Screenwriting : Are over 40 Writers Grey Listed in Hollywood? by Dain F. Turner

Dain F. Turner

Are over 40 Writers Grey Listed in Hollywood?

On another thread someone brought up the topic that, writers over the age of 40 are grey listed. I would assume that they would do this since the largest ticket buying group are the 15 to 25 year old crowd and anyone over 40 is considered "out of touch" with that target audience. What do you think?

Khalil Adams

I think the, "grey lines of society" will prove that the cultural divide, leaves the younger writers, producers and such, to loose the history of whatever art form.

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Waving my cane at the monitor in disgust. I passed that milestone a while back and will offer no lamentation on that topic. Listen daddy-o, I try to stay up on the latest trends and lingo, within reason. And thus far, nobody in the industry has ever asked me my age. So if you're looking for one hepcat, groovy hipster... a guy in the know and with his finger up the anus of western culture, then look no further than moi. I'll write your story and it will ooze youthful energy.

Stephen Barber

I believe not. However, I also believe in hoping that my Doctor dies before me. Sounds tasteless; and it is… I’m 36 years old, but I would take the experienced human, (through aging stages in life’s lessons) ANY DAY, before I’d consent to a procedure someone younger just read about last semester. Jus’ sayin’.

A. S. Templeton

It's much simpler, actually. The so-called youth-driven culture in Hollywood is merely expressing their gibbering terror of growing old by sidelining those creaky, cranky silverbacks (outta sight, outta mind)-- overlooking in their naive arrogance that they too will one day cross over the Grey Divide. As any parent of a teenager will have long since discovered, trying to seem cool and hip a) is embarrassing to everyone else, and b) works against you the minute you have your first interview with a producer or agent.

Lise Pyles

My take is that the studios gray-list over-40 writers at their peril. The graying viewer is representing a larger demographic each year, because millennials have so many other distractions (web-series, youtube, not to mention illegal downloads) whereas baby boomer retirees often find an afternoon at the movies, or home with Netflix or Redbox, a wonderful distraction. I seem to recall a report on viewer demographics that said something like this, but I don't remember where I read it. Hey, I'm old.

David Levy

40 isn't considered out of touch if you bring a great product to the table. Just cover the grey and have energy. No one will notice or care.

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Machete don't dye his hair and doesn't need to. Machete happy the way he is.

Danny Manus

No. Unless you're trying to become an assistant, a PA or a writers assistant...then yes.

Philip Onions

Since the dawn of time human beings have gathered around to hear great stories from the wise old elders. If Hollywood fails to listen to our current crop of elders, then they are missing a fantastic opportunity.

