How to Make Money and Thrive as an Older Screenwriter

Joel Eisenberg

Why you should listen to the naysayers, then prove them wrong.

Introduction

When people who care attempt to talk you out of a writing career, they may justify their argument by reminding you of your age.

“You’re too old,” some would say. “I’d rather you don’t waste your time or set yourself up for disappointment.”

Or, concerning others not so caring who actively root for your failure, perhaps they did not attain their own professional goals. Emphasis on “did not attain.” Past-tense.

They gave up, and you’re resented for still trying.

Do either of these instances resonate?

Listen to the naysayers, each and every one regardless of their reasons, then work that much harder to prove them all wrong.

Ageism

Ageism is the bane of an older writer’s existence, particularly proliferating in the entertainment sector.

For information on an ongoing 2020 Writers Guild of America West Career Longevity Committee effort to combat this scourge, as led by chairperson Catherine Clinch, see Deadline article here. The subject of the piece is Catherine’s blistering open letter to the industry about age discrimination, which is included in its entirety.

I encourage everyone to read the Deadline piece now, and return to thisarticle when you are through.

Onward.

Common perceptions regarding older writers in film and television:

  • They are not as salable as older writers.
  • They are no longer capable of meeting their responsibilities.
  • They are no longer cognitively capable of producing work that excels.

I’ll add this: An old writer in Hollywood is considered, on average based on who’s asked, 40 years old. Yes, this means some executives, agents, et al. actually believe that age to be younger. And yet, primarily in film, many older writers today with a track record have continued gainful employment. With a track record being the operative turn of phrase. David Chase and Lawrence Konner, for example, are in their 70s. Together, they wrote “The Sopranos” prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark.” Though the film’s reception was muted, the statistic remains.

In the world of television staffing, a disarming number of showrunners of top-rated programs can no longer find work. As a former “The Walking Dead” showrunner recently said to me, “Ageism is real. I can’t get hired anymore, so I’m writing book.”

From the Deadline article: Clinch was particularly critical of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for having left older workers out of its recent inclusion efforts. She wrote earlier this month that the Academy “issued a ruling that in order to qualify for the Best Picture category. a film must meet a set of standards that are ‘designed to encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience.’ This list of standards includes ‘racial and ethnic groups, women, LGBTQ+ and people with cognitive or physical disabilities or who are deaf or hard of hearing.’ Conspicuously missing was any reference to age.”

Catherine lists in her letter several other perceptions of older writers, including:

  • If they cannot get representation they must not be good.
  • They’ve been out of work so long they don’t understand the current market.
  • They won’t be able to keep up with everybody else.
  • They won’t fit the vibe in the room.

Age discrimination in any form is a Federal offense.

Perpetuating the practice is, simply, illegal.

So, what can we do as older writers to level the playing field?

10 Proactive Steps For Older Screenwriters to Ignite or Re-Ignite Their Careers

Disclaimer: Nothing here implies a guarantee of any kind. The bullet points that follow are based on personal experiences, and the experiences of well-established others I’ve interviewed for books or social media outlets. As with anything, balancing personal responsibilities with diligence and strategy is immensely important.

