I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or cyclical, but every few months, I decide to piss people off. Mind you, it’s not because I care about pissing people off, but I know that if I just offer my unvarnished opinion, there’s gonna be some blowback. The most famous example of this is probably my essay entitled Passing On The Diversity Pass, which not only annoyed some of my own readers, but was sent around the internet by outraged readers. I occasionally track back to the incoming reference links.
As a result, I know that a good amount of people out there think I’m a racist douchemonger (although I did learn one interesting thing…a number of black people are apparently horrified that white people do not wash raw meat before cooking it…a cultural divide I didn’t know existed). So it goes.
It’s your turn.
Last week, letters were mailed out to nearly seventy thousand Americans who have worked in one form or another as a professional television or screen writer. Those letters were a notice that, as a result of a class action lawsuit, lawyers were going to be getting their hands on the files kept by our health insurance fund.
We were given the option of requesting that our private data remain private.
I availed myself.
The class action lawsuit is an ageism lawsuit. The plaintiffs allege that the companies that comprise what we call “Hollywood” systematically and wrongfully discriminate against people over the age of 40, and they’re looking for payback.
One plaintiff, a man I know well and respect, has suggested that restitution take the form of financial compensation plus a new employment system in which all writing jobs be monitored and allotted across age groups.
I reject both the premise and the proposed solution with every ounce of my being.
First, let me get the obvious question out of the way.
I’m not over 40.
In 11 days, I’ll be 36.
On the other hand, if someone found out that DuPont had exposed all Americans to a chemical that makes your feet rot off the second you hit 40, I’d back a class action suit, giving that I only had four short years left to enjoy my toes.
I’ll be in the “protected class” of over-40 writers in four years, and I still say, “No.”
Because I think the problem isn’t about discrimination.
To me, discrimination in unemployment is the irrational deprivation of employment opportunities on the basis of sex, age, race, religion, creed or sexual orientation. That’s it.
An imbalance in the distribution of employment doesn’t necessarily signify discrimination. If it did, why is the Gray Brigade going after Hollywood first? When was the last time you saw a 50 year-old working at The Gap, or behind the concession stand at a movie theater, or at a video game store, or bouncing in front of a club?
There are two non-discriminatory reasons large groups can be underserved by employment opportunities.
First, those groups aren’t interested in taking the jobs.
Second, those groups don’t fit the requirements for the jobs.
It’s the second category that gets tricky, but it’s certainly a reality. Some jobs require heavy lifting. Some jobs require physical beauty. Such is life.
In the case of writing, it’s true that the large bulk of writing is done by people between the ages of 25 and 50. After 50, the numbers start to dwindle. After 60, they really start to shrink, and once you get into the 70′s and 80′s, you’re talking about a very select (and hardy) group.
Why would Hollywood discriminate against 50-somethings and senior citizens?
Is it because they just hate old people? No. They hire directors and actors over the age of 50 all the time. Is it because Hollywood is run by the young, and young people hate old people? No, Hollywood is run entirely by men and women in their 50′s and over. Is it because older people are “bad in a room”? Nah, we write scripts, and scripts don’t have faces.
Is it because there’s something intrinsic to the work done by older writers that has a discouraging effect on their ability to get hired?
What if the answer to that question is (gasp) “yes”?
A few years ago, I spoke to a group of recent Princeton graduates who had just arrived in L.A., fresh-faced and ready to being their careers as writers. I looked out at the room full of 21 to 25 year-olds, and I said:
Here’s the bad news. No matter how talented you are right now, I’m better than you. I’m better than you, because I’ve been doing it for a while, and that experience is invaluable. Ah, but here’s the good news. You have more energy than I do. You don’t have a spouse, or children. You’re not bored. You’re not frustrated. You’re not tired of all the crap I’ve been dealing with for years. Use that. That’s how you’re going to take me down.It’s true.
