An Age Old Problem– What Hollywood is Not Letting You See

Posted on June 21, 2009 at 8:00 am

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?'”

And there isn’t an answer.
The closest you hear is mumbling something about feeling more comfortable working with people their own age, or being intimidated by someone with more experience. The response to that is simple –
Get another job. You are in the wrong profession. You are holding American popular culture in your hands, and if you are too insecure to talk to another adult, you are too insecure to oversee a $60 million production. Get out, give audiences a break. They’re paying enough at the box office. Why stick them with your personal limitations?
Because ultimately, beyond the writers, it’s the public who suffers.
Let me explain.
Hold on to your chair, the stories are curdling.
Steve Martin tells of trying to pitch a movie based on the classic play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” No studio executive knew what he was talking about, and all rejected it. Luckily, though, he was Steve Martin and knew the studio president, Guy McElwaine. And happily McElwaine was a bright adult who actually loved the play. And most fortunately of all, the movie got made – because otherwise no one would ever have seen the glorious “Roxanne.”
A friend once pitched a version of Sherlock Holmes. “Who’s that?” a studio executive asked, later thinking the world-renowned, fictional detective was a real person. Needless-to-say, it never got made. But imagine if that same executive had been pitched the new Sherlock Holmes movie which stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. You wouldn’t see it this December.
Another friend was pitching a buddy movie to an executive who prided herself on the subject. “Let’s discuss great buddy movies,” she enthused, “I’m an expert.” My friend immediately mentioned, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” “What’s that?” the executive asked.
Honest. And it gets worse. When told that it starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the studio executive asked – are you sitting down? – “Who are they?”
(And again, remember, this was not just someone off the street, but a studio executive in charge of making decisions, claiming she was an actual expert on buddy movies. What do you think happens when people like this are in charge of making decisions? Oh, my, do you suffer.)
By the way, some people reading this won’t know all these references. You should, they’re major parts of our cultural history – but if you don’t, it’s okay. After all, you’re not a studio executive, producer or agent. But they should, it’s their job to know these things. They are all guardians of American popular culture, and not knowing its foundation is a failure of responsibility.
And the stories like these are endless.
Here’s another. A writer told me about pitching a movie based on the children’s classic, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” And the executive said – well, by now, you know what he said. “What’s that?”
Only last week, a friend told me about pitching a story based on a true-life person who fought during World War II. He’d written a successful non-fiction book about the man, but was having difficulty when making the Hollywood rounds. Finally, half-jokingly, he got weary the other day and began his pitch by saying, “About 60 years ago, there was a really bad man named Adolf Hitler.” There was a short silence, as the young executive thought about it quizzically, and then finally excitedly replied, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about him!” But, sorry, the story gets worse. Because after rejecting the pitch about the true, remarkable, exciting adventure that played a part in helping literally save the world, the executive asked the writer, “Do you have any surfer chick stories?”
And you suffer. Because not knowing the references that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t enjoy the results. Most people likely didn’t know “Cyrano,” but loved “Roxanne.” Most people never heard of the real Butch Cassidy, but the movie was a phenomenon. And even if you’ve never heard of Sherlock Holmes, at least audiences now have the chance to go the movie that has the stars of “Iron Man” and “Cold Mountain” this Christmas .
You suffer. Remember: your favorite movie could likely be written by someone over 40. If today’s Hollywood executives had their way, your favorite movie wouldn’t exist.
And so, you suffer.
Let me put this in another perspective.
Periodically, we hear the complaints that “movies today are so terrible” and “everything on TV is junk.” That’s not really true, there are many absolutely wonderful films and superb television shows. But the complaint speaks to an emptiness of choices – and that the focus of those choices has been on a limited audience. For the most part, the complaint has been addressed to the filmmakers creating the works, usually along the lines of “The show is so stupid.” And “The movie was boring.” But the point here is that it’s misplaced anger. The problem isn’t so much that the movie or TV show wasn’t made to your taste – it’s that it was made at all.
Remember: a person can only sell what someone wants to buy.
You can make the greatest shoes in the world. But if someone wants to buy pants, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your shoes are. You can write the most amazing dramatic adventure of exploration, but if a company is only looking to buy “surfer chick” movies, that’s all that will get made.
