PRIMETIME: Am I Too Old To Become a Screenwriter?

If screenwriting is not a "calling," if it's just something you've thought about trying when you have some spare 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.
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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.

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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...)

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.

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!