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09/07/2002 - You're Getting Older

Hollywood ageism has recently been named an injustice comparable to racism and sexism by a coalition spearheaded by the California Commission on Aging. This outrage is not only voiced on behalf of actors, but of writers, too. From what I've heard us writers can all expect to be thrown out with the trash no later than the age of forty-five.

Of course, I'm not a professional writer, so do I have to worry about this? Of course - you don't think that story editors survive for long, do you? No one aspires to be a story editor permanently; it's a steppingstone to becoming a creative executive or a television producer/showrunner. No one is supposed to park it at the story editor's desk.

But I have, at least for the time being, because I don't wish to pursue the executive route. Unfortunately I care only about the writing. I'm not excited by the whole "making the movie" part. My production experiences have been nightmares of sleep-deprived trudgery and daily compromise. On the whole, I find many script-to-screen endeavors akin to watching a healthy plant slowly wither and die.

So I plug away, working and believing in the writing dream, knowing that even lower-level staffers have a limited shelf life. You can remain an assistant indefinitely if you're a whiz at the job, but ladder-climbers will cross you off their social roster because perpetual assistants frighten them. Or, they feel (perhaps rightly) that perpetual assistants subscribe to the nothing-ventured-nothing-lost mentality.

The point I'm inching ever closer to here is that no matter how old you are or what your entertainment job is, you must stretch your years in Hollywood much like you stretch your dollars. It's not just middle-aged writers who should fear the hands of time; the teen writing prodigies are scratching at the door, waiting to boot you thirty-somethings out of their way. Not only are there younger writers advancing from the rear, there's also a constant influx of twenty-something executives. Imagine how awkward it will be to someday pitch your baby to a twenty-four-year-old!

I'm not encouraging you to worry about this because you can't help your age (after lying about it to a believable degree). Nor am I hinting that you should covertly visit the Beverly Hills fountain of youth. Plastic surgery may keep you pert, but let's be serious, writers can't afford that. However, it doesn't hurt to present yourself as young at heart, so here are some thoughts to keep your image dewy.

No one expects you to be ravishing, but it does pay to be physically fit. You don't have to be skinny, but really BE fit; vigor transmits regardless of whether you're trim or tubby. Writers who stay physically active and eat their veggies are more likely to stay mentally active, or at least that's the common mentality. Sluggish twenty-year-olds can look limp next to a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed forty-something. A good rule of thumb is to appear capable of kicking the ass of the executive you're pitching to. Or at least try to look fit enough to beat him at arm wrestling.

How you dress can also give you an edge. Iron that shirt and trim the threads. Don't wear crappy old shoes. Experiment with appropriate trends for your age group. Appear interested in what's new, because it's part of the zeitgeist of the movie-going public you hope to entertain. You don't have to wear silly things, like the current and idotic Sexy-Hippie look, just have your finger somewhere near the pulse.

What I'm saying may offend because it has nothing to do with writing. You may think I'm nuts; that no writer should ever have to worry about more than their writing or pitching skills. No writer should stoop to ingratiate themselves physically, nor should they compromise their sensibilities, but this is Los Angeles, not Should. If you can't cope with a certain amount of superficiality, then move back to Should. Maybe I'll come visit -- it sounds like a really nice place.

If changing your wardrobe is too repugnant a notion, how about more pragmatic touches? Update your glasses or scriptbag -- that's a writerly way to accessorize. If you like and use gadgets, flaunt them. Executives love gadgets. LOVE THEM. The shinier and more unnecessary the better. If you can chitty-chat about the newest goodie at Fry's Electronics, there's your pre-pitch patter. If you're meeting with women, talk about travel or restaurants (unless she's a gadget freak too). If you never go anywhere and subsist on Hot Pockets, don't worry. What do you think lonelyplanet.com and Los Angeles Magazine are for?

Now that you look presentable and current, it's time to update your 'tude. As we all know, one of the great things about getting older is the wonderful perspective it provides. No matter how bad circumstances get, you know yourself and you know how to assess others. When bitterness and futility rear their head you learn to laugh instead of moping over your Depeche Mode CDs. You may even grow wise.

Unfortunately though, many people in their thirties, forties and fifties pull out their worldly coping mechanisms to ill effect. Self-deprecating jokes about your slipped disc or your cholesterol count are great when you're with pals. In the room, however, such remarks can erode your image. You may be trying to accept and love your stage of life and give the others a laugh, but the message received is "I'm defined by my age, and I'm no spring chicken." Edit needless conversational references to your failing memory, your latest eye exam or anything "newfangled".

Don't get cocky, kid. When I first moved here I attended community college for two semesters and had classes with lots of adults. One thing I noticed was an insistence on the part of many of them to affirm first and foremost they were adults. They sought to be treated on a par with the teachers because they felt that dammit, they knew something. Instead of bringing a hungry and humble attitude, they acted like they had to prove their wordly knowledge with preachy statements instead of questions.

When the urge arises to prove what you know, instead give the other person an opportunity to prove what they know. Screenwriting is something that you probably do know about (especially if you're older!), but how to get employed and stay employed is another matter. Social graces count, even for geniuses.

Also avoid excessive bemoaning. Grumbling can help you cope and there's nothing wrong with being yourself, just recognize that younger people don't gripe constantly because they haven't become disgusted with life yet. Chronic pissing and moaning makes you seem crotchety. Try to focus on what you like; what you want; what excites you. When you focus on what's wrong with the world you audibly set yourself apart from people who still have optimism and unrealistic expectations that they will achieve their dreams.

Look at typical publicist syntax -- positively arranged statements. They embed negative realities by saying "Star X has decided to do something about their drinking problem", not "Star X still has a drinking problem and just got his butt landed back at Promises." Like publicists, executives learn to state harsh truths with positive spin and they respect the technique.

Don't be pre-emtively hostile. Staving off negative words is not just about cuddling up to the powers that be, it's about staying in control. There is a time to adamently defend yourself and your work, but when you do it prematurely you don't seem tough; you reveal your fear. Imagine Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade. Ten guns pointed at him and he'd stay cool as a cucumber. He didn't wear his buttons out for others to push.

Let's sum: Stay fit, don't dress like Wilford Brimley, don't quote Aristotle just to prove you can, don't verbally obsess over age, don't bitch and moan like Old Man Potter and relearn to talk about movies and scripts with the thrill of youth.

These suggestions won't stop the ageist axe from falling. It's a young town, full of people who think they'll never grow old and who hate older players for giving them a glimpse of the future. But in the rush to deal psychologically with age some people entirely discount the behavioral attributes of youth. I assure you that I wouldn't go back to my early twenties for all the money in the world, but there are aspects of innocence and optimism that we all would do well to rediscover as writers, and as people.


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