories with depth and weight to them, it’s probably fair to say that age and life experience will top youth and inexperience any day of the week. Right? Well, maybe.

We can’t assume for even one second that there aren’t young screenwriters who’ve written wonderful, complex, smart, wise-beyond-their-years scripts. It happens more often than you think. (Remember Finding Forrester?) And with so many colleges and universities offering Screenwriting Tracks, more and more high school students are enrolling in them and coming out with BA’s in Screenwriting. In fact, if a student goes to the right school (Northwestern, NYU, Columbia, UCLA, USC – you get the picture), s/he will likely be pursued by agents and producers before they even graduate.

Aside from the question of talent, the real problem is one of market perception and “marketability” in Hollywood. The place is in love with youth. It feeds on youth culture and its own vanity, and consequently tends to run about a mile wide and an inch deep … most of the time.

Scr(i)pt’s own Sally B. Merlin shares how in a recent New York meeting with three executives from a major studio, a writer friend of hers reported that, when he referenced The Searchers, not only had none of the story execs ever seen the film, none had even heard of it. Certainly, the lack of film history is a common epidemic among today’s young producers. But worse yet these buyers are raised on a steady diet of remakes and comic book characters; normally the stuff no writer over 35 wants to “waste” her time with.

Let me let you in on a little secret: Hollywood “gambles” every day. But it also hates the game, and loses millions of dollars every year doing it. It’s the nature of the beast. Enter: market perception and human ignorance, which drive the machine. Nobody on the West Coast has a crystal ball, so the studios tend to want to “hedge their bets” by catering to what they perceive is the “bankable” movie-going demographic. Can you guess who that is?

During the Studio and post-war era, Hollywood successes were driven more by adult fare, high quality storytelling, etc. That demographic gradually change, however, over the years to become a more youth-oriented, block-buster-driven market.

Screenwriters don’t normally ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. But they should. We tend just to go with the flow. And as long as we’re getting meetings and writing “fresh” material, ageism seems a faraway notion. But it’s not. It’s as close as that line-up of kids at the movie box office. (By the way it’s not their fault – it’s a free country!)

So is it possible to write to and discover entirely new markets? Might the older writer turn the ravages of old age to his/her advantage? (Like they say – write what you know…) And what about the growing faith and values market, increased demand for family fare, and movies boomers would flock to? The point I’m making here is that not everybody out there is willing to settle for more American Pie, Road Trip, or simply another comic-book-come-to-life? You decide. Older writers don’t have to feel victimized by the system. Yes, Hollywood is pretty much a closed-shop. So find a need and fill it. Better yet, create a need and write that. Then you’ll succeed.

In part two of this series, I will address the really good news for older screenwriters and more of the issue behind “access” to potential story markets.

Until then, screw the “Patrol Boy” and keep writing!

Kevin C.


Blogger Angela said...

Just wanted to add some controversy to this blog. I think you said it well, Scriptdog, but that it amounts to a load of rubbish! My reasoning is as follows...

1) If God called you, your stuff will get in;

2) If it takes a very protected pseudonym and identity, so be it;

and if you're extremely desperate,

3) you can hire a 25 yr old to get your stuff in the front door.


Ange ;D

6:10 PM  
Blogger Kevin C. said...


Controversy is good ... However, writers of "faith" should consider that there is a VERY fine line between their faith and plain old presumption. (Cross that line, and nothing gets through!)

In other words, writers of faith, must first be writers; that is, true to their craft and to wrestling with the "realities" that may inhere.

Basically, MY words here were meant to encourage the "older" writer that ... all is not lost, if you think you're over the hill.

I believe YOUR words are also meant to encourage ... that the "walls" should fall down, and that no obstacle need prevail where one's Destiny is concerned.

That said, we must remember exactly where are feet are planted ... That "this present darkness" includes the very problem of "Ageism" in Hollywood, and the problem behind that ... (i.e. Genesis 3).

I also appreciate your desire to wrestle "creatively" with the problem ... (i.e. points 2 & 3, "Google" be damned!) Like they say, there's more than one way to skin a cat!

As to why I wrote the column in the first place; well, I'll NEVER tell ...

Kevin C.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Julio said...

Although, for those interested in hiring a 25 year old front man, I'm available for a reasonable commission.... :)

6:17 AM  
Blogger Kevin C. said...

Julio, you're hired!

8:13 AM  
Blogger elias said...

the writers of "law and order" were around when moses walked the earth and they're not going anywhere.

Million Dollar Baby (2005)
Crash (2006) where written by a guy that's been around for years

8:51 PM  

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