Older scribes up against youth-focused industry

Even if there weren’t a possible strike looming, it’s hardly hearts and flowers for older writers. The gloomy outlook was highlighted by the May 8 release of the WGA’s diversity report, which showed little progress on any front: Writers in their 40s took in the top earnings in TV and film, but the actual employment levels were far below younger writers.

“Employment share for the largest group of older writers has remained flat in recent years, and older writers are significantly underrepresented on show staffs (as opposed to all TV employment), particularly at major networks,” report author Darnell Hunt wrote. “These latter observations raise red flags when we consider that the over-40 share of guild members actually has been increasing in recent years.”

One of the less-publicized aspects of the report shows the usual steady declines among writers over 50, with only 45% employment among those between ages 51 and 60, 21% between 61 and 70 and 8% between 71 and 80. Writers and agents are reluctant to speak out about ageism for attribution but insist they feel it.

“When I walk into a pitch meeting and see guys in their 20s with the same shoes, glasses and gelled hair, I know they’re thinking that I’m an old fogy who’s probably just dusting off an old script,” one 54-year-old writer admits. “I admit that an older writer probably can’t write something like ‘Disturbia.’ And I think they know that they’re not going to be able to beat up an older writer like they can with a younger writer — that a guy with 40 credits isn’t going to take their bad notes and isn’t going to do 15 free rewrites.”

Inside jobs

One tenpercenter says: “It’s absolutely grim for older writers unless they’re totally established as a closer in features or someone who develops their own material in TV. The only way older writers are going to get on TV staffs is if they’re friends with the showrunner.”

Ann Marcus, who won an Emmy for writing on “Mary Hartman Mary Hartman,” says the ageism isn’t anything particularly new.

“I can be courageous on this issue because I’ve done OK in my career, but it’s wrong for writers to be locked out just because they’re perceived as being too old,” notes Marcus, who also served eight terms on the WGA West board. “I had a great agent and worked into my 70s as a supervising producer on the final years of ‘Knots Landing,’ but I didn’t suddenly lose the ability to write.”

Marcus, who hasn’t had a TV gig in a decade, carved out a new career by writing and exec producing a pair of indie features — “Channels,” starring Ed Asner, and “For Heaven’s Sake,” with Florence Henderson.

“As we got older, ageism in the industry really started to affect us as the executives started getting younger because they don’t think we can write for younger audiences,” said Rocky Kalish, whose credits with wife Irma include “F Troop” and “Good Times.” “We sort of outgrew our agents. There’s no way we would be able to get back to where we were even though we have a lot of good, fresh ideas.”

Irma Kalish, who served multiple terms on the board, believes the WGA leaders and execs only pay lip service to the issue of ageism against older writers. “The WGA doesn’t really practice what it preaches when it comes to ageism,” she notes.

The Kalishes, who recently received honorary doctorates from Syracuse U., continue to work every day, and Irma’s managed to get two mystery novels published. Neither feels that what they’re doing is outdated.

“Our ideas — how families deal with each other — are still applicable to what’s going on right now in network TV,” Rocky Kalish notes.

The issue of veteran TV writers has also emerged recently via developments in a 7-year-old age-discrimination case filed against the industry. Marcus and Larry Mintz are two of the more than 150 plaintiffs in the case, with Mintz noting dryly that 13 plaintiffs have passed away since the case was filed.

Shed some light

“I’m biting the hand that used to feed me,” Mintz quips. “We’re in a business where seniority doesn’t help — it actually hurts, and I think that’s what happened with the filing of the suit is that some of the ageism has gone back into the closet. The companies have become a little more discreet with their prejudices.”

Additionally, the bread-and-butter of employment for many writers — sitcoms — has dropped off, with less than half the number that there were a decade ago — and Mintz believes the relentless pursuit of young writers is partly to blame. “When the companies decided to purge the ranks of older writers, it kind of broke the creative chain,” he asserts.

Earlier this year, 70,000 mailings related to the lawsuit went out to former and current WGA members and their beneficiaries for information on guild members’ residual payments and health benefit files. Depositions started last month, according to Paul Sprenger, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Sprenger tells Variety that the decision on whether to certify the case as a class action is about two years away.

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