Writing novels can be a leisurely endeavor. Writing for television or movies can’t. At the end of the day, we’re employees on deadlines. Whether it’s the trenches of weekly television or the crucible of production rewrites on the movie set, professional screenwriting is a heartless taskmaster of a vocation.
Talent trumps everything, but here’s a short list of attributes that tend to help: humility, drive, energy, ambition, work-for-reasonable-pay, low expectations, hunger, fearlessness, no kids, no wife, no mortgage, no life, no need for self-examination, no depression, no bad hip, no doctor’s appointments, no self-respect, no pride, no arrogance, no reminiscing, no condescension, no sense of entitlement, no better days to compare the present to and no victimhood to get in the way of the work.
Not all of those things are what you’d call “good for you” (no life is a bad thing, but hey, if you’re working staff on a sitcom, it’s pretty much s.o.p.). Still, they’re things that tend to help one achieve success in a demanding business, and they’re also things that tend to be associated with life in one’s 20′s and 30′s.
Less so in one’s 40′s and beyond.
Look, I wish I lived in a world where a sense of personal dignity helped you get work in Hollywood, but the desperate and the shameless seem to be lapping those of us who maintain a sense of pride.
There’s another possible explanation (and one of Ted’s observations).
Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy, but that’s partly not Hollywood’s fault. Writing isn’t something one can do as qualitatively consistent as, say, plumbing. In other words, not every script is going to be great.
You may start your career with a couple of great scripts, maybe better than what your average script quality is over the course of your lifetime.
The longer you work, the more evident and predictive your batting average becomes.
Makes sense, right? Sure, Darin Erstad hit .355 in 2000, but he never even broke .300 before or since.
And so, as you make your way into your 40′s, if your overall average is lower than your early average, you’re going to get culled. It’s just a function of being around long enough for people to decide that they don’t really want you after all.
There’s another possible theory, and this is the one that really annoys people when I bring it up.
Maybe our skills start to diminish as we age.
It’s certainly not something that’s inevitable or absolute. There are screenwriters in their 70′s who are better right now than I’ll ever be.
But are they better than they were in their 40′s?
Losing heat off the fastball seems like it’s almost a must-happen. Maybe I think that because I do not and have never bought into the baby-boomer fantasy of “the golden years are the best years of our lives”. This notion that growing old somehow frees us to have fun and live life to its fullest and be the best we’ve ever been is mostly promoted by drug companies selling medicines to old people whose hearts, livers, pancreases, kidneys and penises have stopped working properly.
I believe this is a basic truth of life.
Getting old is NOT fun. It’s not the best years of your life. It’s not golden. As far as I can tell, it’s wrinkly, dry, painful and depressing (particularly when the rash of weddings and baby showers of your youth are replaced by the funerals of your departed friends). The only thing that can save you as you grow old, I suspect, is a fond willingness to embrace the downward spiral in which you find yourself.
To quote George Harrison, “As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging…”
…well, that’s me and you. I’m growing older with every passing second. My life is finite. My best physical years are already behind me. My brain is likely starting to slide. The very existence of my children–my replacements–signals my inevitable obsolescence.
I believe I’m still getting better as a writer. Experience is the boon of age, counteracting the effects of time. At some point, though, the lines on the graph cross. The net gain begins to slide into deficit.
Why is this so awful to contemplate, much less admit?
One day, I just won’t have it the way I used to. I will write, and no one will want it. That will be a sad day. That day will no doubt be as sad as the day I need bifocals, or the day my knees start to ache permanently, or the day I fall and snap a wrist, or the day the doctor finally gives me the “I’m going to tell you that you’re going to die” look, and then tells me I’m going to die.
Lawsuits are just another way to scream at mortality and pretend we have control.
We do not.
When my time comes, when I’m knocked off my perch, when all the doors finally close in my face, I’m gonna pack up the laptop and retire. I will embrace the verdict of my fellow man, as brutal as it is, because it is as it must be.
