PRIMETIME: Am I Too Old To Become a Screenwriter?

Today’s question comes from 44-year-old Mark, a “published and partway established novelist and short-story writer” in London.  Unfortunately, Mark has been laid off due to the “financial climate,” and he’s wondering if this is a good time to head to L.A. to try and jump-start a screenwriting career.  Mark writes (abridged for length)…

I know… that in anything writing-related, contacts – the right ones and lots of ’em – are vitally important, as much as the hard work and knowing one’s place. Perhaps British reserve is a problem here, but rocking up in L.A., believing folks will want to talk to me, doesn’t sound too plausible a plot.

I think what Quade said about age bias holds some truth. As a fiction writer I’m still a novice, in movie terms maybe an old timer. I’m interested to know your view on taking up screenwriting later in life and whether there are particular routes that an older beginner might explore.

(FYI—“Quade” responded to my February 18th post about using college to gain life experience to become a writer.  I had written: “…too many young people, eager to “make it” in Hollywood, dive into the professional literary world before they’ve gorged themselves on life, before they actually have something to say.”  Quade replied, saying…  “Yet, it’s incredibly difficult for a person with a lifetime of experiences to fight the age bias inherent in the system.  Starting a bit too early is far better than starting too late.”)

First of all, is there “age bias” in Hollywood?

Unfortunately, it seems so.  In fact, last year, a ten-year-old lawsuit alleging age discrimination against 24 major studios, agencies, and networks was settled… awarding $70 million (plus accrued interest) to writers who had been denied work for being over 40.  (A similar claim against ICM was settled in 2008 for $4.5 million.)  You can learn more about these cases at these links:

So yes… age discrimination exists.

Having said that, I don’t know if it’s a reason not to try.  Or rather… I never believe you shouldn’t do something simply because it’s HARD.  Everything worth doing—especially screenwriting—is HARD.  Which is why I always ask…

How badly do you want this?

There are barriers to entry—unfair, unethical, disgusting barriers—at every level… but if you want it badly enough, you work your ass off trying to navigate around or through them.

As screenwriter Norman Steinberg (Blazing Saddles, Johnny Dangerously) said in my February 15th post (talking specifically about young writers, but I think it applies here)…

Many… look at writing as a “job,” a great way to make a great living. I’m not sure how many young writers view it as a calling.  I think I can always spot the ones who have been “called.” The ones who have to write or they start gasping for breath. This ain’t a calling like the priesthood, but then again, maybe it is.

So, Mark—is screenwriting a “calling” for you… or something to try because you’ve been laid off?  Was getting laid off a blessing in disguise, freeing you from the shackles of your job so you could kick-start your true purpose? …Or is screenwriting simply something you’ve always wanted to take a shot at—and the timing seems right?

This is a question only you can answer.

But if screenwriting is not a “calling,” if it’s just something you’ve thought about trying when you have some time… then I say, “don’t bother.” Because you will be trampled by hordes of other screenwriters—of all ages—who want it more badly, and are willing to do more to get it, than you do.

BUT… let’s assume it IS your calling… and you’ve just awakened to it… are you too old to try?

Absolutely not!

I don’t believe you’re ever too old to pursue something you love, your calling.

President Bush went skydiving at 85. (Granted, this is less scary than starting a screenwriting career, but still...)

Will it be easy?  Or course not.  Will you face challenges and obstacles not faced by younger aspirants?  Quite probably.

But if this is your calling, something you know you were born to do, those obstacles are molehills, not mountains.  And even they are mountains, your won’t let them stand in your way… because this is your CALLING.  (And personally, I think pursuing your calling and failing is more admirable—and, perhaps, satisfying?—than never bothering to try.)

Besides, you have serious advantages younger people only dream of having.  You have wisdom, knowledge, personal skills, refined talents, life experiences.  You also probably have more contacts and relationships to call upon.

So… how do you do this?

(Disclaimer: as usual, I’m going to answer this mostly from a TV-writing perspective—since that’s what I do, and I know little about the film world… which is a totally different planet.)