And when you have film studios, agents, and producers populated by decision makers who don’t know “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Paul Newman, Robert Redford, “The Pied Pieper,” Sherlock Holmes and Adolf Hitler and on and on – what do you think is going to get made?
When you have film studios, agents, and producers populated by decision makers who only know TV shows and other movies and comic books as their point of cultural reference – what do you think is going to get made? Long before a writer wrote a screenplay, before a director got involved, and actors got hired, someone at a studio came up with the decision to make “Speed Racer.” And “Land of the Lost.”
I have no doubt that the filmmakers did the very best they could. But when you’re writing “Speed Racer” and “Land of the Lost,” there is a limit to your options. You can be the world’s greatest architect, but if you’re given a supply of plywood, you’re only going to build a plywood house.
To be clear, there are wonderful movies and TV shows approved and made every year. But the odds are falling against you. Not because they’re not well made (though some do fail for that reason), but because you can only sell what someone else is buying. And in the world of studio executives, agents and producers whose personal understanding of the world is centered on sequels, cartoons, stories based on TV series and comic books and teen hijnks, a world where someone over 40 years old has to battle just to be lucky enough to get inside the door, a battle that is usually lost – what do you think will be made.
And you’re the ones who suffer.
If the argument is that “only young people go to the movies,” it is irresponsible to ignore the reality that this, in part, is because most other people have been driven away. But the thing is, it’s not true that only young people go to the movies – because history keeps showing time and again that if you give An Audience something worth going out to see, the audience will go. More importantly, if you’ve driven an audience away, it takes time to bring them back.
And the thing is, if a company simply wants to make fluff…they should But at least make great fluff. Don’t close off the doors to writers who have spent a lifetime learning how to make fluff as wonderfully fun as possible.
Don’t close off the doors to writers who have spent a lifetime learning how to make all movies and all television as wonderful and meaningful and goofy and joyous as possible.,
The most important question for it all when taking the first step of reaching that wide audience is not “How old is the writer?”, but – “Is the script good?” After that, after a company has got your pile of the very best scripts, after the very best writers are brought in, whatever their age – and gender and race — then the decision should be made what to make.
Otherwise, you suffer.
This all came to mind the other day when the Writers Guild of America began this year’s “Seasoned Readings,” a program that promotes the works of their older writers. To bring attention to the series, they started with a new TV pilot for a proposed six-part miniseries, “Pinnacle,” by Larry Gelbart.
For writers, the name Larry Gelbart is enough. Just know that his voluminous works include “Oh, God!,” “Tootsie,” developing the TV series “M*A*S*H,” HBO’s “Barbarians at the Gate,” and two Tony Award-winning musicals, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “City of Angels.”
At the age of 81, Larry Gelbart is a rarity – not that he’s still active, but that he’s more active than most A-list writers. He recently premiered a play, “Better Late,” is developing two Broadway musicals, and also two movies, including an assignment from Warner Bros. to write a sequel to “Oh, God!” And more. But make no mistake, there are Hollywood offices that don’t want to work with an 81-year-old writer, whoever he is. Their loss. And ours.
Because in a lifetime of acclaimed comedy writing, “Pinnacle” was unlike anything in Larry Gelbart’s career. Deeply serious, but filled with sardonic humor, it explores the world of 1937 Berlin with its interweaving tales of evil, moral emptiness, hope and artistic drive, all with a menagerie of compelling characters both fictional and real.
A miniseries of the remarkable “Pinnacle” would fit in today’s world of dark TV filled with Mafia families, murderous cops, and fathers making meth amphetamine. Its historic setting is no less challenging for viewers attuned to ancient “Rome” or the Wild West of “Deadwood,” or the Old World Europe of “The Tudors.”
But whether “Pinnacle” is ever produced, there is a larger point at play here. The script is rich, vibrant, funny and dark – the work of someone fully in charge of his craft, telling a complex story masterfully, dealing with material he never could have touched at the beginning of his career, when he wrote for “The Red Buttons Show,” “Four Star Revue” and “Hooray for Love.”
And that’s the point. When writers of any age – or women – or minorities – are blocked from simply getting in the door …forget that it’s illegal, or makes no sense. Forget that writers suffer and that popular culture suffers. Just know that you suffer. Because writing at its peak is silenced, and the result is that expectations of audiences is lowered. I’m not referring to High Art or even serious material. Indeed, great silliness can be a treasure. I’m talking only about wonderful material whatever the subject, done by artists with a lifetime of craft, who can tell a story and create characters and write humor as well as anyone. And sometimes better. Because they’ve spent a lifetime learning how.
There are brilliant young writers. There are great older writers. And in the end, all an audience cares about is one thing – is it a good story? Not, “How old was the writer?”