The world is for the young…
…said the man who shall be old.
John WellsA while back, I wrote about a magical studio called Writopia, where writers were treated the way they ought to be, and their lives were better, the movies were better, and dogs and cats played happily together in the sun.
Leave it to the incomparable John Wells to try and actually make it happen.
Yesterday, the Writers Co-Op was announced, and it includes eighteen writers: Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), Henry Bean (“Internal Affairs”), David Benioff (“Troy”), Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”), Robert Nelson Jacobs (“Chocolat”), Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”), Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), Richard LaGravanese (“The Fisher King”), Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”), Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”), Stephen Schiff (“The Deep End of the Ocean”), Schulman (“Dead Poets Society”), Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), Dana Stevens (“For Love of the Game”), Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), Michael Tolkin (“The Player”), Rafael Yglesias (“Fearless”), and the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“City Slickers”).
When I read this, I thought, “Great. Ted Elliott and I had the same damn idea a year ago, and we never did anything about it.” Then I read that it took Wells and Co. took several years to figure this all out, so I guess I’m not that lazy.
The way it works seems pretty simple. Each of the 18 must write one original script for Warner Brothers within the next four years. The Co-Op will act as the producer of the script. The writer will not be rewritten without their approval, which is obviously a revolutionary idea, and the writer will be meaningfully included in the development and production processes from start to finish.
The enticement for the studio is this: if they want to buy the scripts, they will cost in the low mid-six figures. This is an enormously advantageous term for Warner Brothers, as most if not all of the participating writers typically sell specs for no less than a million dollars, and sometimes upwards of three million or more.
So are these writers trading creative rights for money they should be rightfully earning?
Quite the contrary.
I’ve spoken to someone on the business side of things who worked on this deal, and while I’m not going to be so gauche as to spell it all out, I can tell you that if any of these guys get movies made under this Co-Op, they will be rewarded under terms better than I think any writer has ever received.
If Warner Brothers agrees to produce the films, the first thing that happens is that the writer is “made whole” on his quote. In other words, if he or she normally writes an original for $1.5 million but sells a script under this program for $300K, when the script is greenlit, the writer gets the remaining $1.2 million and then additional money as their credit bonus allows.
Beyond that, the writer gets a significant first-dollar gross position.
For those who don’t know what first-dollar gross is, it works like this. If you have, say, 2.5% of first dollar gross, then once the studio meets certain agreed-upon conditions, the studio then gives you two and half cents out of every dollar it earns on the film via theatrical, broadcast, pay-per-view, home video, etc.
What are those conditions? They vary, and I don’t know what they are here, but generally speaking, they’re better than “first we have to recoup our entire investment.” If you have first dollar gross, you’re very likely going to see some real profit out of the back end of the film.
However, most first dollar gross deals state that the upfront money is “against” the back end money. In other words, if you earn $1.5M up front and you have 2.5% fdg on the back end, the studio doesn’t have to pay out profits to you until the amount you’ve earned through your 2.5% exceeds the $1.5M they’ve already paid you.
That’s why first dollar deals sometimes seem better than they actually are. If you make a lot up front, the movie has to do very, very well for you to make significantly more on top of that.
Not so in this case. In this case, I’m hearing that the upfront money for the Co-Op writers is not applicable against the back end, which is a fantastic term for the writers, even considering that part of the profits are kicked back to the Co-Op to help offset operation expenses.
Of course, balanced against all of that reward is a substantial risk: they’re agreeing to sell their scripts at a steep discount of anywhere from 70-90%.
What’s fascinating about this particular group is that it bucks a number of trends. I don’t think any of the writers (save Benioff) is under 40. Quite a few are in their 50′s. Most write challenging fare. If we’re to believe the conventional wisdom, studios are frightened to death of older, high-priced intellectual scribes.
Turns out they’re not, and that’s good news for any of us in the business who plan on aging or being serious (I’m one for two on that account).