Normally, I think the best way to break in—regardless of age—is to move to Los Angeles and get a job in the industry.  In television, obviously, your goal is to get a staff job… and those positions are often landed by working as a TV show’s writers assistant.  Of course, writers assistantships are almost as hard to come by as actual writing jobs, and in order to land one you need to be here, working in the industry as a P.A., intern, runner, assistant, whatever… where—as you said, Mark—you can make “contacts – the right ones and lots of ’em.”

Does this mean you’ll spend a lot of time making copies and fetching copies?  Absolutely.  Might you work for people half your age?  Possibly.

But if you want in, this is the price of entry… regardless of age.  And it IS possible.

Answering phones today... running "Mike & Molly" tomorrow.

A close friend of mine moved to L.A. in his mid-thirties, intent on becoming a TV writer after a long, lucrative career in New York finance.  One of his first job interviews was at a hit sitcom, where he applied for a job as a P.A.  The woman interviewing looked at him and said, “I’ll be honest: most of our P.A.’s are much younger. Are you going to be comfortable making coffee, running errands, doing menial tasks for the people here?”

And he said, “Try me.  If I’m not the hardest working P.A. you’ve ever had, FIRE ME.”

He got the job… and then proceeded to spend the next nine years as a P.A. or assistant, until finally… in his forties… he landed his first staff job.  He’s now a successful TV writer who recently sold his first drama series.

So you can certainly come to this late in life and find success.

There’s also a tiny handful of alternative paths for older writers.

The Writers Guild of America, the labor union representing U.S. film and TV writers, has launched The Writers Access Project, which identifies and nurtures diverse writers with professional TV experience.  They define “diverse” as “minority writers; writers with disabilities; women writers; writers age 55 and over; and gay and lesbian writers.”

Studios and other organizations also have writers workshops and diversity programs, many of which focus on diverse writers (although they tend to define “diversity” differently).  Here are links to some of the best studio workshops and programs (even those that don’t concentrate on diversity can be super-helpful)…

Having said all this… moving to Los Angeles might be the right move for you, Mark… or it might not.

After all, you’re a published novelist in a country that has its own film and TV industries.  So my first questions are…

1)  Why Hollywood?  Why not write something you could sell or produce in the U.K., where you may already have—or can begin forming—contacts and relationships?

England obviously has a vibrant film and TV industry, and while I’m probably not the person to advise you on how to break into another country’s industry, it certainly seems like you’d be better positioned to make headway there than here.

2)  Can you use your books to create some traction?  Would any of them make a good movie, something you could use to get the ball rolling?

If the U.K. industry is anything like Hollywood, most people won’t care that you’ve simply written a book… unless the book was a huge bestseller, making you a household name… but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to get traction.

If your novels or stories are fairly recent, and selling well, perhaps you could sell the screen rights (or an option to them) to an independent production company… and sign on to write the script.  Maybe you could even raise the money to make the movie yourself.  Or you could write another novel or short story, something “movie-friendly,” which you could publish and use to approach studios.  Or partner with an emerging screenwriter to write a screenplay or pilot together, something that would garner some interesting buzz because it was written by a hot young screenwriter and a published novelist.  Or find a true-life story you could write as a feature article for a major newspaper or magazine… and then control the screen rights.

None of these roads is easy, of course… and granted, I know nothing about your novels or their success… I’m just suggesting that you may be able to use them to get some traction on your home turf.

And if you can start to get some film/TV traction in Britain, it will probably be easier to translate that into a U.S. career than simply starting from scratch.

Anyway, Mark—I hope this is helpful, but ultimately, I think… NO, you are not too old to pursue TV or film writing… and neither is anyone else.  The road may be long and bumpy, but if this is your calling, what you know you were meant to do, it won’t deter you.

So good luck… and please let me know how it goes, what path you decide to take.  And if you—or anyone else—have more questions, don’t hesitate to post them below or email me at chad@chadgervich.com!

38 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: Am I Too Old To Become a Screenwriter?

  1. Jenna Ware

    Thanks, Mark, for giving the Writer’s (story teller’s) POV as in “I write therefore I live” – the Satchel Paige quote is/was just plain wisdom, no more need said – Mindi, since you are NOT in TV and ARE in LA, do you have any ideas for us older, hopefully, ageless writers – screenwriters-wannabes?

