BIZ TIP TUESDAY:

WRITING OVER 40


There was a fellow on a screenwriting board I frequent who was lamenting ageism in Hollywood. He was past 40, and believed that was the reason for his lack of success in the biz. As a guy who is also on the wrong side of 40, I asked him a couple of questions about where he had encountered the age problems.

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He thought he wasn't getting a fair read because his scripts featured protagonists dealing with adult issues like mid-life crises and male pattern baldness and divorce and being laid off from the job you've been working at for 25 years. Though stats say the over-35s are the fastest growing segment of the movie audience, movies are still the place where kids go on dates. So that 15-25 year-old high school and young adult audience is usually the target for films. They are the regular film goers - look at the people in the ticket line with you on Friday night. You'll see a lot of high school kids on dates or in groups. Hey, they may get their money from their parents, but who buys the tickets and makes the choice? Those 15-25 year olds! They pick the film. If you just look at the numbers, you'll find that 15-25 year olds are the core cinema audience. They go every weekend. There are reasons for this - they are dating age, they don't have kids keeping them at home, they have more disposable income. Older folks go to the cinema infrequently - usually for some event film like MAN OF STEEL or AVENGERS or the fall and Holiday films that tend to skew older. They are not there every single weekend like a 15-25 year old - that age group is where the money is. Even the most popular holiday Oscar buzz films that attract adult viewers don't make much money - THERE WILL BE BLOOD, a brilliant movie, only made $40 million. Total. Last year TRANSFORMERS 3 made over $64 million in its first week.

Yes, every once in a while a film aimed at adults, like this weekend's #13 movie BEFORE MIDNIGHT, , but most films are aimed at those 15-25 yerar olds who went to see MAN OF STEEL... and go to the cinema almost every weekend. They are the regular audience for the movies we write.

But wait, you cry! You don't go to the cinema - too many of those damned noisy kids - you watch movies on DVD on your massive plasma screen TV! Though I am always first to note that DVD makes more money than cinema, it is still largely an *after market* for films that debut in the cinema. Hollywood doesn't know how to gauge what films will do well on DVD and did poorly at cinemas - and that's partially because most movies that do well in the cinema also do well on DVD. So the ones that are DVD hits and cinema flops are the exceptions. Even if we just look at movies aimed at older adults (as Hollywood sees us) we still have a problem - some are hits, others complete flops on DVD. Hollywood is all about *investment* in movies - and they want to invest in a sure thing. Movies that did well in the cinema are a sure thing on DVD. Making a movie that will probably flop in cinemas but *might* make money from older folks watching them in their home cinemas? How do we know they aren't just going to watch LOST or 24 or some TV movie? TV movies are usually aimed at an older audience... you know, our age. Hollywood tends to make films for the cinema aimed at people who regularly go to the cinema. If most men wear size 10 shoes, you can make all of the size 5 shoes you want but you aren't going to sell as many. You can make all of the size 15 shoes you want, and you aren't going to sell as many. So Hollywood focuses most of their production on the people who buy tickets every single week.

THE 15-25 YEAR OLD IN ALL OF US

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I told this writer that I though we had the advantage over those punk kid writers. See, we've been kids! They have never been over 40. We can write about kid characters AND their parents! And mine our own experiences. We can write about Jim in AMERICAN PIE (I was once just like him) *and* Jim's dad (I'm fighting desperately not to become him now). You're as young as your characters feel. There's no reason you have to think like a 40 year old in this business... in fact, it helps if you don't.