In addition, many of these writers are pretty well-known as WGA guild activists. Through one sort of Guild thing or another, I’ve come to know John, Scott, Robin, Phil, Tom, Ron and Stephen. I don’t know if long-time Guild activists (including some people a lot of us think as “militant”) getting in bed with Warner Brothers is a good thing or a bad thing, but since I believe in labor detente, I’m going to say it’s a good thing.
It’s possible that nothing will come of this, the way the much-heralded Sony program fizzled out years ago (that was a deal where writers who met certain criteria could access back end profits on their movies, but the definitions weren’t that spectacular and Sony didn’t really seem to want to make any of those writers’ movies at the time).
Personally, I think this will matter. The business is changing. Whether writers take the reigns through partnerships with financiers or by creating mini-unions like the Writers Co-Op, one thing is clear. The old ways are starting to fade. I fully expect other A-listers to attempt to follow suit. As for me, all I can say is that Ted and I were on the phone for a long time yesterday…
Naturally, a lot of non A-list writers want to know how this affects them.
There’s good news and there’s bad news.
I think if this kind of idea spreads, it puts a downward economic pressure on spec prices, and an upward economic pressure on production prices. In other words, it’s a lot harder to get a million bucks for a spec when studios are suddenly accustomed to paying much less than that to world-class writers.
On the other hand, the barn doors that hid the real prize from us–true back end participation–have finally been flung open. The floor has been lowered a bit, but the ceiling has been raised a lot. Furthermore, studios will become more accustomed to partnering with writers, rather than marginalizing them.
To sum up: if you think the best years of your career are ahead of you, this is great news.
If you think you peaked a while ago, this ain’t gonna make things any easier.
I tend to be an optimist. I don’t know if what Wells and Co. did here is necessarily a good thing for writers per se, but it’s a great thing for the profession of writing, and for that, I applaud them.
Everyone has their idiosyncracies when writing. I’m not too fussy, but I know what I like. I like a room with no windows. I like a split keyboard. I like a big monitor, I like a bulletin board with my index cards up with clear thumbtacks, I like a baseball within arm’s reach (a nice soft training one because I toss it up and down and if it gets away from me, it’s nice to limit the damage).
What I have never liked is listening to music while writing.
I’ve always been a quiet worker. I find music distracting when I work, to the point where I feel frustrated…like a neurological patient who suddenly can’t find words he knows but can’t quite get out.
This isn’t because I hate music. It’s because I love music. I love it so much, it tends to grab my attention completely, and suddenly I’m adrift.
I’ve been playing music pretty much my whole life. My first instrument was the piano, of course, because I grew up in a middle-class Jewish home, and that’s what middle-class Jewish kids played. I wish I could say I enjoyed the piano. I didn’t really. I had some aptitude for it, and I remember doing pretty well at a recital, but I didn’t love it. For me, piano sounded great but felt forced. It never flowed for me.
My next instrument was the clarinet. Why? See Jewish home, middle-class.
I was actually quite good at the clarinet, and as a 10 year-old, I played in the Staten Island Borough-Wide Intermediate orchestra (which drew from the best of the orchestral players in the middle schools on Staten Island). The only problem with the clarinet was that it was a freakin’ clarinet. Don’t get me wrong. I loved being part of an orchestra. I really did. It’s just that…I mean…is it too much to ask for an instrument that doesn’t remind everyone of fellatio?
By the time I entered high school, I had left the piano and woodcock…sorry, clarinet…behind. I started concentrating on my singing, which I enjoyed far more, and which also got me girls. This was a far better pursuit, and I still love to sing.
But singin’ ain’t playing an instrument. You can’t lose yourself while singing, because you’re singing.
And then, one day………I met the drums.
Hallelujah. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had found my instrument. I had a natural feel and improvisational ability with the drums that I never had with the piano or the penisflute, and I threw myself happily into lessons.