  2. Mindi White

    Intriguing subject for me as a screenwriter in my early 60s. My quibble with the article is that it focuses solely on television writing. I write for film and so the information does not apply. I live and work in the industry in Los Angeles, so your article offers me nothing new.

  3. Mark Wagstaff

    Hi everybody and many many thanks. It was my innocent question to Chad that started this thoughtful and passionate debate. As someone facing some choices in life I find the support and the challenge in these responses equally valuable.

    I think discrimination exists in all kinds of ways, and often more subtle than overt. I’m sure many of us have done day jobs where we’ve seen people with no apparent skill, personality or even sanity get promoted and promoted while the hardworkers are left behind. Discrimination is often just about being the ‘right’ sort of person. And yeah, I’m old enough now for all of my bosses to be younger than me.

    I think ultimately there are three things driving my choice. Firstly, I tell stories – it’s all I can do, it’s what keeps me moving. I’m always looking for new ways to do that and new people to engage with. Every time I sit to write feels like I’m just beginning and that challenge pushes me on.

    Secondly, I may be scared but I don’t want to sit in my rocking chair years from now and think ‘Yeah I was gonna do that but never did’. I agree with Chad that’s it just better to try and fail than not to try.

    And not least, I have children who I’ve always told that they can be whatever they want to be if they believe in it. They would tell me that the old man’s got to walk that walk too. Thanks again.

  4. Sharon

    I sincerely hope ‘Quade’ is not too old to begin a screenwriting career because he is a mere child compared to me! However, I doubt if he will be actually earning money at screenwriting for a while. It seems that a top notch treatment to show around to his current writing contacts may be the beginning of “connections”.
    A friend of mine who lives in a small southern town has a sister who lives in LA. Her sister knew someone in the business and he actually read the script and made a couple pages of notes! Every little bit helps.
    Investigate all opportunities – there could be a pleasant surprise just around the corner.

    Best of Luck!!

  5. Mary Jo Stresky

    PS: Sorry for all the postings .. I’m obviously very passionate about this. But a friend just wrote: This brings to mind Satchel Paige’s marvelous question… How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?

  6. Mary Jo Stresky

    And to Bryan Marvis, your words were honey to my eyes today. I’ve printed them out and have them above my computer as a reminder about why we write … and to never give up on our passion. Art is art (look at Grandma Moses and George O’Keefe and many others). We’re just in the business of literary art. Oh, how lovely and thanks so much!

  7. Mary Jo Stresky

    To Skip,

    I concur with your comment about screenwriting vs. TV. All the agents and producers I’ve spoken with have the same comment, “If it’s a great idea who cares how old the writer is.” People buy into the notion of age discrimination (albeit it is a difficulty, but only that) very easily. If we gave up on everything the naysayers poo-poo in life, there wouldn’t be Special Olympics, education in systems where it shouldn’t be and many other things. (I have a friend who’s 86 and has done white-water rafting, bicycled solo cross-country, and is planning a trip to Mt. Everest). Believe in yourself, believe in your ideas. And first and foremost, it’s about what you want to say the day you die that you tried to achieve. DON’T GIVE UP! It only takes one person believing in you!!

    The next question on many minds is OK, so we overcome the fear of age discrimination (personally I think life experience is where the richness of many scripts comes from; younger people have good ideas, but take a look at the majority of their work. Many lack substance…), now what do we do? How can we live in other cities and get representation, etc.? You can live anywhere in the world and work with the industry; you just have to know how. So Skip, to that end are you writing about that in your book, or have other books you can share? And Yay for “The King’s Speech” which was a shot in the arm. By the way, go through a list of major screenwriters and you might be surprised at their ages (Nora Ephron, for example).

  8. J

    A note about those diversity programs.

    WGA is for WGA members only. For the others, “diversity” means persons of colour, and the requirement is a spec script based on a current show.

  9. Doug

    I would tell Mark to find something more worthwhile to do with his life. As a novelist, he’s already written…expand your skillset. I started writing at age 40 to win a bet that I would sell a script within a year. I sold one to Trimark Pictures and won my bet. Recently I sold another project that will hopefully hit the theaters in 2012. Mark, you’re not to old to work in Hollywood, but if you’re a serious novelist, you’re probably too good. My best description of Hollywood is the quote, “It’s high school with money.” Do you really want to subject yourself to that sort of nonsense?

