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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: June 18, 2009 11:09 AM

What Hollywood is Not Letting You See


Several years back, an article in the Los Angeles Times dealt with Hollywood closing its doors to writers over the age of 40. In it, a producer was quoted as saying that he could hire two 25-year old writers for what it would cost him to hire one Alvin Sargent.

(Alvin Sargent had recently written the Oscar-winning "Ordinary People," as well as "Paper Moon," "Julia," the "A Star is Born" remake, and many others.)

I wrote a letter to the newspaper, which it published. All I asked was one question - "Why in the world would you want to??"

It's worth noting that in the following years, Mr. Sargent (despite thoughtlessly becoming over 50) continued to write or co-write such films as "What About Bob?," "Other People's Money" and "Hero."

Oh, and also all three "Spiderman" movies. The last, by the way, when he was 80 years old.

Ageism, among its many problems, including being illegal, is...well, insane. After all, among the various discriminatory "isms" (each of them insidious), it is the only one where those practicing it are guaranteed, with good health, to be their own victims one day.

And the losers in all this are not just the writers, but you. More on that in a bit.

But further, this ageism is foolish for yet another reason (beyond being illegal, but I mentioned that). Writing is a profession where skills actually improve as you get older. Writers gain experience in the avalanche of life, they fine-tune their craft, discover their voice. Almost to a person, writers shudder at the early scripts they wrote, even if successful. And the reality of life is that every writer who is 70 has been 25. But no writer who is 25 has yet been 30. You see, writers actually pay detailed attention to those around them daily. It's their job, it's what they do. And if some may not understand Twitter - name the last movie you saw about Twitter.

What people love in movies first are stories that enthrall us, and characters that fascinate us. Period.

To be clear, none of this is to suggest that only writers older than 40 know how to write scripts. Far from it. A great writer is a great writer, whatever their age. But it's the "whatever their age" that is the operative point.

But finally, ageism in screenwriting is pointless for one other reason. Let's play a game. What's your favorite movie? Got it?

Okay. Who wrote it?

Close to 99.6% of the time, no one can say. I include studio executives, producers and agents. And they are movie professionals whose actual job it is to know who write movies. And they don't have a clue who wrote their favorite movie.

(Some savants actually know the answer, and I admirably salute you all. But it gets stickier when moving to a second favorite movie, and third.)

And here's the even stickier, main question: how old were they?

The point is, as far as any executive knows, the person who wrote their Very Favorite Movie Ever could have been a 62-year-old Lithuanian woman.

Which begs the question:

"Why in the world would you care anything about the age, sex or race of an invisible screenwriter? Why isn't the only question you ask when reading a screenplay - 'Is it good?'"

And there isn't an answer.

The closest you hear is mumbling something about feeling more comfortable working with people their own age, or being intimidated by someone with more experience. The response to that is simple -

Get another job. You are in the wrong profession. You are holding American popular culture in your hands, and if you are too insecure to talk to another adult, you are too insecure to oversee a $60 million production. Get out, give audiences a break. They're paying enough at the box office. Why stick them with your personal limitations?

Because ultimately, beyond the writers, it's the public who suffers.

Let me explain.

Hold on to your chair, the stories are curdling.

Steve Martin tells of trying to pitch a movie based on the classic play "Cyrano de Bergerac." No studio executive knew what he was talking about, and all rejected it. Luckily, though, he was Steve Martin and knew the studio president, Guy McElwaine. And happily McElwaine was a bright adult who actually loved the play. And most fortunately of all, the movie got made - because otherwise no one would ever have seen the glorious "Roxanne."

A friend once pitched a version of Sherlock Holmes. "Who's that?" a studio executive asked, later thinking the world-renowned, fictional detective was a real person. Needless-to-say, it never got made. But imagine if that same executive had been pitched the new Sherlock Holmes movie which stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. You wouldn't see it this December.

Another friend was pitching a buddy movie to an executive who prided herself on the subject. "Let's discuss great buddy movies," she enthused, "I'm an expert." My friend immediately mentioned, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." "What's that?" the executive asked.

Honest.

And the stories like these are endless.

By the way, some people reading this won't know all these references. You should, they're major parts of our cultural history - but if you don't, it's okay. After all, you're not a studio executive, producer or agent. But they should, it's their job to know these things. They are all guardians of American popular culture, and not knowing its foundation is a failure of responsibility.

And you suffer. Because not knowing the references that doesn't mean you wouldn't enjoy the results. Most people likely didn't know "Cyrano," but loved "Roxanne." Most people never heard of the real Butch Cassidy, but the movie was a phenomenon. And even if you've never heard of Sherlock Holmes, it's reasonable to think audiences will go to the movie this Christmas.

You suffer. Remember: your favorite movie could likely be written by someone over 40. If today's Hollywood executives had their way, your favorite movie wouldn't exist.

This all came to mind on Monday when the Writers Guild of America began this year's "Seasoned Readings," a program that promotes the works of their older writers. To bring attention to the series, they started with a new TV pilot for a proposed six-part miniseries, "Pinnacle," by Larry Gelbart.

For writers, the name Larry Gelbart is enough. Just know that his voluminous works include "Oh, God!," "Tootsie," developing the TV series "M*A*S*H," HBO's "Barbarians at the Gate," and two Tony Award-winning musicals, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "City of Angels."

At the age of 81, Larry Gelbart is a rarity - not that he's still active, but that he's more active than most A-list writers. He recently premiered a play, "Better Late," is developing two Broadway musicals, and also two movies. And more. But make no mistake, there are Hollywood offices that don't want to work with an 81-year-old writer, whoever he is. Their loss. And ours.

Because in a lifetime of acclaimed comedy writing, "Pinnacle" was unlike anything in Larry Gelbart's career. Deeply serious, but filled with sardonic humor, it explores the world of 1937 Berlin with its interweaving tales of evil, moral emptiness, hope and artistic drive, all with a menagerie of compelling characters both fictional and real.

A miniseries of the remarkable "Pinnacle" would fit in today's world of dark TV filled with Mafia families, murderous cops, and fathers making meth amphetamine. Its historic setting is no less challenging for viewers attuned to ancient "Rome" or the Wild West of "Deadwood."

But whether "Pinnacle" is ever produced, there is a larger point at play here. The script is rich, vibrant, funny and dark - the work of someone fully in charge of his craft, telling a complex story masterfully, dealing with material he never could have touched at the beginning of his career, when he wrote for "The Red Buttons Show," "Four Star Revue" and "Hooray for Love."

And that's the point. When writers of any age - or women - or minorities - are blocked from simply getting in the door ...forget that it's illegal, or makes no sense. Forget that writers suffer and that popular culture suffers. Just know that you suffer. Because writing at its peak is silenced, and the result is that expectations of audiences is lowered. I'm not referring to High Art or even serious material. Indeed, great silliness can be a treasure. I'm talking only about wonderful material whatever the subject, done by artists with a lifetime of craft, who can tell a story and create characters and write humor as well as anyone. And sometimes better. Because they've spent a lifetime learning how.

There are brilliant young writers. There are great older writers. And in the end, all an audience cares about is one thing - is it a good story? Not, "How old was the writer?"


UPDATE: Larry Gelbart has given me permission to state that one of his film projects is an assignment from Warner Bros. to write a new sequel of "Oh, God!" (for which he wrote the original, but not the previous sequels). The other script is an original about the Bush Administration, titled, "S*** Happens."