Reader Question: What about ageism and screenwriting?

And who is the oldest person to win an Academy Award for Best Screenplay?

Question from Mike:

Who is the oldest person ever to win an Oscar for best Screenplay?

Tom Stoppard won an Oscar in 1998 for co-writing Shakespeare in Love. He was 61 at the time. But he was a mere lad compared to David Seidler who, in 2011 at age of 74, became the oldest winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The King’s Speech. He held this record for one year, until Woody Allen won for Midnight in Paris at the age of 76 in 2012.

David Seidler was the oldest screenwriter to win an Oscar for one year.

Allow me to broaden the scope of your question into something that should be of interest to those of you who are 40 and older: What about ageism and screenwriting? This is a very real issue in Hwood, where studio and network execs can be in their late 20s. It’s especially true in TV, witness an email the WGA sent out to all its members back in 2010:

LEGAL NOTICE

If you are age 40 or over and wrote or were interested in writing for television, a proposed settlement may affect your rights.

Seventeen television networks and studios and seven talent agencies have agreed, subject to Court approval, to settle age discrimination allegations in connection with the hiring and representation of television writers age 40 or over, in nineteen separate class action lawsuits, for a collective payment of $ 70,000,000. (Insurance carriers are paying approximately two-thirds of the settlement amount.) If you qualify, you may send in a claim form to get benefits and may comment on or object to the settlement. If you do not want to be part of the settlement, you can exclude yourself.

Who’s Included?

The settlement defines two classes — (a) persons age 40 or over who have previously written for television, and (b) other persons age 40 or over who have been interested in writing for television. There are various qualifications and exclusions. If you believe that you may be a settlement class member, you can get more information, including a detailed notice, at the websites or telephone numbers below.

What’s This About?

The separate lawsuits all claim that the networks, studios and talent agencies discriminate on the basis of age in their employment and representation decisions. The defendants (including ABC, APA, Carsey-Werner, CBS, Columbia TriStar Television, Inc., DW SKG TV LLC, formerly known as DreamWorks SKG TV LLC, Fox, NBC Universal, Paradigm, Shapiro-Lichtman, Sony Pictures Television Inc., Spelling Television, The Gersh Agency, The Endeavor Agency, The WB Television Network, Touchstone Television, TriStar Television, Inc., Twentieth Century Fox, UPN, UTA, Warner Bros. Television, William Morris Agency, and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment LLC) deny that they discriminate, but believe it makes sense to end the litigation, which has been pending since 2000. The Court did not decide which side was right.

What does the Settlement Provide?

Of the $ 70 million settlement, the lawyers representing Plaintiffs and the Settlement Class (“Class Counsel”) estimate that about $ 43 million will be used to pay awards to Settlement Class Members, pay taxes on those awards, fund activities beneficial to the Settlement Class Members, and fund certain reserves required under the Settlement. One-third of the Settlement will be used to pay Class Counsel’s court-approved contingent fee award. The remaining 6.7% will be used to pay and reimburse expenses related to litigation of the claims and notice and administration of this Settlement. Part of that expense portion will be contributed to fund programs for Settlement Class Members.

The share of the fund that each eligible claimant receives will be based on a formula that, once devised, will be submitted to the Court for approval. It will consider many factors, including your income from and qualifications for television writing.

Did this lawsuit change matters for TV writers? Doubtful. Fortunately, it’s a considerably different story on the movie side. Mark Boal, who won an Academy Award in 2009 for writing the screenplay for The Hurt Locker, was 37 at the time. Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Academy Award in 2010 for writing the screenplay for Precious, was 40. Those were the first writing credits for both, so not exactly spring chickens when they broke into the screenwriting trade.

Back in 2008, Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch list included J. Michael Straczynski, who is in his 50s, and Paul Webb, who is described by Variety as being a “60-year-old British rookie.”

John Cleese co-wrote the screenplay for A Fish Called Wanda with veteran writer Charles Crichton when Crichton was 77 years old.

The movie Main Street was produced from an original screenplay by Horton Foote, who was 82 when he finished writing the script.

I have a theory about why this age stratification would appear to exist between writing for TV or movies.

1. Writing for TV is a brutal lifestyle. If you’re working on a series with 22 yearly episodes, that means for a half-year or more, you’re balancing pre-production, production, and post at the same time. That translates into enormously long hours for weeks on end typically with unrelenting pressure from the network, actors, crew, and staff, making sure each script works, etc. It is unfair to hire / not hire on the basis of age, but the fact is a TV writer must have the vitality of youth — even if they’re not young.

2. Movies generally require a depth of understanding. Understanding nuance, understanding characters, understanding story, understanding life. Not every movie, of course, but most. And whereas an hour-long episode of broadcast TV can run $ 3M+, if you were a studio exec, would you be comfortable giving a green light to a $ 100M film project based on a script by a 22 year-old?

While Hollywood is constantly frothing to find ‘new blood’ in the form of young screenwriters, the studios also value maturity and understanding — and for some, probably many writers that requires experience that only years of living can bring.

And how does Hollywood grasp a writer’s maturity and understanding? The same way they assess a writer’s talent: through their writing.

So yet again, we come back to the same mantra I’ve uttered time and time before: Write a great script.

If you write a great script, it doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 86. If Hollywood thinks they’ve found a great story — and something from which they think they can make a profit — they’ll buy it, regardless of the writer’s age.

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