I became obsessed with drums, drum gear, drummers…all of it. I bought myself a sweet kit made by Spaun Drums, a custom maker here in Southern California who does terrific work on par with DW and the other high-end bigshots. I bought Zildjians, Sabians, DW double-brace hardware, Pearl Eliminator double kick pedals, Remo heads for my snares and toms, an Evans EMAD for my kick…
…I could go on for hours about all this. But I won’t.
Because five and half years ago, I had my first child, and the drumming sort of stopped there.
It’s not my kid’s fault. I just have this thing about not drumming and waking up a sleeping baby. And then we had another kid. And the last five years have also been the busiest of my career.
Drumming had to take a back seat. So, what filled the gap?
Guitar, like the drums, is one of those instruments I just have a feel for, although without the benefit of lessons, I’m just a happy strummer. If you’re going to buy an electric guitar, and you’re going to buy one electric guitar, you’ll be buying the American Fender Stratocaster (Deluxe, if you can), and that’s that.
Unless you buy the Telecaster. That’s acceptable.
Nothing wrong with buying other guitars. Some great ones out there. But you have to have a Strat or a Tele before you go any further. Pair it up with a nice amp (tube amp only, please…we must be civilized, no?), find a fun multieffects pedal, and you can rock the brains out yer skull…and yes, quietly enough that the kids don’t wake up.
Still, electric guitars are for fun. Acoustic guitars are what make me happy. I’m self-taught. I can’t solo really, my technique is probably quite dodgy, and I have an annoying habit of playing without a pick, because I like the feel better than way. Still, I know a goodly sum of chords, and my fingers have gotten pretty strong over the years.
So yesterday, I treated myself to a reeeeeeally nice acoustic guitar. The latest addition to the Mazin instrument family is this bad boy.
It’s a Martin HD-28VE. Just a gorgeous guitar. I played some Taylors and a Takamine and a few other Martins, but this one just sounded so great to me. Such a joy to play.
But this article isn’t just about me and my love of music and my latest gear obsessions.
It’s about a major shift that’s occurred in my writing routine.
For the last few weeks, and for the first time ever in my career, I’m writing to music. I’m working on Superhero!, and even though spoof requires plenty of joke construction, this genre just feels so part-and-parcel with music. I can’t hum many film scores, but I know the score to Superman, I know the score to Burton’s Batman, and I can even hum parts of Spiderman.
So I decided to give it a shot. I downloaded Elfman’s Batman, Zimmer & Howard’s Batman Begins and Elfman’s Spiderman. I found pieces that fit the tone of the scenes I was writing (because in spoof, we never ever ever do “funny” music…I hate “funny” music…the music works as a serious counterpoint to the comedy, perhaps never better than with Elmer Bernstein’s original score for Airplane!), and then I just put them on repeat play.
I loved it.
It’s a pretty big breakthrough for me, because after ten years of a routine, any change seems like a breakthrough. The music doesn’t necessarily make the dialogue sharper or the jokes funnier. What it does is help me shape the feeling and purpose and pace of the scene as I write.
It also motivates me to think about which scenes require music and which don’t. The scenes that seem to work best without score are the snappy patter dialogue scenes, and this is really a “duh” sort of observation, because when it’s time to score our movies, those are the scenes we don’t score.
And yet, when you’re writing everything for the first time, all these cues help.
I don’t know if I’ll think of every movie this way, but something tells me I should. I know enough about my own creative process to know that I know very little about my creative process. Anything that helps me stumble to a scene that feels right is worth using.
Funny…I’ve always visualized the scenes. Saw the costumes, saw the faces, imagined the space, determined the angles, heard the sound effects…
…but never the music. Until now. For a guy who loves music so much, it seems like a strange bias to have had.
I blame the dickhorn!
Thanks, Parallels!I was going to write this week’s essay about screenwriting analogies (you know, “It’s a blueprint!” or “It’s a roadmap” or “It’s a rough guideline!”), but I got a bit sidetracked.