  10. Steve Barto

    I am 52 years old and have a wonderfully rural Pennsylvania address and yet I am called to write for the big screen. I intend to finish my script in spite of my age and my distance from Hollywood. My screenplay has been burned into me and I cannot help but write it. Whenever I don’t write, I have difficulty breathing.

  11. Hugh R

    The moment you put a word on paper you are a writer. You’re a writer waiting for validation from others. If that comes, all well and good but just because the gatekeepers haven’t let you through doesn’t mean you’re not a writer.

  12. Jane J.

    I hope to God forty-four’s not too old to jump start a screenwriting career because I started at 62 and I damn well intend to succeed at becoming a sold and produced screenwriter!

  13. Andrew Urquhart

    With all due respect to all the young people trying to make thier way into the business, I am 53 and about to churn out my first story on video. Now this is all done on my own, and the first person to tell me I am too old for anything will feel my rath. I’ve got my determination from my Mom, who at this moment is getting ready for another competition in wieghtlifting, at the age of 82, she is the oldest competing female bodybuilder in Canada, nothing stops her and nothing stops me. Getting older is just a Death-Defying act!!!

  14. Bryan Marvis

    Though it’s obviously dismaying when any person faces ageism, I understand why it sometimes occurs with actors; after all, they must appear before an audience. But for anyone in film’s “behind the scenes” jobs to confront age bias simply puzzles me, unless, as Woody Allen wrote in ANNIE HALL, they’re “one o’ those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism.” Frankly, with writers, it seems we should have the opposite problem: “Damn those savvy, sage, richly experienced people! They get all the good work!”

    Maybe our aging, longer-living, and late-blooming population of boomers will help change that. Consider this: One of last year’s Nicholl Fellows and the Grand Prize winner of the Screenwriting Expo contest are both in their sixties. And Oscar-winner David Seidler, as mentioned in previous posts, is 72. Julius J. Epstein, Oscar winner for CASABLANCA, won a WGA award for REUBEN, REUBEN at 75. Henri Pierre Roche didn’t get his first novel (JULES ET JIM) written and published until he was in his seventies. And plenty of others in various creative arenas (Picasso, Casals, Bertrand Russell, Churchill, O’Keefe) worked well into their nineties.

    I just turned 59, and though I’ve written over a dozen screenplays and won quite a few awards and recognitions, I feel that I’m just beginning what I hope will be a four-or-more-decades career that will produce work far superior in every way to anything I’ve done in my salad days. To paraphrase Chad Gervich’s fine phrase: “I don’t believe you’re ever too old to create something truly beautiful.”

  15. Chris J

    If you’re gonna write, you’re gonna write. Any sort of discrimination will not stop you. There are different avenues to consider now compared to even just a few years ago. More channels (AMC, Lifetime, USA, HBO…) doing their own programming offer options. Also webisodes are a possibility. Microbudget movies were more popular at Sundance this year. So there are options to pursue if you can write a good script(s).

  16. S. Lincoln

    Glad to see Skip Press has another book coming out. His last two were helpful in determining what sources to link up with which screenplays. Have made some contacts since then and continue to “write on.”

  17. A. Priest

    Plan on working as a PA for nine years? Really? Seems like a very roundabout way to pursue your calling, let alone make zero money to pay the bills.

  18. Sun Tzu

    God! I think this article touched a nerve but I think that it is noble to think of the work in isolation as some magnificent art form but in reality it is purely entertainment whether it has been produced prescriptively, academically or intuitively from the heart. The work has to be real to someone if not the writer then the audience. In the cold light of day anyone investing, financially in a piece of creative literature would hope that the finished work would resonate with someone and the laws of averages would create a demographic group with spending power and a surfeit of disposable recreational time at the younger age spectrum. Those at the top end of the range tend to be too busy to watch movies or TV – if you play devils advocate.

    It is a lottery. You need to have a champion someone who believes in your work perhaps because what you have to say resonates with them and they can see the wider appeal… that and they can see that you have talent. The article made my blood boil for a number of reasons but mainly because I am normally spending most of my time reading, researching, writing and re-writing to allow myself to be distracted by online writing forums and posts.