Michael Eddy

To Philip - you are absolutely correct - they ARE missing a fantastic opportunity. But that doesn't stop them from doing it. Dain started this thread based on a comment I made on another about the grey listing of writers over 40. He didn't ask if it was a wise practice - although your answer states clearly why it is not (older writers write from MORE experience - in life as well as the business. They have done it longer and have learned how to do it better and what not to do - and - in many cases - they have children of their own in the beloved target demographic of the studios - who they have raised and overseen as the culture changed - and been privy to all of that and been able to soak it in - and use them as sounding boards at the dinner table and during car rides - and if they're smart - they are as tuned in to what's hot in terms of movies, TV, music, books, technology etc. as anyone IN that age group. Coupled with their own experience - that would seem to make for an unbeatable combo. Dain asked if it was PRESENT in the current business. I originally stated that it had been around forever - and when I started out - in my early 20's - some time ago - I was aware of it - but unconcerned - because I had years to go to hit that number. My career accelerated well before 40 - and continued after forty - but the grey list was ever present - and I saw it in action. Not just on the studio and network level - but with agents who didn't want to sign clients who had passed 40 - either newbies trying to break in (ESPECIALLY newbies) or even established writers whose careers had waned somewhat and were looking for fresh blood as reps. The reps were looking for fresh blood straight out of film school. It is illegal to discriminate because of age - but in the movie business - if you show up for a pitch meeting - for an exec who might have read a terrific writing sample - and you have gray in your hair or lines around the eyes - there are myriad ways of saying "no" without saying that they think you're too old. They will NEVER say it to your face, nor is it easy to prove that it's a factor in your non-hiring - but it was done. There were writers with extensive track records - and credits - The "wise" ones that Philip alluded to - who would delete any and all credits that they felt would show their age (God forbid you wrote in the so-called Golden Age of TV - and had credits in the 50s and 60s). Writers who could not disguise their age who would come to meetings as a writing "team" with their own children. Bring along their 25 year old son or daughter. The studio saw that as getting two for the price of one - AND the ONE was young. I'm not making this up. It was fairly rampant and had been for a long time. Then - some years ago - a DC law firm took the whole age discrimination thing on as a class action (for TV writers - who make up the biggest % of the WGA, but not film writers - who are discriminated against every bit as much if not more as they age) - and fought a magnificent battle for over a decade - finally winning an out of court settlement from a large number of agencies (although NOT CAA - one of the biggest - which refused to acknowledge doing what they were ALL doing and refusing to pay into the Fund), studios and networks. Something was finally in place to slow down - if not put an end to - the practice of grey listing. Now, if someone thinks they are being discriminated against in such a fashion - there are avenues in place for them to report it (although it was always whispered about before and the Writers Guild did surveys and tried over the years to put a stop to it). There are also programs which have been set up and funded by the admitted wrongdoers for TV and Film writers of a certain age to have access to ply their trade and get agency representation. All solid steps forward. But as I said before - it is a nefarious practice that can still be camouflaged in subtle ways and is still difficult to prove - because the buyers have myriad ways of saying "no" to someone for a job - up to and including - never returning your call or that of your agent - which in showbiz speak is a loud and undeniable "no" - and will never bring age into the equation. Dain posited an interesting question. I would say it definitely existed - and probably still does to a lesser degree - and to deny it - is to be naive. To those here on Stage 32 - who are changing careers - or retired from one and looking to take up the gauntlet anew - pen in hand - laptop at the ready - and are on the grey side of 40 - you know going in that it is a tough road ahead - and you should be aware that it is tougher still the older you are. It's a fact. I say this not to dissuade anyone from giving it their best shot - because selling a screenplay and getting it made is one of life's longest of long shots no matter what - and Hollywood lives for the natural attrition rate of those who throw in the towel and give up. "Driving Miss Daisy" was a very successful film - whose target audience was far removed from the norm - and written by someone over 40 as well. But the business always sees that as a fluke - and not a vastly undervalued and untapped area of moviegoers. That's why they're shocked when "Mamma Mia" with an over 40 Meryl Streep (over 40 and a woman!! Gasp...) makes a bloody fortune. Over 40 writers work - and a lot - especially in TV - but they also have been around since well before they were 40 - and have extensive track records. The guy who wrote the first couple of Spiderman movies was past 60 and he hit the mother load. He was also married to one of the movie's producers - a woman in her 40s. Hey - you do what you can - and you do it the best way you can - and until someone on Stage 32 posts a sale add for a "gently used time machine" - just continue to jump in feet first and swim as fast as you can - no matter how old you are.

Lisa Clemens

I'm (well) over 40 and I have teen kids. I also have a day job where I work with young adults and listen to them talk all day. I like to think I can write something they'd relate to and I'd be able to write dialog for the age group!

Michael Eddy

Lisa: My point is - you CAN (write something they'd relate to). But the industry's POV is that once you are not personally IN their target demo - you no longer have the capacity to write FOR the target demo. It is shortsighted, foolish and wrong. And the crazy thing is - the decisions are being made by execs OVER 40 themselves.

