Too old to make it in TV writing?
March 11, 2009 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I want to write for TV. I'm 31. Is this impossible?

After 6 years working on political campaigns, it's time for a career change. During this post-campaign period of unemployment, I have been writing A LOT (something I used to do almost compulsively), remembering how much I love it, and thinking about trying to write for TV.

I've been reading up: blogs (Jane Epsenson, Lee Goldberg and Lisa Klink have been particularly helpful), the TV forums, other questions here on the green. I've started working on spec scripts for some of my favorite series.

I've read in more than one place that one shouldn't even think about moving to LA and pursuing this if you're over 30. However, this seems to be mostly for sitcoms or other comedy writing - I'm mostly interested in dramas.

I know there are a bunch of Mefites out there who write for TV - what say you? I definitely understand that this would involve several years, at least, working in the trenches. I know that my first career won't help me get a job in this industry, but I do think the skills and lessons I learned on campaigns (discretion, negotiation, the importance of working your way up) would help me once I got that first entry level job.

Also, I definitely understand that there will always be naysayers out there, and if I really have the talent and passion I should just go for it anyway, but I do want to go into it with open eyes, understanding the odds.
posted by lunasol to Work & Money (18 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: And yes, if you look back at my previous posts, you'll see I've considered a bunch of different career options in the last year. Feel free to take that seeming flakiness into account...
posted by lunasol at 12:33 PM on March 11, 2009

You need a script. If it sells, you are in. Age doesn't really matter. Sell a script.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:53 PM on March 11, 2009

When I read your question I immediately thought of John August's website, thought it may be a bit film-specific for your purposes. Good luck.
posted by trotter at 12:54 PM on March 11, 2009

Best answer: Correction: you need several scripts. One whizz-bang script won't get you into TV; they want to see that you can churn out quality stuff over and over and over. Start at the beginning of Sam and Jim Go to Hollywood and listen to all of the podcasts. ALL of them.
posted by arco at 12:58 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have two friends who write TV dramas full-time. Maybe these are helpful datapoints:

Case 1 is 31, but lies to everyone and claims to be 27, because despite being established, he thinks it gets him more work. He has done it full-time ever since university, having started by writing "youth" dramas.

Case 2 is 35, and moved to Hollywood to write at around 30. Not that he's not talented, but I think he only got going in the business because he married a successful well-connected actress.

Unless you have a really good "in", I would hold off quitting the day job until you have actually sold something.
posted by roofus at 1:10 PM on March 11, 2009

Honestly, the fact that you've worked on political campaigns helps you. I've seen people much older than you transition into TV writing, with their previous career as a springboard. If you can take what you've done and write fresh material with it, you've got a leg up on someone who's just out of college.

Not that that makes it easy.
posted by world b free at 1:13 PM on March 11, 2009

Best answer: My brother-in-law is super-talented and has a writing degree from a great place. He's sold a pilot, has an agent, made great connections, etc. He's in his late 30s and has yet to find a regular writing gig. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:36 PM on March 11, 2009

Best answer: First of all, the people talking about "selling a script" are thinking of feature film writing. TV writing is a job- it involves having a boss, working your way up, probably from an assistant, and all the nepotism and vagaries that go with hiring in any field.

So, if you're ready for that, by all means go for it, but be prepared to work your way up over a very long period of time.

(My screenwriting teacher told me it takes an average of ten years to make it as a feature film writer. I've been working at it about 7, and I still have a dayjob. But I'm fine with that. I hate when people make blanket statements about "what it's like" in the "industry," but one thing I do know is this: it's a war of attrition. If you have some talent and you're willing to wait it out as long as it takes, you'll probably make it. But a lot of people get tired and move back home.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:33 PM on March 11, 2009

Yeah, age makes some difference, and I sort of lie about mine, but there are plenty of people who don't start in TV at an early age. And bringing another interesting life experience to the table can only help you; try writing an original pilot spec with a political slant that showcases your personal experience.

Where being 31 WON'T help you is that you're not as likely to get on a show through a PA or assistant gig, because those generally go to fresh out of college types. But should someone take an interest in you as a writer, your age is not going to be any kind of problem.
posted by OolooKitty at 6:17 PM on March 11, 2009

Response by poster: OolooKitty: Your second point is something I have been wondering about - I know that I wouldn't want a 30 year old assistant, so it's understandable. But from what I understand, getting a PA or assistant job is the primary way to get on a show, so - are there alternate routes, or is just a matter of trying lots of different things, networking like hell, and seeing what works?

