My brilliant and talented friend Robert J. Elisberg writes an outstanding column about politics and culture in “The Huffington Post.” I told him how much I admired his most recent piece about the way that Hollywood’s obsession with youth interferes with good judgment, experience, expertise, and proven track records, and he told me I could publish his original longer version. Here it is with many thanks for his good judgment, experience, expertise, and generosity.
Several years back, an article in the Los Angeles Times dealt with Hollywood closing its doors to writers over the age of 40. In it, a producer was quoted as saying that he could hire two 25-year old writers for what it would cost him to hire one Alvin Sargent.
(Alvin Sargent had recently written the Oscar-winning “Ordinary People,” as well as “Paper Moon,” “Julia,” the “A Star is Born” remake, and many others.)
I wrote a letter to the newspaper, which it published. All I asked was one question – “Why in the world would you want to??”
It’s worth noting that in the following years, Mr. Sargent (despite thoughtlessly becoming over 50) continued to write or co-write such films as “What About Bob?,” “Other People’s Money” and “Hero.”
Oh, and also all three “Spider-Man” movies. The last, by the way, when he was 80 years old.
Ageism, among its many problems, including being illegal, is…well, insane. After all, among the various discriminatory “isms” (each of them insidious), it is the only one where those practicing it are guaranteed, with good health, to be their own victims one day.
And the losers in all this are not just the writers, but you. More on that in a bit.
But further, this ageism is foolish for yet another reason (beyond being illegal, but I mentioned that). Writing is a profession where skills actually improve as you get older. Writers gain experience in the avalanche of life, they fine-tune their craft, discover their voice. Almost to a person, writers shudder at the early scripts they wrote, even if successful. And the reality of life is that every writer who is 70 has been 25. But no writer who is 25 has yet been even 30. And beyond. More than that, a 40-year-old writer with teenage children likely has far, far more daily understanding about today’s 15-year-olds than any 25-year-old writer does. In fact, a 70-year-old grandfather who’s close to his grandchildren probably has more contact with teenagers than does a 25-year-old.
You want to know how utterly foolish it is to think that writers over 40 can’t write about teenagers? Okay, here’s just one more example. When Peter Barsocchini wrote “High School Musical,” he was 54. And he’s now written all three of the movies. Happily for that series’ fans – and the studio’s pocketbook, from all the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, in worldwide merchandizing – he snuck through a crack in the door.
And it’s not just an older writer being surrounded by one’s family, but all writers being surrounded by strangers. You see, writers actually pay detailed attention to those around them daily. You must understand: it’s their job, it’s what they do. And if some elderly writers may not understand Twitter – name the last movie you saw about Twitter.
What people love in movies first are stories that enthrall us, and characters that fascinate us. Period.
(By the way, Hollywood executives seem to think that someone who is 50 can’t write about being 15, which they once were – but have no problem at all hiring men to write about women. And not hiring women. Go figure. But I digress.)
To be clear, none of this is to suggest that only writers older than 40 know how to write scripts. Far from it. A great writer is a great writer, whatever their age. But it’s the “whatever their age” that is the operative point.
But finally, ageism in screenwriting is pointless for one other reason. Let’s play a game. What’s your favorite movie? Got it?
Okay. Who wrote it?
Close to 99.6% of the time, no one can say. I include studio executives, producers and agents. And they are movie professionals whose actual job it is to know who write movies. And they don’t have a clue who wrote their favorite movie.
(Some savants actually know the answer, and I admirably salute you all. But it gets stickier when moving to a second favorite movie, and third.)
But here’s the thing. That’s not the complete game. It’s only the start, round one. Here’s round two – the even stickier, main question. Ready? How old were they?
Trust me, this is a really, really hard question to answer if you don’t even know who they are in the first place. But even the savants don’t generally have a clue about the age of the writers of their favorite movies. And second favorite. And third.
The point is, as far as any executive knows, the person who wrote their Very Favorite Movie Ever could have been a 60-year-old Lithuanian woman.
Which begs the question:
“Why in the world would you care anything about the age, sex or race of an invisible screenwriter? Why isn’t the only question you ask when reading a screenplay – ‘Is it good?'”