    Age has nothing to do with marketing your writing and forget that comment about younger more talented writers wanting it more. Forget thinking about ageism and concentrate on your script. Next time you get a rejection spend less time thinking about being too old and more time re-writing what you got wrong or writing something new. It’s true what they say: Writers write. So do that and don’t allow your self to be derailed by what other people may or may not think.

    Personally I cannot see any logic in ageism. You buy the best script. No amount of schmoosing is going to change that. Similarly, and this is the hard truth which applies to everyone, myself included; if your script does not sell then it is probably your fault at some level. Your locus of control (to borrow from popular psychology) should be internal. Saying that you are too old or worrying about being too old is a backdoor escape route to cover your own failure. I’m 47 I was a journalist at 26 and I have never had a particularly illustrious career but I paid the mortgage. The anger it seems to me comes not from doing but from wanting. Aim for excellence not perfection and mastery over your written world. You do it not because you want to but because you have to. Everything else is secondary.

  19. Carol Paur

    In the children’s story, the “Turtoise and the Hare,” at first we think the hare will win because he is fast and spry! But, because the turoise continued, and continued, he won the race. That’s how it should be for any aspiring writer, young or old. Just keep moving forward, and you’ll reach the finish line. Thanks for the article.

  20. Skip Press

    Chad,

    Good subject for an article, but you’ve conflated TV writing and the Older Writers suit with screenwriting (film). Tracy Keenan Wynn, the lead plaintiff on the suit, is a friend. I’ve found that there’s not much discrimination for older writers of feature screenplays and also TV movies to a large degree. I’m writing a new Hollywood Guide and will be reiterating this; I’ve said it repeatedly in the past.

    Skip Press

  21. Steve Shumaker

    Reading how 30-year-olds having problems is disheartening for a guy who just turned 50. My personal story is that of a lifetime artist used to woking in three dimensions who got tired of writing job proposals all the time, and turned his attention to a script idea he’s been kicking around for a few years. I finally overcame my writing blocks and turned out what I think is a pretty decent movie script. As for moving to Hollywood, well,I like St Paul way too much! Many roadblocks were self-imposed, but I got rid of them by just not caring about them anymore. So – now what? I need an agent and a WGA card?
    Thanks for the article!

  22. Michael Gabriel

    Great article … but let us NOT forget that the man who won an Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay this year for The King’s Speech … is 72, I repeat SEVENTY-TWO years old.
    Age discrimination is real but when you read a book, a screenplay or anything else, as a matter of fact, who knows how old the person is who wrote it.

  23. OrpheusAscending

    I read this and had to LOL. I’m currently living in the US and I’ve written a rock biopic for television and am trying to get it produced in the UK! I used to work in the British music industry so still have some contacts — but even they are not quite as “fresh” (read young) as they used to be, but contacts are contacts.
    HOWEVER, the point is the BBC has a wonderful program called the Writers Room for potential writers — the catch is you have to reside in the UK!
    Personally, I think that some of the most vibrant and exciting on both the small and large screens today is being exported from the UK. AND it’s being written by so-called “old” people! Why on earth would you want to come to a country where ageism is rampant — not just in Hollywood, but all over the US?!?! After 35, if you haven’t “established” yourself here, I think you’re simply supposed to roll over and die!
    Please think long and hard before undertaking such a daunting adventure! We always think the grass is greener on the other side, but that’s not always the case!
    But, on the other hand, I am a fervent believer that if you are doing what you’re supposed to (following your “calling”), you will make it — no matter what!

  24. Cynthia Carlisi

    I’m almost fifty three, writing my first screenplay from an x-rated adventure memoir Thrashed)I was compelled to write. I couldn’t not write it, and I can’t not make this into a movie. I watched a movie that bored me and I got the absolute knowledge that my story must be told and that it goes far beyond entertainment, it is enrichment, it is wealth, it is wisdom and it is fearless, offering a new knowledge of the possibility of self to all people, especially women! If Hollywood doesn’t want it, well, there are a myriad of other venues now!

