Even in an era in which Hollywood seems obsessed with finding baby-faced TV and film writers, the cocktail hour reception at the Writers Guild of America must have been sobering to veteran scriptwriters.
The guild's newest award-winning writers drank soft drinks and ate cookie hors d'oeuvres that were tethered to balloons. And there was no need for a single one of them to shave any years off their ages: Each was only 10.
Screenwriters were there Wednesday night to honor schoolchildren whose essays were judged the best of hundreds written as part of an unusual tutoring program conducted by guild members in conjunction with a nonprofit Hollywood group called the Entertainment Connection.
Thirty Hollywood professionals spent months at public schools across Los Angeles helping youngsters craft and showcase their storytelling skills. For the program's finale, more than 500 pupils at 11 schools were asked to write about the new millennium.
The current millennium has not been that kind to veteran screenwriters, many of whom feel they have been elbowed aside by younger writers.
A guild report released three months ago underscored the growing clout of young writers in Hollywood. It noted that only one in three writers in their 50s is employed these days, compared with 48% a decade ago. Only one in five of those now in their 60s can find work.
That survey came days after the unmasking of a "19-year-old" star writer on the "Felicity" series who acknowledged she was really 32. Riley Weston said she passed herself off as a teenager to get work in the youth-oriented entertainment industry.
Contest organizer Mindy Kanaskie, whose production credits include "The Adventures of Brisco County," "E.R." and "China Beach," welcomed the youngsters as Hollywood's future writing stars.
"You're next, kids," Kanaskie said. "It's up to you to keep [the industry] fed and housed. So good luck."
Tom Schulman, the Oscar-winning president of the Writers Guild Foundation whose work includes "Dead Poets Society" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," asked the top five winners to read their essays aloud.
Schulman revealed that he was in the fourth grade when he won a limerick writing contest and was asked to wear a costume when he read his entry aloud to classmates. But the costume ripped and his pants fell down, he said.
"When you hear you have to expose yourself to be a good writer, that's not what they're talking about," he said, prompting laughter from the fifth-graders.
The prize for each winning student was an invitation to spend a week on the set of a television show.
Monica Fellizzolla of Lennox's Moffett Elementary School won "Dharma & Greg." Katie Dennett, from Culver City's La Ballona Elementary School, won "Party of Five." Eileen Hung of Bixby Elementary School in Hacienda Heights won "Diagnosis Murder." Giovanny Rochez and Diego Tiozon, both of Alexander Avenue Elementary School in Koreatown, won "Clueless" and "Rescue 77," respectively.
It turns out that none of them has ever seen the show they will get to watch being filmed.
No problem, said Kanaskie. Producers will be happy to see them anyway.
"Kids are on top of what's coolest. To get into their minds is a priceless opportunity," she explained. "If what you've written isn't funny, a kid will tell you in a second."