Tuesday, October 21, 2008

ATTACK OF THE GEEZERS


There's this envelope that's been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now. It contains a document the Superior Court of the State of California has asked me to fill out and return so that my name can be included in a Class Action suit on behalf of Writers over the age of 40.

Basically, the Court recently ruled in that group of Writers' favor in the first settlement of 24 suits lodged against TV Networks, Studios and Agencies believed to have "engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination in the representation and referral of television writers age forty or older".

That practice became known as "Ageism" and this first settlement will cost the ICM Agency $4.5 Million. Should settlements be reached with the other defendants, which now appears almost certain, the resulting payout to us writers over 40 could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

And while part of me is more than happy to mail back this document and cash the cheque, another part isn't comfortable with the concept on a couple of levels.

I had meetings this week with three fellow artists in their 20's. One's an actress. One edits. And the last is a camera operator. They're all extremely talented, have all worked with me at one time or another and, should our stars align, will do so again.

Like most artists their age, they're scraping by, trying to remain optimistic and paying their dues. I offer what help and encouragement I can, hoping they suceed, ultimately aware that's really out of my hands.

We all have to pay our dues. I was lucky enough to sell my very first screenplay -- and the second -- and the third. At which point the Universe apparently said, "Oh, I guess he's serious about this..." and I wrote a dozen more before the next one hit.

For me, "Paying your dues" has always been about spending the time it takes to learn your craft and find your own voice. Some of us manage to keep working through that process. Many don't. People with no discernible talent prosper and those who seem brimming with it fall by the wayside.

This business (much like Life) isn't fair. And Ageism doesn't just target one group. Be you a writer over 40, an actress over 30, or in your 20's and simply humming a tune "they" have never heard before, it can be difficult to earn a living. And even if you can, the ratio of artists to opportunities in the trade dictates that you'll have stretches where you can't get arrested.

But while "breaking in" or "taking hold" is a reality in almost every human career, what's interesting about television is that it's one of the few places where your value apparently deteriorates as your abilities and experience increase.

And why is that?

I mean, we all know that you're only as good as the last thing you did. But somehow the industry is permeated with this belief that an older writer might suddenly lose his skills during the process of the next one -- or its sequels should it come to that.


This doesn't seem to be the rule in other areas of show business. Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are both 65 years old and still selling out stadiums and rocking harder than most bands a third their age. To be honest, I'm finding the current concert scene scarily geezerish with Madonna, Neil Young, Dylan and The Who all rolling through town this month.

God, I remember going to The Who's Final Farewell concert in 1982!!! I guess talent really can't be denied, no matter how long its delayed or how often its eventually considered ready to be put out to pasture.

Jessica Tandy and George Burns won Best Actor Oscars when they were 80. Clint Eastwood snared one for best director at 74. The writers of those films were aged 53, 49 and 51 respectively -- or way over the hill in TV terms.

Hardly anybody under the age of 40 wins a Nobel prize, especially the writers! Doris Lessing, last year's recipient, was 87 -- well over the previous average age of 70. Look down the list of winners in the fields of Medicine, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, barely anybody is under 40.

So, apparently the human mind can discern the wealth of nations or untangle human DNA after 40 but is utterly incapable of writing jokes.

The average age of a newly elected Pope in the 20th century was 65 and instead of driving down the center lane for miles with their turn signal flashing, these guys were considered infallible.

Yet TV Execs don't want anybody 15 years younger than that running their shows.

Why? How many of us want to be a brain Surgeon's first patient instead of in the hands of a guy who's drilled more than a few skulls?

Some claim that younger writers are more connected to what the audience wants. I can't really see how that works. No matter our ages, we're all drinking from the same internet/media/marketing streams of information. And recent surveys indicate that the median age of TV viewers is now 50-55.

The UPN and WB networks were forced to merge because there simply wasn't enough of the so called "Youth Audience" to keep both of them afloat. And their current incarnation "CW" continues to limp from month to month with numbers that aren't indicating a revitalization and only a couple of shows that have connected with anybody's definition of a mass audience.

In a similarly odd twist, 18 year old writer Riley Weston was considered a gifted member of the "Felicity" writing staff who had nailed the voice of that generation -- until somebody discovered she was really 32 and forced her to leave the show.

