Why A Hollywood Veteran Just Might Get His First Screenplay Produced—At The Age Of 74
By Sheila Weller, Next Avenue
Dana Coen has had, by all measures, a splendid career as a TV co-executive producer for Fox’s “Bones” and CBS’ “JAG.” He’s been a story editor and a staff writer for hit shows from “General Hospital” to “The Wonder Years,” a playwright, stage director and stage actor. And he currently administers the undergraduate dramatic writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But at 74, Coen has never had a screenplay of his own produced. And until just months ago, that seemed extremely unlikely due to the ageism he felt in Hollywood.
Coen recalls that about 20 years ago, “I had gotten a pilot deal at Fox, and this agent from a major agency comes skipping up to me with enthusiasm, saying: ‘I read your script — it’s fantastic!” Next, Coen entered a room and seven agents walked in. “We all sit down, and there’s an odd silence,” he says. “Then the agent who approached me said, ‘Dana, we didn’t realize that you weren’t new in town.'”
Looking for ‘Someone Fresh’
Explains Coen: “‘Weren’t new in town.’ ‘Aren’t current.’ ‘We’re looking for something fresh.’ These are three of the messages that mean: ‘You’re old.’ I’d had four careers in the industry by then. But that’s what people who are aging in Hollywood face.”
Then, last February, an email in Coen’s laptop browser caught his eye.
An eight-year-old nonprofit called Age Inclusion in Media (AIM), was presenting the inaugural Silver Bullet Screenplay Contest, designed to “discover and promote the work of writers over 40 and create a more accurate representation of characters over 40.”
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Sponsored by writing software and script consultancy companies, the contest would award talent-agency support for the winner’s script.
Because of the opportunity AIM gave him as an older writer, Coen decided to enter. (Most screenplay and play contests, he’s found, are limited to “new and emerging writers.”)
So, Coen submitted “Sleeping Upright,” a screenplay “about a forty-one-year-old who wakes from a coma after six years to discover that the novel he had been struggling to write for five years has been published and he’s famous and that everything around him has changed.”
Why He Won the Contest’s Grand Prize
He won the grand prize, competing against hundreds of others. The judges said they loved that “[t]his is a story of a man’s literal reawakening to who he is and what he wants out of life,” calling the concept “great” and saying that Coen delivered on the premise with a “wry sense of humor and with authentic characters who popped off the page.”
“Re-awakening” is an apt word for what AIM had in mind for the contest.
AIM Executive Director David Gittins, a British playwright and TV writer, says the group created it because “older characters on screen are too often seen as sidekicks or else just suffering on the slow path to death.” And, he added, “There are very few stories told about older characters leading diverse, fruitful, and full lives.” AIM wanted to find them.
As part of the prize, Coen won a meeting with Christopher Lockhart, an Emmy-nominated producer, educator and writer/producer/story editor at William Morris Endeavor, one of the nation’s top three talent agencies.
Coen expects that meeting will happen soon. “What I am ultimately hoping from this and other Silver Bullet connections is production interest in ‘Sleeping Upright,’ re-acquiring representation so that my other scripts can be marketed and the encouragement to produce more original work,” he says.
Coen hasn’t had an agent since switching to teaching in 2009, so this is a big first step.
When AIM launched the Silver Bullet Contest, Gittins says, “our biggest fear was that we would only get about fifty people entering.” The fear was unfounded.
“It was very humbling to get the quality of scripts we came across — and the writers,” says Gittins. “One finalist was a showrunner [the leading producer of a TV series]. Another was a sports journalist. We had Emmy winners and Oscar winners. There was also a drama based on a true World War Two story, written by a former Navy pilot…The great thing about the contest is: They showed such a diversity of stories.”
It is clear from the speed with which Gittins returned my call and the gusto and friendliness in his voice that AIM is his passion, and his utter lack of sugar-coating the issue of ageism in Hollywood is arresting.