I go to the cinema every Friday night with a group of friends and I'm, um, twice the age of most people in that target audience. But I don't *think old*. The stories I write are for the 15-25 year old in all of us. You don't need to write about high school kids - most films are about adults. But not adults dealing with male pattern baldness and how to take care of their aging parents and that second mortgage you took out just before housing prices took a nose dive. Harrison Ford is an old man, the last INDIANA JONES movie was *still* made for 15-25 year olds... and the 15-25 year old in all of us. The last INDIANA JONES movie was written by a guy closing in on 50. You may have noticed that Bruce Wayne is no longer in high school, doesn't use acne products... but still manages to appeal to that target audience of 15-25 year olds, plus the 15-25 year old in all of us. That's why that film is the #4 most popular film *of all time* in the United States - it appeals to all age groups. You know what's #3 on that list? AVENGERS! But those folks over 40 who saw those movies weren't looking for a story about their problems - they were looking for a two and a half hour *escape* from their problems. They wanted to live an adventure. To feel like a kid again. The great thing about THE DARK KNIGHT is that it is a big exciting comic book movie - with a brain... and AVENGERS is just fun! That's what happens when an older writer creates material for that younger audience - we can make it fun without making it stupid. That is the special gift of writers over 40. But if you write exclusively for an over 40 audience? Hollywood doesn't want to read it. If you write for the 15-25 year old in all of us - with the knowledge and wisdom of a 40 year old? Your film makes *over* half a *billion* dollars in the USA (well over a billion worldwide). Don't think old!

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Who are the 20 year old stars? Have trouble with that one? Okay,here's an easy one - who are the stars who are between 40 and 50? Yikes! It's almost all of them! Tom Cruise may be wacky, but he's still one of the biggest stars... and he doesn't make movies about male pattern baldness. He makes big action movies like those MISSION IMPOSSIBLE flicks and MINORITY REPORT (and steals the show in TROPIC THUNDER). Just like 50 year old Madonna, Tom Cruise doesn't act his age. He may play roles that are his age, but he doesn't play them as an old fart - he plays them like a guy who feels young. And Cruise stars in movies where he gets to run and jump and shoot guns - like a kid playing in the backyard. The number one star is Will Smith - who plays smart ass superheroes and vampire hunters and guys who punch aliens in the nose. More "play" roles! Kids play army and cops and robbers and cowboys and indians... and that's what movies are: Play. Even if you watch movies at home on your big screen plasma TV, when you put in the DVD, you press PLAY.

A movie script is play... not male pattern baldness and making noises when you stand up.

Hollywood is run by 20 year olds.... Who have no idea how old you are when they read your script. If you write a fun escapist script that appeals to that 15-25 year old audience (even though the lead character is "movie star age" - which is over 40) that 23 year old reader will never know you're old. They'll be reading a script *they* would stand in line to see, and think it was written by someone like them... you know, 23 years old.

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A friend of mine retired, took up screenwriting, and sold a script... to Will Smith's company. Will Smith is the number one star - and is also older than 25. He is not playing any high school students trying to get laid or college kids challenging evil frat houses to surfing contests. Will Smith plays *adults*. But adults who fight zombies or aliens invading Earth or are superheroes (though that film didn't fly). This script wasn't some Will Smith attempt to win an Oscar, either - it was a comedy action script. The kind of script that appeals tp that 15-25 year old audience. I read an early draft of this script and it was fun. It was PLAY.

What happens after they buy your script that is perfect for 15-25 year olds? Everyone in town meets with you and they see how old you are. Now, if you keep creating projects the people want to buy - and some get made and make money - I think the gray in your hair won't matter much. Plus, they have those Just For Men products. But you have to write the kind of fun film that 15-25 year olds will line up to see on Friday night. That film can still have a brain, like THE DARK KNIGHT and AVENGERS, but needs to appeal to the target audience, too.

LEVEL OF COMMITMENT

I learned more about this guy through e-mail. He's been writing for 20 years... But has only completed a couple of scripts.

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Wait a minute! Maybe age isn't the problem, here. I think this guy may say he wants to be a writer, but he's not DOING anything about it (passive protagonist). I think he may not want to be a writer bad enough. He may not be willing to make sacrifices to become a writer (ask me about my personal life - I don't have one. I buy frames at Rite Aid and KEEP the pictures of the models that come with them - and I'm not a time traveler like Vincent D'Onofrio in HAPPY ACCIDENTS). The one thing we have to offer as older writers is MORE EXPERIENCE and a DEPTH OF WORK. This fellow had less experience writing than many 20 year olds! I know high school kids who have written more feature scripts!