I don't know about you, but I've also noticed a couple of trends in hit shows lately. The ones geared to younger audiences featuring younger casts ("Heroes", "Friday Night Lights", "Gossip Girl") lose significantly more audience from season to season. Meanwhile those that skew older, most often with an over 40's star surrounded by a bevy of younger sidekicks ("House", "Criminal Minds", all of the CSI's) seem to hang onto their numbers or grow in popularity.

Yet the trendy boys and girls in the Armani and Blackberry combos don't want writers with more affinity to those actors and that audience gumming the Croissants in the Writers Room.

So what's really going on here?

We all know Content is supposed to be King but isn't. As writer William Goldman once quoted a studio executive of exclaiming -- "This is the dumbest script I've ever read -- unless Brad Pitt wants to do it." So it has to be something else.

In the world of TV executives, it's often more about the people you're surrounded with than the product, so if everybody around you is young and hip -- well, you must be too!

Similarly, most of their program content espouses a set of values that reflect these executives own personal interests, insecurities and anxieties as opposed to those of the audience they're supposedly targeting and older writers are less likely to co-sign that kind of bullshit.

To be honest, I think Ageism really has less to do with age and more with the reality that older writers are tougher to push around.

It's much easier to bully or browbeat younger writers. They're new. They've seen "Swimming with Sharks" and figure that's the way life around here is lived. Even if rewriting the bible umpteen times doesn't make sense to them they'll do it because they don't want to appear difficult or honestly believe producers really know far more about writing than they do.

Us older guys are definitely not writing on spec unless we own the material. We're the last guys doing a free rewrite and if you're four episodes into your show and still demanding a revised Bible, we're suggesting that you go back to your real job at Starbucks.

Trust me newbies -- a reputation is a terrible thing not to have -- and growing and nurturing it is a rapturous experience you do NOT want to miss in life.

But don't get me wrong here. Wisdom and craft expertise does not always come with age. There are a ton of writers who share birthdays with me who are talentless hacks. But then they were talentless hacks in their 20's and 30's too.

You're good or you're not good. That's all there is to it.


And for those who want to mark their calendars, I share my exact birthday (day and year) with the Boss and hardly anybody thinks he can't write anymore.

In conclusion, I guess what I'm saying is -- I'm pleased us writers over 40 won this lawsuit because winning it will help some of the other groups fighting their own discrimination battles catch a break as well.

As for you younger writers, there might be a chance that a chastened and re-educated Executive Class could bring about an extension of your own careers.

I may sign this document and I may not. The cash would be nice but my signature would also dilute the pool of funds being shared among writers who've suffered much more than I have.

There's also this niggling feeling I can't shake that signing is an admission that I'm starting to get up there with more scripts behind than in front of me -- and I don't think that's how I want to look at the future.

Because who knows, some of us old dogs might even learn a few new tricks that'll surprise people.


3 comments:

wcdixon said...

I've been looking at that same letter for the past couple weeks too, wondering what to do. But you know me - I always go for the cash...woo hoo!

Great post.

JA Goneaux said...

I've always chuckled when advertisers (who are the real powers in TV of course) say they want this or that demographic.

Sometimes its tweens and the money overindulgent parents give them.

Sometimes its males aged 18-24 who can be counted on to buy really bad beer, and lots of it.

Even with a mortgage to still pay down, my wife and I are fortunate to bring in over $100K a year. We buy lots of stuff (I admit to an addiction to Lee Valley), and sometimes drink bad beer (lets face it, nobody really tastes that 7th to 12th beer anyway).

So, why aren't advertisers drooling over us?

Mostly because, I think (and hope) we are a bit more discerning in our purchases. We won't be buying the latest fad gadgets that will need to be replaced next year. We won't be slaves to fashion (hell, we can just wear what we did in the 80s, which will be back soon).

And the idiots running TV (great, shut down "The Riches" after only 7 shows of the second season...) should realize they'll never make money figuring out what the kids want: they'll either download it legally and ignore the commercials or steal it.

allan said...

McCAIN DRUM SOLO CLIP IS HILARIOUS!