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11 Replies to “An Age Old Problem– What Hollywood is Not Letting You See”

  1. Amen! I know who Larry Gelbart is; I watched M*A*S*H, and the TV show was better by far than the movie. I loved the early years of “Gilmore Girls”, because the dialogue was excellent [I have five daughters and a best friend. For two and a half seasons, the writers were speaking our language]. I only recently discovered “Pushing Daisies”, just in time to discover that it has been cancelled. [Presumably so that we can have another serving of teen angst.]
    I don’t watch TV, as a rule; I’d rather read books. Jane Austen never disappoints.

  2. Thanks so much, Lynn! Good dialogue is harder to come by these days, so I often have to refresh my ears with some of the classics from the 30’s and 40’s. I have passed on your comment to Bob Elisberg. And I cycle through Austen’s books on a pretty much continuous basis. Great comment.

  3. Have you discovered the new Pride and Prejudice comic books. I am no Austen fan, but these are amusing.
    TV studio heads always think they can focus only on one demographic. This is due in part because the demographic on which they focus is supposed to have the largest discretionary cash to spend on the products of the advertisers who sponsor the shows. I think the studio heads are using old and flawed information. The Big Demographic remains the Baby Boomers (I am one). They/we are now the grandparents and soon-to-retirees who has the largest discretion in spending. Not favoring this group is foolish and short sighted. But that may explain why TV viewing is so far down – the studio heads have not caught up with the world.

  4. Thank for such a great article. You write great! I agree about the dumbbing down of the culture through movies.I see it as a generational century change. They may surprise us though and do something good for all by getting rid of this ageism discrimination. Hollywood gives in if it will affect their money in any way.

  5. excellent….shows how dumb front office johnnies can be! whatever happened to do those harry cohns,,zanucks,selznicks, mayers.and all those guys?
    randor guy
    writer film historian
    madras india
    june22 2009

  6. When you said…
    “Who wrote your favorite movie?”
    I instantly thought…
    “Orson Welles, at age 25.”
    But seriously, good article.

  7. Thanks to all. A couple things: first, I’m not just suggesting that movies should be more substantive, but that older writers can write wonderful fluff as well as the next person. Second, this isn’t just A Studio Problem, but even an issue at the first line, with agents, many or even most of whom won’t represent writers over 40. Therefore, many writers over 40 can’t even get to the studio door.
    And third, I’m assuming this last comment is referring to “Citizen Kane.” If so, I must toss in a correction here, before Nell jumps in. That movie was actually written by Orson Welles AND Herman J. Mankiewicz, who has subsequently been credited as (arguably) having been the real writing force behind the script, beginning with his original draft, “American.
    Mankiewicz was…44.

  8. If you were replacing a veteran, award-winning writer with a younger writer because you thought the younger writer has brighter ideas, then fine. If you were replacing an older actor because you thought the younger actor fit the role better, then fine. But judging just because of someone’s age is not fair. Thanks for this article – it was wonderfully written.

  9. What a wonderful article. I was stunned to read about the executive that didn’t at least know who Robert Redford was, if not his work. How does an executive become an executive? What is the criteria for that job? I would think a general understanding of past product performance (i.e. the history of great films and their origins) would be a prerequisite. I wonder how much money is lost every year in revenue because of nepotism and the like. Thanks.

  10. Thank you, Karen. I think there is some notion that any familiarity with the past is somehow a disability in understanding what works with today’s audiences. That is especially ironic given the unprecedented availability of the classics through DVD and cable. Being able to see those movies — last week I thoroughly enjoyed Vincente Minnelli day on TCM — just provides a sharper contrast with the poor quality of much of what is out there today.

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