  25. Aimee Lamb

    I too am an ‘aged’ writer. I have a published historical novel, poetry, flash fiction and have worked with several film directors on projects of theirs, all from my computer in San Diego.
    I have written with co-writers, four in particular, three of whom I have never met.
    For me, writing is as necessary as breathing and exercising… yes I still play women’s competitive soccer even at 70 years of age.
    Your brain (a muscle!) your heart (also a muscle) and your fingers (sorta muscles! :)) will only last as long as you keep using them. We won’t talk about my legs!

  26. ludwig

    this article gave me back my killer instinct. thank you.

    The killer instinct is the human propensity to do whatever it takes to achieve a goal, even if you have to conquer your weaker self.

  27. quade

    Rhonda, when the industry rejects work based solely on the age of the writer, it’s not just the industry’s loss. It’s a loss to everyone who loves a good story and actively wants to go to theaters to experience more than simple popcorn fair but simply cant find it. By focusing so heavily on young male audiences, Hollywood as a whole has alienated the other three corners. The industry is trapped in a Catch 22 of its own making.

    I think it’s a shameful statement about Hollywood that this year’s Oscar for Best Picture didn’t come from Hollywood. “The King’s Speech” was a simple, thoughtful, well written piece without a single car chase or explosion, written by the oldest writer to have every received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

    This goes against everything most Hollywood studios currently think is what makes a movie profitable and yet, it has returned more money to its investors than a long list of films made with conventional Hollywood studio wisdom.

  28. Rhonda Misson

    So, Hollywood is full of brilliant young writers, turning out Oscar winning scripts, that the industry can ask “how old are you?” Just write a damm good story that the public will pay money to see, and if it’s knocked back – that’s the industry’s loss.

  29. Jeff

    This is a good post. Personally, I think the first question to ask is: WHY do you want to write? Is it to be a part of Hollywood? To become rich and famous? To see your name in lights, or on the gigglebox? Or is it much deeper than that?

    I’m of the opinion that writing to appease Hollywood is the wrong way to go about it. It’s only when writers craft compelling, original stories that are some true expression of themselves, that they create something anyone would want. And if you have a story burning inside you (or many), get writing! Writing on spec is exactly that — writing on spec(ulation). You have to take the plunge and see what happens.

    Asking the question “Am I too old to become a screenwriter?” is really just an expression of fear, i.e., “Is it a worthwhile goal to pursue my dream?, because if I’m likely to fail I won’t bother trying. (And I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think I wasn’t likely to fail.” If the idea is in you and you’re passionate about it, it’s your purpose to pursue it, wherever it leads. Write. At any age. And don’t look back.

  30. R J Haig

    That kid in the UK should look at me and be inspired. I am a retired fire captain. I am 76 years old and yesterday I started to write my first screen play. It is based on my first book about a group of retired firefighters called on to fight one last fire. The book is called “Fire Horses” and is about the heart and spirit of all firefighters. Will I succeed? Who knows, but I am in there hacking away at the learning curve. I am full of life experiences. I am trying to share them before all the sand drops down in the hour glass

  31. TOC

    Thanks for a well-reasoned and honest answer that looked at his question from several different angles. I moved to LA as a 32 year old to become a (TV) writer… and slammed up against ageism THEN… What else can it be when a contact/friend offers an agent my spec script work and the ONLY question the agent asks isn’t “Is the writing any good?” but “How old is the writer?” I have had some successes and build up a few credits in all sorts of media, but that TV staff job has so far eluded me.

    You made a great point by asking ‘Why Hollywood?’ … I have to assume there is at least a little less ageism in the British film/tv industry… Why is ‘hollywood’ such a big lure to him?

    …obviously this guy’s calling IS writing… I would suggest that he stay in the UK where he has contacts and some reputation, instead of coming here just to eat cr#p for 1-20 years hoping to ‘get read’ by the right people… but to definitely keep writing screenplays etc.

    — Let us all remember the age of this year’s Oscar winner for best screenplay……

    Great Post.

  32. Kat Yares

    As an ‘aging’ writer, it’s good to know that the Guild is at least attempting to look out for the older writers in Hollywood. It is sad that many elders are dismissed, simply because of their age when they have so many marvelous stories to tell.

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