See, I’ve been a Mac user my whole life, ever since my first Apple IIe clone back in ’82 (the Franklin Ace 1000, to be exact…a computer that cost my poor dad $1400 back then…a computer I bought on eBay a few years ago for exactly one dollar), but every now and then, you find yourself stuck needing a Wintel machine. It’s not the way it used to be, where software offerings for Mac were seriously impoverished. There’s practically nothing you can’t get for the Mac nowadays, but it’s that “practically” part that still bugs every now and again.
A few years ago, feeling the need for a Wintel escape hatch for those occasional non-Mac apps (like that stupid Clifford The Big Red Dog Teaches Your Kid How To Read! game), I bought an IBM ThinkPad.
I hate everything about that machine.
Well…not everything. I am a bit fond of the little track nubbin (perhaps because it’s clitoral), but that’s about it. The case is plasticky and shoddy, the screen is horrendous, the drive is about as quiet as a VW bus going up hill, the key feel is cheap and clacky, the sound is dismal, there’s no firewire input, the CD tray is a half a foot-pound away from snapping off at any given moment, and even the power supply is bulky and ugly.
Other than that…
I didn’t mind Windows XP Pro so much, to be honest. It’s a decent system, although it comes up terribly short compared to the latest versions of OS X. Spotlight runs circles around the poky “cute li’l doggy” search function in XP, the Windows Explorer app is ugly and diminished compared to the Finder, and the entire look and feel of XP is very much…well…I want to say 90′s, but that’s almost being generous.
Even worse, any time XP had to do something on a root level (like install certain apps, reboot, upgrade some system software or run a diagnostic), it showed its true, clunky colors. Suddenly, I would find myself looking at fonts from 1983, jagged edges and all, while graphics drawing from a vast palette of about 16 colors blocked and flashed their way across my screen like the images from some awful BASIC program I wrote on my Atari 400 in 1981 (saved on cassette tape drive, natch). The overall effect was like paying for a high-class hooker, getting a low-rent one, and then watching horrified as she removed her wig, glass eye and fake leg.
Plus, if you have sex with her, you will absolutely get a virus, followed by worms, followed by a Trojan Horse humping you from behind.
Yeah, I’m not a Windows fan.
Maybe that’s why I balked at the notion of replacing my aging ThinkPad with a new one. I just hate the idea of spending more money on hardware that exists only to drive software I don’t even like that much.
Because my MacBook Pro is powered by an Intel Processor, it should theoretically be easy to run Wintel apps, right? Well, sort of. I flirted with some apps that promised to run individual Wintel programs within the Mac OS, but they were pretty kludgy. Didn’t have much success with Crossover, for instance.
Parallels, however, works differently. Parallels doesn’t actually run the Wintel apps; rather, it works as a bridge between OS X and a separate installation of a Windows OS that you put on your Mac.
And so, off I went to purchase a copy of Windows Vista to see if this Parallels thing would work. First thing about Vista is this: hey, Microsoft…you still SUCK at packaging. You’d think getting mocked by your own design department would be enough of a sign, but apparently not. Opening the Vista container was slightly harder than convincing my very Catholic girlfriend in 11th grade to give up her virginity. Of course, the fact that they slapped a huge piece of cellophane tape over the “Certificate of Authenticity” didn’t help–in order to open the package, I had to basically shred the certificate, so here’s hoping I never need to show my papers to the Man.
Once the Gordian Knot of Microsoft packaging had been cut, I started up Parallels on my Macbook Pro and loaded in the Vista CD. I tells ya, folks…it worked like BUTTA from there. Took a while, sure, but once it was all loaded in, why, I had a fully operational Vista OS working in full-screen mode on my MacBook Pro. Hell, it somehow managed to tie right into my wireless network without me even telling it how to.
In fact…I’m writing this post within Firefox within Vista within Parallels within OS X.
I wonder if this is how transgendered people feel…