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Of Sorcerers, Apprentices and Screenwriters

By D.B. Gilles

2004: On the TV show The Apprentice 16 young entrepreneurial types compete to be the apprentice to Donald Trump. It's a truly coveted position because it means learning from a master. For those who don't succeed, their fate is summed up in two words at the end of the show. "You're fired!"

1940: Fantasia opens. Mickey Mouse stars in The Sorcerers Apprentice. Logline: A Sorcerer's young apprentice attempts to practice magic in his master's absence, with disastrous results. Theme: Never underestimate the value of age and experience

1545: The Middle Ages - a brief history. The majority of the people who lived in the Middle Ages were peasants who farmed the lord's land and had to give him much of the food. Under the system of feudalism, they belonged to the lord and were not free to leave the land. They were allowed to keep some of the food they grew, and the lord's knights protected them against attackers.

A new class emerged during the Middle Ages: the merchant. Towns were built on trade, and the elite of towns was the merchants. Merchant guilds controlled town government, though they often clashed with craft guilds for power. There were three levels of craftsmen: masters, journeymen and apprentices. Parents paid a fee to place a boy with a master craftsman as an apprentice. There he received food, lodging, clothes and instruction in the craft.

When young boys reached the age of twelve they were eligible to become apprentices. The period of apprenticeship lasted for 2-7 years, after which time the apprentice became a journeyman. The term comes from the French "jour" (day) and meant that the journeyman was paid by the day for his work. After several years as a journeyman he would submit a piece of his best work to the guild for approval. If this "master-piece" was accepted he could become a master craftsman and own his own shop.

Apprenticeship was an extension of the adolescent years, and could take up almost a quarter of the average medieval life span. It was the last hidden mysteries of the trade that might take some time to acquire.

Back then, you pretty much spent your teen years and early 20s learning and mastering your craft, and the rest of your life practicing it, then passing on what you learned to others. Based on all accounts this system worked, especially if the young person learned a craft he wanted to learn. However, Middle Ages scholars suggest that in most instances the kid had no say in what he was to learn, so we must assume they weren't ALL happy campers.

But what about the guy who at 12 began his training as a blacksmith, but at age, say, 32 or 47 or 62 (if he was still alive) wanted to do something else. Say he wanted to be a falconer or a cobbler. In fact, let's say that he ALWAYS wanted to be a falconer or a cobbler but his family had no connections so he was thrust into the trade of blacksmith.

What would he do in mid-career if he wanted a new career? Probably nothing. Feudalism had no place for the "older" person who wanted to break into a different trade. One wonders how many great falconers and cobblers who never got the chance there would've been if the feudal system had been more flexible.
Hollywood is pretty much the same way. The closest things to apprenticeships for young screenwriters are essentially film schools (for the lucky few). There are screenwriting classes cropping up in colleges and universities throughout the hinterlands. And there are the screenwriting workshops in major cities besides Los Angeles and New York and, of course, there are books on screenwriting.

But when it comes to the man or woman who's closer to 50 than 40, it's not much different than being that frustrated middle-aged blacksmith in 1545 with a dream to be a falconer. The undergraduate film schools are for kids 18-22. The grad schools accept older students, but most are in their 20s and not many get in who are past the big four-o.

Hollywood is more fair to screenwriters who break in young, let's say in their 20s and get deals or scripts made. As they grow older they maintain contacts and get more credits and if they're lucky actually have a career beyond one script being made.

But new screenwriters just starting out at a certain age have a harder time and they shouldn't. There's the perception that somehow younger is better. Having taught dozens of enormously talented young writers I can say this: younger talent isn't better, it's just young. I've taught amazing writers in their 40s, 50s and 60s and I've learned that talent is ageless.

Sadly, if an agent finds out that a first-time author has gray hair, three grandchildren, is beyond menopause or uses Viagra that agent will be concerned. The industry will deny it - and there are exceptions - but standard operating procedure is that the 24-year-old first-time screenwriter is preferable to the first-time screenwriter who's a Baby Boomer.

Think of it this way. If The Apprentice were about making it as a screenwriter, changes would have to be made. At the end of the show, an agent wouldn't hesitate on deciding between one of the young whippersnapper's screenplay or Donald Trump's screenplay. "Sorry, Donald," the agent would say. "I know you have the most talent and experience, but...you're fired!" Of course Donald Trump would probably buy the agency and can the agent. It's good to be the Sorcerer.

So, is there hope for the new old(er) screenwriter? Yes.

I personally know three writers in their late 40s/early 50s who have recently either won or placed high in major screenwriting contests. One got an agent and a deal. I know a 51-year-old who published an obscure novel more than 20 years ago that was optioned by a producer who'd read it as a teenager. He hired him to write the screenplay. I know a 48-year-old who got an agent and a 41-year-old who just got her first writing assignment because a producer like one of her scripts.

So it DOES happen. Are the odds against you if you remember where you were
when JFK was shot? Sure. But that means you've been around the block a few times and you know that life is filled with obstacles. And you've learned a few things like the importance of passion, tenacity and believing in yourself.

As for The Donald, do you think Mr. Trump would give up if an agent unfairly judged him as not having the goods to be a screenwriter? Hardly. Because then he wouldn't be the same person who has his name on top of giant buildings dominating the skyline.

If you're an older screenwriter, don't fire yourself. Instead, get fired up. Nobody ever got anywhere by accepting somebody else's rules.

Meet the Author: D.B. Gilles

D.B. Gilles teaches screenwriting and comedy writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of The Screenwriter Within and The Portable Film School. He is co-author of the George Bush parody W. The First Hundred Days. A White House Journal. He also wrote the play, Sparkling Object

D.B. is a script consultant and writing coach. Many of his students have gotten deals, sold scripts, had their work published and their TV scripts, sketches and screenplays produced. 

He writes the popular blog, Screenwriters Rehab: For Screenwriters Who Can’t Get Their Acts Toget...