Everyone else: thanks so much, these are very helpful responses.
posted by lunasol at 7:32 PM on March 11, 2009

A lot of people want to see original pilots these days. This is so they can see who YOU are, not just whether you can write somebody else's material. (You should also have at least two great specs ready.)

I don't think being 31 is going to bother anybody if you can write incredibly good material. Write a spec episode of your favorite show and give it to a friend of yours who is also a big fan of the show, if that person doesn't tell you that it is better than the episodes on the air, then you need to keep working at it.
posted by paperzach at 9:31 PM on March 11, 2009

31 is not old in the teevee writing world. You need to write at least one good spec and one good original. I'd focus on the spec first. Although more show runners want to see original material, it does not have to be a pilot. Short stories (or one-act plays) work really well, as they are short and easy to digest. Please note, though, that you'll need to pair something like that with a spec to show you can handle the structure and mimic someone's voice.

As far as alternative routes, the Warner Bros. Writer's Workshop is the best thing ever.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:16 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are definitely other ways to get on shows besides going the assistant route; generally, attracting attention with a good spec (and I second the suggestion of writing ORIGINAL MATERIAL, rather than just having specs of shows you like, because people really want to see original material these days.) In my own career, I have to say that aside from having good specs, networking has been the single most important thing I've done. Get to know lots of people who write for TV and/or film. The Scriptwriter's Network is a good place to start.

Though I myself HAVE worked as an assistant, I got my first job through someone I met online. And I didn't have an agent at the time, so I'm a good example of someone who got into the business through a different channel.

One note of caution though: though it's doable, it's tough here like any business right now. Staffs are getting smaller, and showrunners are tending more and more to hire people they know. So again.... networking. Networking. And networkiing!!!

And also -- though it's less likely you'd land an assistant job, it's not impossible. Go up for those jobs if you hear about them... even if you don't get the job, you may get a meeting with someone who will remember you or take an interest in you.
posted by OolooKitty at 9:04 AM on March 12, 2009

Oh, and one last thing. Once you're in LA, the WGA has lots of functions, screenings, etc that are open to non-WGA members. These are always listed on the WGA website, and they're a fabulous networking opportunity.
posted by OolooKitty at 9:16 AM on March 12, 2009

If you haven't actually written a lot in script format before, might I point you in the direction of Script Frenzy?
posted by ilikecookies at 9:33 PM on March 12, 2009

Best answer: I started writing for television when I was 32--so my biased answer is certainly, your age doesn't matter. However, I had been a working playwright for ten years before that. (Day jobs for the first six of those years; the last four, writing was my only source of income.) You are realistic to write:

that this would involve several years, at least, working in the trenches.

--but it's important to note that "the trenches" may not even be an industry job. Some writers go the assistant/PA/agency mailroom route, and it works well for them. Some writers wait tables or [insert day job of choice] and find other ways to get their scripts out there. You need to assess your own temperament and act accordingly. Yes, passion and talent are important. However, fortitude, the determination to keep writing and shaping your voice, and willingness to continue trying matter more. Move to Los Angeles if you want to live in Los Angeles; don't move here because you want to work in TV but you hate the city, that's not good for your soul.

Last year during one procrastinating evening, I happened upon a blog ("The Rouge Wave") written by a script consultant. On this site I read one of the best short essays on writing that I can recall. I send it to aspiring writers any time they contact me. I'll link to it below. The title of the blog post is The Elegant Universe: Patterns in Writers. I hope it's useful.

Good luck with your writing.
posted by BClady at 11:45 PM on March 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Goddammit, I didn't link properly. Sorry. Just google "The Rouge Wave" and "The Elegant Universe" and it should come up; don't trust my crap linking skills.
posted by BClady at 11:47 PM on March 12, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks again everyone. This has definitely given me some good stuff to think about. BClady, that post was really, really insightful - here it is, for anyone else who wants to read it.
posted by lunasol at 6:23 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Films that accurately represent life in Cuba...   |   What are some great, foreign language film clips... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.