Andrew Martin Smith

As a writer of political historical thrillers/action movies (my latest: Soweto's Run is set in 1976) - I have never been aware of Grey Listing - but looking at what Michael has to say - I can well imagine that it exists in a large number of typical Hollywood orientated genres. The classic example must be the American audiences love of campus and coming-of-age comedies. British kids have come to love the goofy humor as well - but I can well imagine an American executive would think that you need a young writer, just out of college, to hit the right notes and ferret out those brand new lows that every new student generation loves - and is convinced is new - when - of course, us old farts know that they have just been recycled. But as an aside, I can remember being in the States, locked in development hell with a Boston IRA thriller - when I took time out to catch Animal House. I can remember sitting there belly laughing until it dawned on me - THERE IS NO WAY YOU COULD WRITE THIS MOVIE! As a British writer - there are no references that I understand. I can write and pitch a western - and have done so - but campus comedies are totally alien to my own student experiences - and I can assure you that they were wild - but they were wild in a very different way - with a very different take on humor. I was made even more aware of this a year or so later - when back in the States and attending parties with make-up artist girl friend - I met up with a bunch of young writers who had just pitched up from the East Coast. All of them were hawking campus comedies - and all of them seemed to be the flavor of the month. Their sharp New York wit and patter made me laugh - but it also made me fell like an alien. That year - my Boston IRA thriller screenplay - didn't so much as explode but implode!

Philip Onions

I believe you guys! But one must still try, one must still dream. Every year thousands of salmon swim up rivers to spawn, and many of them will be eaten along the way, and yet they still try!

Michael Eddy

Dan - I agree that in the indie world - it may not be so invasive (the guy who wrote "The King's Speech - a Brit - was past 60 - and won the Oscar). But Andrew - my point was that grey listing exists - and not just in specific genres which one would think are "a young man's game" - they just classify writers over 40 as being obsolete. Period. You're point about "Animal House" is well taken - and that was written by a bunch of crazed (youngish at the time) National Lampoon guys. There are specific genres that seem to skew to a younger movie going audience - so the suits jump to the (wrong) conclusion that they must also being written by young writers. Not so. It's almost as dumb as saying that only women can write women's parts and only men can write action. There are certainly movie genres that I would consider to be outside of my wheelhouse as a writer - but NONE of them have anything to do with my age.

Michael Eddy

Also Andrew - not to further dampen your spirits, but historical films are a tough sell. Anything considered period. The further back, the tougher. I wrote a script set in 1952 - which got raves from everyone who read it - but one of the reasons I got from companies in passing was, "we don't do period". TV - no problem - they love it. BBC - love it. Feature films in the US - tough sell. (Dan - maybe easier in the indie world as with the rest - on the other hand - some period pictures are more expensive for their being period - which would preclude some indies from making them for that reason - since their budgets are usually low).

Andrew Martin Smith

Michael - I have not pitched a movie in the States for donkey's years. I think that at some point I came to the same conclusion - that they type of film I want to write was not going to be made in Hollywood. As you have said - maybe television but not film. Which, makes me damn lucky to be writing for the British film industry and the film industries of the developing world. In my world a producer will look at a political thriller rooted in the Soweto Student Uprising and say - that idea is ripe for development. Believe it or not guys - out there in the big wide world are producers who are political animals not bean counters. And ironically all of the guys that I write for - are all children of the 60's - grey and bald as boiled eggs. Lost the hair but have never lost the fervor.

W. Keith Sewell

If you look at the age of the most current, successful directors, writers and producers - especially on the TV side - the majority are over the age of forty. If you stay up to date on the latest millenial trends, lingo and hot topics - this will help in your writing. Minute details change with each generation - but the general beliefs still hold true - in coming of age stories, teen comedies, sophomoric campus comedies, etc. only the terrain is different. Having a popular cheerleader for a daughter and listening to the way they talk, think and act. (yes, think!) doesn't hurt either. And it doesn't hurt to remain 'young at heart'. In Hip-Hop, anyone with any real clout, or the most followers on Social Media - are all approaching or already passed 40! A quote I always admired, A fellow Q.C. engineer, over 60, told me in my at 20's... "In my 20's I thought I knew everything... in my 30's I was sure I knew everything ... in my 40's I realized I didn't know shit - yet."

John E Stith

Dr Seuss published HORTON HEARS A WHO! when he was about 50. Producers who look for the best stuff written by 20-year-olds will find it. What they won't find is the very best stuff. Some producers are enlightened enough to understand that. Those people looking for the very best will be found on lists. Like the Academy Award and Emmy lists.

