There was once a time in America when great lawyers argued great cases in front of great judges.
A number of those cases were about things far more important than contracts and regulations and petty crime. They were about the soul of our nation.
Those cases literally changed our culture, our understanding of what it meant to be a human being, to be free to choose, to vote, to live as equals…
But I’m not going to talk about any of those cases today. Instead, I’m going to talk about a case that was misguided, silly and frivolous. I’m going to talk about how it dragged on for years, enriching attorneys.
Then I’m going to talk about how it ended with a nonsensical whimper, spreading some money around like a balm, but impacting none of us in any real way.
Yes, this should be depressing if I do it right.
Years ago, a number of (mostly television) writers got together and decided they were going to sue Hollywood: all the studios, the networks and the big talent agencies. They were going to sue them because it was their fervently held belief that they were being illegally discriminated against.
Their age. Now, put aside that the numbers would more strongly support such a lawsuit from black writers or Asian writers or Native American writers or albino writers. And put aside that most of the people running the studios and networks and big talent agencies are over the magic age of 40, which is where the plaintiffs drew the line in the sand. And put aside the fact that just about every hit television show is run by someone over the age of 40.
Hell, put aside all the other arguments I made years ago about why there are perfectly logical reasons why people may find it harder to get work as a Hollywood writer as they get older…none of which involve employers hatin’ on the 40 and overs.
These plaintiffs didn’t care. They believed they stopped working because they got old. In their world, all the people who stop working in their 20′s and 30′s just…well…I dunno, suck I guess…but they stopped working for one reason and one reason only.
Their incredibly advanced age of…40?
Ugh, I actually felt myself getting dumber as I typed that.
Part of the legal argument they made was something like this: the government defines discrimination in a certain way, much of which revolves around outcomes not matching what you’d expect if all things were equal…so if there’s an age imbalance in the writing staffs of television shows, then there must have been de facto ageism involved.
In short, causality is presumed, which, as anyone reasonable will tell you…is just silly.
Silly? Why, then this latest quintessentially American legal excapade might just have a chance!
So what happened? Yesterday, all of the networks and studios and talent agencies (save my agency, CAA…and I urge you to fight this, CAA!) decided to settle. Yes, a settlement. An agreement. An understanding.
Here’s what they did.
They all got together, all gabillion dollars of market cap between them…and they decided, one presumes, that the legal fees were outweighing the actual cost of a settlement, so how much would it take to make this shakedown go away…and the number was…
$70 million dollars.
Whoa! That’s a lot, right? Well…kind of. On the other hand, that number is split among 17 corporations. If it’s split evenly, that’s about four million bucks a piece. Oh. Well…still…that’s not too bad, considering that–wait, what?
Oh dear. Turns out that about 2/3rds of the money will actually be paid out by the 17 corporations’ insurance companies.
So instead of an average of four million a company, the actual retail price of what each company is paying out? More like an average of a million and a half.
Wow. That oughta bring them to their knees!
But I’m being negative. It’s not about punishing the companies financially. It’s about changing the unfair system, right? The plaintiffs struck a blow for social justice. They got Hollywood to admit that it was biased against old folks, and–
Oh. Oh no…
The defendants strongly deny the plaintiffs’ allegations and state that their hiring and/or representation practices fully comply with the law and reflect their commitment to equal employment opportunity. They also note that they all have long-standing anti-discrimination policies and regularly employ or represent substantial numbers of writers over the age of forty.
Of course. This is the way it goes. Brown sues the Topeka Board of Education over unfair discrimination. The Board of Education hands Brown an envelope with some cash they’ll never miss, then announce that they’ve never discriminated against anyone and they’re not changing shit about the way they do business, so back to your Colored school, Mr. Brown…
Um, sorry. I forgot. That was a different time.
In this time, the plaintiffs say, “Yup. We’re fine. That’s the settlement. You deny doing anything wrong, we stop chasing you in court, and you give us some cash.”
Which, by the time the lawyers take their cut and divvy the remainder up among the class, well…I’d be surprised if anyone buys a yacht when this is all wrapped up.
And so, this absurd chapter in our business (mostly) concludes. Most of my friends working in the business are still over the age of 40. Most of the people running the business are still over the age of 40. We now have a resolved legal case in which the plaintiffs are willingly going along with a settlement that denies the very argument they made to begin with.
In the end, they behaved true to the oldest of Hollywood principles: they took the cash.
Although, when you think about it, what they really did was take the cash to go away.
Finally, their absence from the work force will have a clear and unambiguous explanation.