In a great piece of writing, Lawrence Kasdan has the future homicide victim explain his success in BODY HEAT by saying you have to do what it takes, WHATEVER it takes. That's what we have to do to make it as a writer. (Later in the scene, the protagonist is not only being insulted by the antagonist, he's realizing that what the guy says is TRUE. He DOESN'T have what it takes. He's a failure. Great scene - how many protagonists realize they're failures?)

So here's the thing - I am probably not the most talented writer in Hollywood, but I'm dedicated. If #2 has to try harder, imagine how hard you have to try at #5,674,893 (that's probably my rank in the screenwriter food-chain). I actually like writing, so I do a lot of it. Sometimes it's work, but work isn't a bad thing... just a thing.

A 20 year old doesn't have much to lose, a 40 year old often has all kinds of things they don't want to lose (not just our hair). They own their home, they have a family, they have all kinds of things that take up their time. You know, after a long day of work, you may not have the energy to write anything. Now, you probably have fond memories of college, when you could pull all nighters and still show up for morning classes. Back then, you had energy to spare. Today? Heck, it's tough for me to get out of bed sometimes!

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Older writers not only have less energy, we are less willing to take chances or give up things for our dreams. Once that script goes out wide, and everyone wants to meet with you, and you buy those Just For Men products in order to fool them, you are going to have around 50 meetings at studios and producer's offices - probably two a day. All of these meetings are in Los Angeles. Yes, we have telephones and even videoconferencing now - but people still want to shake your hand and meet you face to face. These meetings are job interviews - they don't do them by phone. So, let's say you spend a month in Los Angeles doing all of these meetings. You will need to do this every time a script goes out, and you will need to probably need to keep sending scripts out and doing meetings until you are hired or sell something. We're looking at years, That's a lot of months in Los Angeles. Do you think most people over 25 are willing to uproot themselves and move to LA and work some crap job (well, a good job if you can get it)? That gives that young writer an edge over you. They have nothing to lose, so they just move to Los Angeles. They can find the same McJob in Los Angeles as they could back home - and they can live in some roommate situation with one guy who's in a band and one guy who wants to be an actor... and both are always late with rent.

If you can't just pick up stakes and move here, the *least* you can do is have a depth of material and be willing to use your vacation time to squeeze in all of those meetings. People do that. They cram as many meetings into their vacation as they can. A friend of mine - married with a kid - not 15-25 years old - just spent a week in Los Angeles doing meetings. He told everybody when he'd be here and set up a whole slate of meetings beforehand. The great thing is, if you have a bunch of companies that want to meet with you and you are from out of town, they really will try to work around your schedule. You can probably do all of those 50 meetings in one (crazy) shot - then go home and need a vacation from your vacation!

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You have to be willing to work as hard as a 20 year old for your dreams. You may think you've already worked hard enough to get where you are now - but you are starting from scratch when you begin a new career. You need to work as hard as the new hire who is still in their probationary period and could be fired at any time. You need to have the energy and drive and hunger of that 20 year old. You need to be willing to put in the time.

Screenwriting is not an easy job to land. You don't get out of college, fill out a job ap, and BINGO you're a screenwriter. EVERYONE wants to be a screenwriter, but there's no set career path - no resumes and human resources departments and places that will hire you right out of college. No one is ever hiring - you have to convice them to CREATE a job for you! You've got to fight for the job... and stay on your feet even though you don't know if the match will last ten rounds or forty rounds. Do you have the strength to hang in there? Are you WORKING on screenwriting, or just talking about it?

I know lots of people with only a couple of screenplays after 20 years... Sure, they're over 40, but it isn't age that's stopping their career. They just aren't working hard enough...

But it's never too late to start.
Shouldn't you be working on your screenplay?


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