“Nobody wants to be part of an organization dealing with ageism in Hollywood,” he says. “We don’t have many smiling faces on our website, because people don’t want to be the face of ageism – even anti-ageism – here.”
In Hollywood, ‘Youth Is King’
Gittins calls ageism “the natural order of things” in the TV and film industries. “And so many people have built their careers benefiting from it since, in entertainment, youth is king and finding a fresh voice is synonymous with finding a younger one,” he notes. “The obsession with chasing advertising dollars and its focus on younger demographics mean that the entertainment industry ages out many capable creatives.”
Ageism is so strong in Hollywood that many of AIM’s supporters (even companies one would expect to like to look like they engage in “good works”) prefer to remain anonymous.
“People want help — and we’ve helped people become Emmy-nominated — but they don’t want to be a poster child for us because there are so many stigmas attached to age,” notes Gittins. “Somebody even wanted to be a judge of the Silver Bullet Contest and wanted to help us, but they weren’t comfortable being a face of the movement.”
AIM is so realistic about ageism in Hollywood that its method is not to have people stand up and mention their age. Rather, the group’s leaders tell them to acknowledge that — since announcing one’s age can be so dangerous to a movie or TV career — it’s OK not to.
“I used to be very open about my age,” Gittins admits, declining to mention it. “But after a while, I realized that that honesty doesn’t do you any favors.”
Gittins says it’s been difficult to get the Hollywood trade publications to acknowledge that ageism in their industry is a serious problem.
“‘The Hollywood Reporter’ and ‘The Wrap’ and ‘Variety’ have shut us down; they’re not interested in our issue,” he notes.
But the ageism problem is hardly new. In the 1990s, a group of 170 writers brought a suit against major studios, talent agencies and production companies. It turned into a class-action lawsuit involving 4,400 writers.
What ‘Friends’ Hath Wrought
Back then, the success of “Friends,” Gittins recalls, had led to a frenzy to hire younger writers. “People were publicly saying that they were proud not to have any writers over thirty. That meant that writers in their forties and fifties were systemically refused work,” said Gittins.
The legal battle led the combatants to decide that the simplest resolution was to form an organization where older writers could look for employment and networking opportunities.
“I was recruited as the person to make something of that,” said Gittins. “A seventy-plus-million-dollar settlement was reached in 2010 with the management agencies, who distributed them to writers.”
A group known as the TV Writers Fund for the Future was born. Three years later, largely as a result, AIM was born.
“We decided to name ourselves exactly what we are,” Gittins says. AIM’s mission, its website notes, is “helping creatives navigate an age-biased creative environment.” Its tagline: “Not the same old story.”
In addition to the screenplay contest, “we launched a mentorship site where people can hire experienced writers to help with their scripts; we want to end age apartheid,” says Gittins.
One of its mentors is Treva Silverman, known for writing and being story editor, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Via email, Silverman says: “One reason why I joined the mentoring program is because when you’re first starting out as a writer, particularly as an older writer, and wish to be maybe, possibly, hopefully an actual professional writer, you feel alone and abandoned and far from your goal. When you have a mentor, someone who has been there, I believe you feel less separate, a little more like, ‘Hey, someone is watching over me and I matter.'”
AIM is also launching a program to train older script readers. Those are the Hollywood gatekeeper jobs (typically low-paid and held by young people) reading submissions and deciding whether to pass scripts along to development executives for further consideration.
“We want to flood the market with older readers,” Gittins says. “If you have a twenty-two-year-old reading a meaningful script about the marriage of two sixty-year-olds, their ability to evaluate is going to be skewed.”
And, he believes, “there are lots of different stories to be telling about when people get older. [Academy-award winning] “The Father”was a fantastic movie, but Alzheimer’s is only a very minor part of the experience of getting older.”
Gittins says AIM is ambitious in another, more holistic way, too. “AIM’s goal,” he says forthrightly, “is to make ourselves obsolete.”