Typing Faster

February 3, 2010

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: Ageism In Hollywood

Filed under: Future of TV, the biz — petertypingfaster @ 9:34 am

Hollywood, and showbiz in general, covets youth. We all know it. It’s just a fact of life for many of us in the entertainment world. And it’s not limited to those in front of the camera.

Just take a look at this New York Times article that covers the aftermath of a class-action age discrimination lawsuit brought by 165 television writers.

People here rarely bother to hide the way that Hollywood covets youth. Film and television stars regularly brag about their latest plastic surgery procedures, and even the people who toil behind the cameras have been known to lie about their age to secure work.

So the $70 million settlement last week of a class-action age discrimination lawsuit brought by 165 television writers would appear to provide some solace to those who have long contended that they have been ignored by television studios, producers and agents merely because they are, to put it bluntly, old.

A victory for older writers? Maybe. Maybe not.

“The best way to look at the settlement is through a fairly narrow lens,” said David R. Ginsburg, the executive director of the entertainment and media law and policy program at the School of Law of the University of California, Los Angeles. He noted that the statements of the targets of the lawsuit that they were settling the case merely as a business matter and their contention that they were not admitting any discriminatory acts “are not the sounds of a chastened defendant.”

Among the two dozen defendants were the major broadcast television networks and their affiliated production studios as well as several major talent agencies, which the writers said refused to represent them in the quest to get work. Together, the defendants agreed to a $70 million settlement, but about two-thirds of that will be paid by insurance carriers. That means that no network, studio or agency will itself be on the hook for more than about $1 million — less than the average cost of a single half-hour of television production.

Subtracting the roughly 40 percent of the $70 million that will go for lawyers’ fees and other expenses leaves $43 million for the plaintiffs. About $2.5 million of that will go to create the Fund for the Future, which will issue grants and loans to affected writers “to further their writing careers and study ways to supplement their pensions and improve access to medical insurance,” according to the settlement terms.

While that leaves about $245,000 for each of the named plaintiffs, few if any will get that much, because the payouts will depend on how many people apply for and are granted membership in the class of affected writers. Even a quarter of a million dollars is not much when spread over 10 years, the time the lawsuit has been pending.

But a more interesting question is whether or not the anti-age bias is as entrenched as when the lawsuit was filed, or if Hollywood has already started to change irregardless of the legal wranglings.

Research conducted for the Writers Guild of America, West, some of which was cited by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has found that since the suit was filed the percentage of employed television writers under the age of 31 has fallen by about one-third, to 6.2 percent of the total in 2007, from 9.8 percent in 1999.

Over the same stretch the percentage of television writers over 50 grew by about 10 percent, to 21.5 percent in 2007 from 19.3 percent in 1999.

Some of that change might have been caused by the age-discrimination lawsuit. But those trends also seem to mirror shifts in television viewing patterns: Audiences have aged, and many of the most-watched programs on television are police and medical dramas that target audiences in their 40s and 50s. At the same time scores of new cable outlets have targeted specific demographic sectors, perhaps providing additional employment for writers attuned to those groups.

Tony Segall, general counsel for the Writers Guild, West, which was not a party to the lawsuit, said that his organization remained concerned about the longevity of writers’ careers and the employment rate among older writers. “There is still a sharp decline in employment rates as writers get older, into their 60s and 70s,” he said.

There is also anecdotal evidence that things have changed in Hollywood.

In 1998, a couple of years before the writers first brought their age-discrimination suit, Riley Weston, a 32-year-old writer and actor, made headlines when she posed as a 19-year-old and was offered a three-year contract to write shows dealing with teenagers. “In a business fraught with age bias, I did what I felt I had to do to succeed,” Ms. Riley said at the time. When her hoax was discovered, her multiyear writing deal fell apart. This year one of the hottest television writers in Hollywood is Frank Pierson, who is 84. He won an Oscar in 1975 for his original screenplay for “Dog Day Afternoon” and was nominated in December for a Writers Guild award as part of the writing team for the drama series “Mad Men.” And he recently was hired as a writing consultant on the first season of the CBS drama “The Good Wife.”

While still anecdotal, that’s sheds a very different light on things. Maybe it’s not so bad being older, though for all of us under-31 people, things are definitely not looking as good.

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