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COVER STORY | First Person

No Experience Wanted

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

So now when I call the producer, she's so busy interacting with her seven employees, networking with 20 of her counterparts, and keeping in good stead with the six studio executives she needs to get behind her next project (plus her foreign financing partners), the last thing she wants to do is get on the phone with me, a writer she's probably never heard of because--despite all my credits and awards--I'm not young and happening and I don't have an agent telling her, over drinks at the Sky Bar, how wonderful I am.

So she places me into the hands of her young gatekeepers, whose concept of time is very different from mine. Many of them simply aren't interested in anything that happened before they were teenagers unless they see it on VH1's "Behind the Music."

Bill Blinn says, "I'm writing a movie for Showtime about Dick Gregory. And it's amazing how many young people have no idea who Dick Gregory is."

Maybe four years ago, I pitched doing a series of Charlie Chan movies starring Pat Morita to the then-president of original programming at USA Network, who was in his 40s. He loved the idea, but thought he'd better run it by his head of movies, who was in his 30s. He did, and the younger executive replied, "Charlie who?" That was the end of that sale.

You want an example of how the culture has changed? When I was circulating the "Naomi Weinstein" script, I faxed query letters to Richard Zanuck, who was then 61, and Lynda Obst, a generation younger, asking them to read it. The letters were identical. Zanuck called me up that afternoon and asked me to send it over. Obst--of whose films, by the way, I am a great fan--didn't respond. So a few days later I called her up. Her assistant grilled me on who I was and what I wanted. When I explained, she said, "Writers don't call producers, they have their agents do it, and if you were a professional you'd know that." When I started to explain to her that I had 25 years of experience and awards on my wall, she hung up on me.

The old boys' club has been replaced by a just as insidious young girls' and boys' club. Now that these twentysomething gatekeepers are no longer under their parents' and teachers' thumbs, it's their turn to have a little bit of power--and the only power they have is to say no.

Is it ever deserved? Of course it is, all the time. By older writers as well as younger. But what's important is all those times that it comes from arrogance, clubbiness, a sense of exclusivity, from a feeling of not having to take seriously those people who they don't perceive of as hip. In short, to refuse to deal seriously with people who remind them of their parents.

One more story: I've been knocking on the doors of Nickelodeon for the past 16 months. I have an idea for a TV series about two teenagers working as interns in a TV newsroom that seemed to me perfect for Nick. And to make doubly sure it was fresh, hip and happening, I got two of my best, recently graduated writing students from Syracuse University, both 21 years old, to write the script with me.

Starting in December 1999, I called, wrote and faxed Doug Grief, Nickelodeon's vice president of program development, to arrange a meeting. After three months of this, I got a phone call back from one of the lowest-ranking persons in the development department, a young woman with the title "creative executive," which is one step above "assistant."

I was very polite and gracious as I explained that as a writer-producer with 25 years of network experience and awards on my walls, I would like to schedule a meeting with her and her boss, Mr. Grief, rather than with her alone.

A week later I received a call from Mr. Grief. I was in heaven! But not for long. The call turned out not to be to schedule a meeting, but to tell me I had hurt his development executive's feelings. What?! I beg your pardon?! It's been a year and four months now and I still have not been able to get Mr. Grief's attention with this idea and script.

I don't mean to suggest that all or most of the young people in development are mean-spirited or untalented or insincere. They work very long hours for low money and then go home with 10 scripts to read. But many of them simply believe the hype.

They are led by a generation of producers and high-level executives who spread the word that old is bad and young is good, a bias based on their own insecurity about aging, inaccurate and out-of-date beliefs from advertisers, and panic over what used to be two competitors having turned into 200.

It is simply discrimination: choosing by class or group rather than individual merit. It was immoral when it was used against women. It was immoral when it was used against blacks. And it's no more moral or right or deserved when it's directed today against a generation of writers, male and female--and many older professionals in many other fields--who have proved, time and again, by the products they've produced, that they are more than able to do the job.

I, for one, feel like a blacklisted writer in the 1950s, only I didn't have to sign anything, join anything or march in anything to get that way.

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