Michael Eddy

Andrew - careful - you'll make me want to move to England. Where I can probably fit in as I already almost speak the language (my nephew was just accepted into a 3 month semester abroad in GB for the coming year. I've been across the pond a couple of times. Loved it there. First time was a college trip with a cousin. Second time, was to do research - on the studio's dime - whilst writing one of the Beverly Hills Cop movies. Had a great time. My tour guide was a retired Scotland Yard Chief Inspector. I got to hang with a bunch of murder squad detectives - and take them to a pub - during working hours, to be regaled with stories - and had lunch at the home of the Captain of the Queen's polo team and toured his estate on a 3 wheel ATV - while considering it as a location). And Mr. Sewell - points well taken. But one of mine was that IF you have achieved some degree of success PRIOR to 40 - you can oftimes skate past that artificial cut off point. If you haven't - chances are that you will be dismissed for being over 40. You said "...most current SUCCESSFUL..." and that's the key point as relates to this discussion. As for your fellow QC's quote - it sounds vaguely similar to one made by Mark Twain - who once wrote - and I paraphrase here - "When I was 18 I thought my father was an idiot. By 21 - I couldn't believe how smart the old man had gotten".

Michael Eddy

John - I agree with what you're saying (although I'm not sure that I'd use the Oscars and Emmys as a barometer for what is the "best" of everything - only what happened to win in a given year. Those awards are campaigned for and sometimes devolve into popularity contests - and a tough way to gauge quality when there can be 4 excellent pieces of work in any given category of 5 nominees and you can only vote for one). But I think we're veering a bit off the track here. I don't think anyone who has posted on this thread is in any way in favor of a grey list, and there have been many terrific posts as to why it is idiotic. That is not Dain's point. The point is - does it - or has it existed? And the answer to that is an unequivocal yes. the reasoning behind it is moronic as others have been quick to point out - and hopefully, the lawsuit I mentioned has gone a ways toward taking much of the air out of that stupid balloon.

John E Stith

Right, I certainly agree it exists for some producers. I was trying to say that those who use it are shortchanging themselves (as well as the writers they pass by) and that ultimately that hurts their own careers because they're not finding the very best possible scripts. In a way, it's a self-correcting problem, but it's a slow process.

Lise Pyles

John, won't get off-track but a minute, but when I read your name, I had to go look it up. I met you when you spoke at a Denver branch of the National Writer's Club once. I bought your book, Redshift Rendezvous, in which you drew a very cool little picture next to your autograph. We were both much younger then. As for the topic at hand, I tend to agree with you. And I am definitely cheered by Meryl Streep's new writer lab which focuses on women writers over 40. That doesn't help the men, of course, but maybe the "over 40" part will have a positive subliminal influence on other studio execs, which will help all writers (male and female) who have reached that milestone and beyond.

JD Glasscock

Don't know if I agree with that.....if they think a script is gonna make them a lot of money and is really good they are not gonna go but hell we cant use this, this person is over 40, and I worked on the whole season of The Last Ship and every writer they ahd was over 40

Stuart Wright

I think the question is whether an over 40 year old will put up with stupidity from much younger devt execs... I'm not saying either camp is right or wrong... Just that wisdom brings its own confidence and breaking in seems to involve selling your gran for a meeting

W. Keith Sewell

I agree with you Michael, that it does exists, but, like JD, I think the overall quality and marketability of the project overrides 'age descrimination'. Now what may happen in the room, some of the more fear-filled executives will be apprehensive about giving it a "yes" if they're staring across the table at a 60 year old scribe with a knockout 'coming of age' comedy with a 13 year old adolescent female as the lead... But who should they seek to write it, the thirteen year old adolescent? Truth be told, that may not be far from 'the reality' these days... In some cases, they may option or purchase it with the intent to have it rewritten, (or updated) by someone in their 20's and 30's or definitely directed by someone in that age group.

John E Stith

Thanks very much, Lise! And I agree, there are some good forces at work that counter age bias. And some cultures actually look up to the older members as the wiser members. :)

David Levy

@Stuart: I was able to get great notes and input from someone younger who has been in the industry longer than I have. Have to be a good judge of character and see the bullshit. As long as your work is damn good and people see a project worth pushing forward no one will care about age. Bring the same level of energy and excitement everyday.