  1. Negotiate a low- to no-cost option or shopping agreement for a book, article, or other piece of existing IP (intellectual property). With the caveat that a studio or network will make the ultimate decisions, attach yourself as a writer-producer, or executive producer. To address the gorilla in the room: I’ve personally taken a no-cost shopping agreement for a New York Times bestseller, and have also optioned — at no fee — rights to a decades-old but once hugely popular television show. It can be done. In both instances, the network retained me, though in the end neither project was made. In the case of the second, I still earned $52,000 + requisite WGA Health and Pension for selling my pilot and format based on that no-cost option. See article about options and shopping agreements here, and about cultivating a successful screenwriting business by thinking like a producer here.
  2. Network for the sake of partnering with a writer and/or producer more established and/or current than you. Social media is a haven for such networking opportunities. If you have no rep, and even if you do, have an attorney draft an agreement among the parties once you attain legit interest. No, it’s not easy, but again, I’ve done this successfully and continue to do so. Established creative entities in some instances will even open doors you never knew existed.
  3. Don’t slack off. Don’t quit. Cold call production companies using contact information listed on imdbpro.com. I consistently share this advice, and many screenwriters shy away from it. If even a single production company out of 20 calls you back, set your mind on calling 100 in a month and work with that average. By the end of that month you just may have attained a handful of valuable new contacts. You are calling, to be clear, to ask for an email address so you can query with a logline, and information about attachments, if any, for the purpose of setting up a formal pitch meeting via Zoom or in-person. Those companies that do not accept unsolicited material will let you know. For the others, this is how to get your foot in the door without a rep, and you will be surprised how many will continue the conversation — following a meeting that may expose your age range — based on the strength of your pitch. If a viable production company responds to your project, expect them to take the lead and work to attach valuable players.
  4. On the television side, acquire unsold projects from other writers, or team with other writers, and similar to the first bullet point above attach yourself as a producer-writer or EP. Make your calls, network online, attend conferences … whatever it takes but the message is to once again be proactive and think like a producer.
  5. Write a book. If the scripts you are writing are not selling, pivot and turn a favored screenplay into a novel. If you find a traditional publisher, great. If not, sign with a small digital publisher if you can, or self-publish as a last resort. In all instances, you have now created IP. Once your book is in galley form, attend trade shows such as Book Expo America (bookexpoamerica.com) to meet with film and television companies for the purpose of pitching your work for licensing, and conferences such as Writer’s Digest for general networking. Regarding the former, especially, Book Expo is also well-attended by numerous producers looking for the next big thing.
  6. Your work, regardless of the implementation of techniques listed here, will continue to be hard. Ours is not a business for the easily defeated. Sales and working as an older writer will not come easy. They do, though, happen, and perhaps more frequently than you may believe. Don’t quit. Ever.
  7. In terms of igniting or re-igniting motivation, check out inspirational online articles about older writers, such as this. The cliche applies. It’s never too late.
  8. Join writing organizations that have deals with major Hollywood entities. For example, if you are a horror writer, consider joining the Horror Writers Association (www.horror.org). The HWA has a deal with heavyweight entertainment industry management company Circle of Confusion (www.circleofconfusion.com), who recently signed representation deals with HWA writers whose works were accepted in a new short story anthology.
  9. This point may come across as trite to some but I promise you it is not. I ride my bike 25 miles daily, on the street, five times weekly. I feel as though I need to stay in shape to compete … as a writer. I also read a book a week. I’m 57. How many 30-year-olds work as diligently to stay in physical and mental shape? I highly recommend finding a fitness routine that works for you and sticking with it. Though at times I feel every bit my age and eat too much of my wife’s awesome cooking, I also hear I have a “young attitude” that helps me in the room. Praising with faint damnation? Perhaps, but I haven’t stopped working as a full-time writer for the past 17 years. Make your fitness work for you.
  10. The comedian Steve Martin once said something that I strive every day to meet. He said this …

This is, I believe, a perfect place to end this section. The words speak for themselves.

In Conclusion

I’ll lead out with a question: What do TikTok, YouTube, cellphones and great writing have in common? They are all tools we now have at our disposal that most of us compelled to read this article didn’t have when we were coming up.

Write compelling vids. Record them with your cellphone. Post them on outlets such as TikTok and YouTube. Be current. Take advantage of all your tools at hand.

And, support Catherine Clinch’s efforts. Years ago, Catherine was a prominent television writer who wrote for some of TV’s biggest hits at the time, such as “Jake and the Fatman,” “Hart to Hart,” “Knight Rider,” “Love Boat,” and many more. She wrote her open letter to the industry having experienced age (and sex) discrimination in the intervening years.

She fights for her, and she fights for us.

We need to continue to fight for our livelihoods as well.

All things being well, younger writers will one day become older writers. For those younger scribes reading this who may be in their career primes … you owe it to yourselves to clear a path for your own careers down the road. Start by supporting those who came before you.

Thank you for reading.

Comments / 1

Published by

I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
1807 followers

More from Joel Eisenberg

Comments / 0