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No Experience Wanted

COVER STORY | First Person

A writer of a certain age finds awards and credits mean little to youth-obsessed executives.

June 10, 2001|BOB SHAYNE | Bob Shayne has won two Emmys and been nominated for a Writers Guild Award, two Edgars and a Grammy. He has recently been visiting screenwriting professor at the Newhouse School of Communications of Syracuse University

Even so, the concept that one must program for young people to be successful is a red herring. The No. 1 show this season, "Survivor," is a hit across all age groups. It's followed by "ER," also an across-the-board hit, then comes the 18-49 mega-hit "Friends," an older-skewing "Everybody Loves Raymond," male-skewing "Monday Night Football," across-the-board hit "The Practice," the older-skewing "Millionaire," new across-the-board hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the older-skewing "Law & Order" and the 18-to-49 hit "Will & Grace." Only two of the top 10 shows skew even slightly youthful.

If it were really true that the networks didn't want the older-skewing shows on their schedules, they would cancel "Millionaire," "West Wing," "Once and Again," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "JAG" among others. Since they don't, they can't really get away with the argument that they must only hire young writers, even if it were true that only young writers can write for young audiences, which it isn't.

The same holds true in movies. Last year's box-office hits are all over the map demographically. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," at No. 1, had great family appeal. "M:I-2" and "Gladiator" skewed fairly young but were popular with all age groups. "The Perfect Storm" skewed older. "Meet the Parents," "X-Men" and "Scary Movie" skewed young (despite the latter's R rating). But older audiences made "What Lies Beneath" a giant hit, along with "Cast Away," "What Women Want," "The Patriot," "Remember the Titans" and "Miss Congeniality." And "Space Cowboys" did a very respectable $90-million domestic gross despite four stars with a combined age of about 260. Hit movies and TV shows hit various age groups. That hasn't changed. It's the culture in the industry that has.

Before the middle 1980s, a producer or a studio or network development VP would have a secretary and perhaps a story editor. And I, as a working TV and film writer with solid credits--but one who was by no means ever on the A-list, ever a member of "the old boys' club," or even represented by a major agency--could call up that producer, get him on the phone, and often end up with an assignment or sale.

I got most of these jobs for myself based on my credits, not social relationships. So even though I generally had an agent, and paid out some $250,000 to various agents over the years, I didn't really need one to get work.

Today, I need an agent desperately.

However, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, today I can't get an agent to represent me who I'd want to represent me. Why? Because over the past decade, using pure Pavlovian technique, the studios and networks, intentionally or not, have trained the agents at all the major and most minor agencies not to take on older writers.

It seems to work like this: You're an agent. You have 12 clients. You send them all out to studio meetings, and you send out their scripts. The six younger clients usually get hired, and their scripts get bought. The six older clients usually don't. This happens again and again. So you learn to drop your older clients. When other older writers come around looking for representation, you tell them you can't take them on. As a result, most older writers with solid track records end up without agents.

The agents will be the first to tell you it's all studios' and networks' fault. The agents are just responding to the marketplace. They say, "We're only doing our job." That's known as the Nuremberg Defense.

There have been other important changes as well causing the current situation. Once computers came in, producers and studio execs no longer needed crackerjack typists. So they started combining the jobs of secretary and story editor. A new generation was flooding the industry, coming out of film, communications and business schools, and willing to accept ostensibly secretarial jobs, but only with some potential for advancement.

While other businesses were downsizing, TV networks, film studios and production companies, in a state of panic--from eroding ratings, rising costs and increased competition, a panic that hasn't subsided--quadrupled the size of their development departments.

So today's equivalent of the producer I used to get on the phone might now have a company president, two vice presidents, a director of development, a story editor, plus a few scattered "assistants." (The S word is no longer acceptable.)

All the people in these jobs read scripts for the company, and most are between 21 and 35. Although the lower ranks may make as little as $20,000 to $30,000 a year and have virtually no authority, all except actual assistants are called, in our euphemistic society, "development executives."

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