Michael Eddy

Keith and JD - I also agree that the overall quality and marketability should automatically override any thoughts as to the age of the writer. If they got it right - they got it right. I also agree with your thought that once they acquire a younger skewing script from an older writer - step one is probably to hire a writer in his or her 20s to do the revisions. Also - IMO - the central conceit on this thread - is not whether buyers will be prejudiced against either older writers with a track record OR with a hot, well written, marketable spec that's available - the prejudice is more along the lines of agents who do not want to take on over 40 writers for representation and buyers looking for writers for OPEN WRITING ASSIGNMENTS - who also would prefer to go younger rather than grey. If it's a cattle call audition for an assignment - and you come in to pitch - or be pitched to if they don't know you and your agent can get you in the room - and you look to be of a certain age - they're always looking young and hungry over older (even if established). And JD - thrilled to hear about the writers room at The Last Ship. I've watched the show since it went on last year. A lot of fun - and Rhona Mitra ain't hard to look at.

Richard Willett

Not to belittle the problem (which is real) but getting anywhere in this business is such a crapshoot. Younger writers have their own list of grievances. But yes, indeed, as Michael Eddy pointed out, David Seidler wrote THE KING'S SPEECH when he was in his early seventies. He'd also been diagnosed with cancer. He sold the script, the cancer went into remission, and he won an Oscar. It's such an eccentric endeavor in the first place that I tend to think my being older (along with my being, like Seidler, a playwright -- talk about musty!) is just another interesting, intriguing, and terrific thing about me that the right agent/manager/producer will be drawn to. I'm currently working with one producer almost twenty years younger than me and being actively courted by one probably almost thirty years younger. We have met many times in person and have never discussed age.

Bob Kiely

I think age would be an issue in most TV sitcoms, but much less so in hour long TV dramas or feature film scripts, and as has been pointed out, the TV viewing demographic is getting continually older. I do believe that a strong script will outweigh all other considerations.

W. Keith Sewell

I don't think age comes into play that much in TV, especially sitcoms, most networks are looking for show-runners with experience, Show-runners are looking for writers with sitcom experience. Comedic timing is of the upmost importance in sitcom writing, imo. Michael, this observation of yours I definitely believe is in the mix: But maybe it's becoming less of a factor due to the enormous need for quality content, especially on the cable, and inter-networks. " the prejudice is more along the lines of agents who do not want to take on over 40 writers for representation and buyers looking for writers for OPEN WRITING ASSIGNMENTS - who also would prefer to go younger rather than grey."

Michael Eddy

Bob - I feel as if I'm talking in circles here, but the platform does not matter - age discrimination is just that - it is an artificial cutoff point imposed on the talent by the buyers and the representatives of same. It doesn't matter if it's sitcoms or hour long dramas or cable or features. It's an idiotic move against those with experience. And as for the TV demographic getting older - the networks are STILL aiming for the 18-24 viewers - those with buying power - because THEIR PARENTS ARE STILL BUYING FOR THEM!! And if you read the Neilsons and checks the cancellations - although CBS is one of the older networks in terms of average age of viewership - and still #1 - all the networks are guilty of axing series which have excellent ratings (That Kathy Bates law show a couple years back, recently Longmire...) but skew older. They have canceled Top 20 shows because the viewers are over 50. So what makes uyou think they're looking to staff up on over 50 writers to write the shows that they don't want on their networks - EVEN with a large viewership? And W. Keith - yes - the show runners should have experience - and some hire older writers with track records - but you can't make a blanket statement like "comedic timing is of the utmost importance in sitcom writing" and make it sound as if timing comes with experience. Louis C.K.? Amy Schuler is 31 and the hottest thing going. All the veteran comics turned talk show hosts are retiring and all the new blood is exactly that. Please don't give the networks too much credit for knowing what they're doing. If they did - the death rate of new series every year wouldn't be so high.

Other topics in Screenwriting:

register for stage 32 Register / Log In