First of the Q&A comes from JDC, who writes:
"What are the odds of a 40 year old making it as a writer in LA? Do you find age-ism to be a problem?"
Okay, this depends in a failry major way on what kind of screenwriting you want to do. But let’s address that in a bit. My first reaction was to answer …
… would you find age-ism to be a problem in professional baseball?
I’m not being glib here. Okay, I am being glib, but more as a way in to a serious question. My point is that you need to understand something, something they don’t teach you at film school – writing is a career. It’s not just about writing the best damn script you can. Becoming a screenwriter means this. Is. Your. Life. You are not going to sell one script and somehow, magically, be a screenwriter, which means your life becomes … uh … you know, typing cool stuff. And selling it. In between fabulosity.
Becoming a screenwriter at 40 is no more nor no less insane than any other time you would decide to change your day job to something else wildly incompatible with how you currently earn your paycheck and how and where you live your life. The bigger question is, are you ready to give up everything – EVERYTHING – to make this change? Give up your friends, if you don’t live in LA? Give up being close to your family, if you don’t live in LA? Give up financial security? Grind out X pages a day for money, regardless of whether it’s your dream come true or another assignment to pay the bills? By the time you get an agent off your specs, and then get your first assignment, you’re looking at being 45. 45 and taking film assignments or being staff writer on a TV show. (who, by the way, are not listed in the credits. The PA’s are, but not the staff writers) Like any major career worth a damn, know this: you are going to spend ten years getting to the place where you have any rep or control. You can have fun along the way, and do some fine work, but there will be some shit to eat. I’m not saying that should dissuade you; I’m just saying you need to be aware of that when you’re making your life decisions.
This is neither meant to be a fire-ya-up pep talk nor a downer. One of the prices we pay for working in the creative fields is that often people let their passion get in the way of the idea that this is a career. Like law, like medicine. But unlike those fields – and this is a fairly major beef I have with the way film school is usually taught – you can’t just set up a shingle and call yourself “Screenwriter”, or partner up with a group of more successful screenwriters like a law firm, build a client base, etc. … My dad went to law school at 55 (go Dad!), passed the bar, called a couple friends he’d worked with on the other side of wrongful dismissal suits, offered to do some wills and other such work for lawyers he knew, and bingo, he’s a lawyer with a practice. (He also won a case in front of the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. Fighting to make sure a woman who was sexually harassed got full justice. No, I will never measure up. Thanks for asking!)
As insanely difficult as that was, there was still a framework for that occupation.
Screenwriting’s an odd duck even within the writing field itself. We can’t write our novel, get it published (also arduous, no arguments) and then go ahead and live in the exact same house and continue to type the exact same way, mailing in pages to our editor. If you want to write for television, you’ll be staffing which means full day-job hours (and longer), always with the knowledge that if Kevin James eats one too many mozzarella sticks and strokes out on set, you are officially unemployed. Hell, three bad weeks of Nielsen’s in a row and you’re turfed for the year. If you want to be a film writer, that means you need to learn a whole separate set of skills to help you in selling yourself in meetings and conveying your ideas in a concise and interesting manner in which the humans with the monies can understand. Our art is odd in that for it to reach any satisfying resolution, we require the collaboration of literally hundreds of people and millions of dollars*. All this on TOP of being a helluva great writer.
And, if I hear you cry “But there are plenty of shit writers working!” -- why yes. Yes there are. And they’ve been at it since they were 20, and spent two decades developing the contacts necessary to get their lame asses work. And got insanely, insanely lucky. In Hollywood, I cannot stress this enough: it is indeed far smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.
I know we’ve wandered pretty far afield from JDC’s actual question. Yes, there is definitely age-ism … young guys work cheap and hard, and you’re perceived as a “bargain”. Writing and rewriting on a deadline is a far more physically taxing gig than you’d think. Also, people feel they’re developing a relationship with a young writer that’ll pay off over the length of the writer’s career – which will be, in theory, longer if the writer starts younger. Everybody wants to be able to say they’re the ones who discovered some young talent.
BUT … sure this is a world where youth culture drives the business, but I’ve never heard, when discussing writers to hire, anyone say “Nah, he’s too old.” As a matter of fact, the two guys who wrote the first draft of FATAL FRAME were both over forty, and I believe we were their first assignment. One of the team even lived in Houston, if I remember. For TV staffing, I and many other exec producers I know are looking for some cool life experiences or research skills that’ll be valuable to the show dynamic when talking to writers. A fair number of the writers I talked to for GF were just entering TV writing from reportage; there’s been a run on that since the procedurals became popular, and the ability to properly research 22 deadly new conundrums for House to solve rises in value.
The more I think about it, the more I realize there’s a fundamental divide. Do you want to make your movies, or do you want to work in the industry as a writer? Now, I’ll tell you, I just love writing for a living. I only take work I think will be interesting and challenging, but for me, the thrill is in the storytelling. And, we should note, that ability to choose is a luxury I have now that I’m fairly well established. I assure you, writing the “Cosby and Dougie make a wacky bet” episode on COSBY back when I was making my bones … that wasn’t exactly channeling my Muse.
If you only want to make your movies, then God bless you. But you then must accept the idea that you will be working outside of the Hollywood system, and need to then gather up the skillset necessary to compensate for that loss of money and availability of talent for your project. Each film will be years in the making, and you’ll be functioning as a producer while you’re writing.
I guess my concern is – too many people look at screenwriting as a jackpot situation, a lottery, where “this is the spec that’ll break me ...” Getting an agent off your script is just the beginning of a difficult – fulfilling but difficult – lifestyle. Assuming you somehow navigate through the maze of Hollywood to accomplish even that small victory.
Don’t worry about being forty, or a minority, or a women, or anything else. Worry about developing the mindset that writing stories is now your job. It is your craft, your vocation and avocation. It is EVERYTHING. Get paid to write stories. Anywhere, anyhow. Work breeds work, and saying you’re working as a writer in something else conveys a legitimacy as you try to get work in screenwriting. The intrepid David Slack went from running TEEN TITANS to staffing on LAW & ORDER this year (and he’ll be a producer on any show I ever run). All because he started writing animation scripts back as a wee lad. My friends Tyrone and Tom worked on industrial films in Chicago. I get sent spec scripts for staffing from playwrights and even poets all the time.
What are the odds of making it as a 40 year old writer in Hollywood? When the odds for ANYONE making it in Hollywood are 10,000,000 to 1, do you really need to worry about the extra +/- 50,000 against?
Listen, kids, I don’t want you to quit. (if my little downer post made you want to quit, then you don’t have the sack for the industry anyway. Just saved you five frustrating years as a reader at William Morris. You’re welcome) But in the name of God, start thinking about how you want or need to fit into this big-ass beast, and try to be smart about how you go about cracking the joint. Know your strengths, your limitations, and most importantly, what you need to accomplish with your writing to feel like you’re achieving your art. In short, as cheesy as this is – know yourself.
* The closest non-writing job with a comparable problem I can think of is architecture. Make of that what you will.