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Older Writers Put Out to Pasture in Hollywood

It’s ironic that the most important study in years detailing the lack of job opportunities for older TV and film writers comes on the heels of what probably is the most disingenuous cry of “ageism” ever made by a Hollywood writer.

Riley Weston, the 19-year-old wunderkind “Felicity” writer who’s really 32, doesn’t exactly make for the best poster child for age discrimination. For one thing, the study showed plenty of demand for 32-year-old writers. It’s the 50-year-olds who have reason to worry. After someone ratted out Weston’s gimmick, she took “full responsibility,” then proceeded to blame others, not the least of which were Hollywood executives obsessed with youth.

But before dismissing the Weston incident as a fluke, it does make one good point, underscored Monday in the study released by the Writers Guild of America, West: Finding baby-faced writers (even ones who turn out to be 32) is, and will continue to be, an obsession of Hollywood executives and agents.

As long as the studios worship at the shrine of demographics, search for the elusive “voice” that speaks to a generation and would rather beat the bushes for young writers who might evolve into a production mogul like David E. Kelley, not a lot will change.

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The data released by the guild--part of a larger study of employment patterns for writers by age, race and sex--is not surprising for concluding that younger writers are getting more opportunities and that a lot of older ones are being shut out.

That’s probably the way it’s always been, and Hollywood is hardly alone. Every industry has its talented rookies ready to come off the bench to supplant the aging veterans, often with good reason. And there’s not much older writers can do about it.

“It’s not like I can sue anybody,” said veteran TV writer Burt Prelutsky, 58. “All someone has to say is, ‘I don’t like your writing.’ It’s not like you are getting fired from a position when you turn 50.”

It’s hard to dispute the unfairness of it all. If you are a funny writer, or can weave together a good dramatic tale, shouldn’t your age, race or sex be irrelevant? As Writers Guild President Daniel Petrie Jr. put it in the guild’s report: “One does not need to be a young white male serial killer to write a thriller about one.”

Still, Hollywood executives, producers and agents are only acting in their own self interest, as they have since the industry began, and there don’t seem to be many alternatives. Presumably, there’s a Newtonian-like law at work somewhere in Hollywood dictating that what goes up eventually comes down when it keeps churning out turkeys.

The best argument for older, women or minority TV and film writers who feel shut out is to cite the junk the networks are putting on now, the serious erosion of audience or the string of forgettable studio movies that open each weekend and seen to be gone the next.

If this is the best anyone can do, talent must be stretched thin. As Times television writer Brian Lowry noted in a recent column, TV executives chronically complain about the lack of writing talent and how diluted it’s become with the proliferation of new networks.

But what’s puzzling in the guild report is a chart buried inside showing that as little as 10 years ago, writers in their 50s, and even 60s, were a lot more employable than they are now.

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Ten years ago, 48% of writers in their 50s worked, not far below the rate at the time for writers in their 40s. Even four out of 10 writers in their 60s were employed.

Now, just one in three writers in their 50s is employed, and just 19% of writers in their 60s.

Was Hollywood less obsessed with youth 10 years ago, or even 20 or 30 years ago?

Perhaps older writers are less funny now than when they were younger, or their dramatic writing or jokes don’t meet some sort of higher standards we have today? It’s hard to imagine that “Veronica’s Closet” or “Nash Bridges” will rank in the top 50 when someone 25 years from now compiles a list of the all-time best TV shows.

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The answer probably lies more in the desperation of TV and movie executives with too many shows and movies and not enough eyeballs. If you can’t deliver a mass audience, there’s always those young demographics. Thus the search for the overrated “voice” of writers who can communicate with their age group as if there’s some secret language they understand.

In explaining putting David Blaine, then 24, a magician and pal of Leonardo DiCaprio, into a prime-time special last year, a top ABC executive explained that Blaine is “of his generation.” Since when is making a playing card disappear a generational issue?

When she was being toasted as a 19-year-old writing wonder, Weston declared to Entertainment Weekly that “I am Felicity,” referring to the college-age character of the much-hyped WB show she wrote for.

After Weston was exposed, 34-year-old writer John Derevlany placed a tongue-in-cheek ad in Daily Variety pleading for a job, saying, “I am Felicity too.” In explaining why he did it, Derevlany said it was because hiring in Hollywood is so arbitrary and often has little to do with talent.

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The reality is that there are probably a lot of talented writers out there--regardless of age, sex or race--who could be Felicity, if given the chance.

But that’s not likely to happen soon.


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