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September 7, 2015

How old are Hollywood screenwriters?

Hollywood Reporter screenwritersFollowing on from last week’s look at the average age of Hollywood directors, I thought I would perform the same analysis for Hollywood screenwriters.

The situation for screenwriters is slightly more complicated than directors as films tend to have more writers than directors, and there are many different types of writing credit.  In the past, I have looked at how many people work on a film, and shown that the average Hollywood film has 3.5 writers.  However, this number is slightly suppressed due to the rules of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) which limits how many people can be officially credited.  Hollywood Studios are permitted to credit just three parties with the writing of the screenplay, although each of those parties could be a team of up to three people.  

Animated films are not subject to the same restrictions and so we can get a better sense of the number of people who actually contributed to the screenplay. For the 1998 Disney film Mulan it was 32 writers.  (It should be noted that the Directors Guild of America also suppresses credits by demanding than only one person be credited for the direction of a film, but this affects a much smaller number of films than the WGA rules).

For today’s research I chose to only include writers who were credited with the actual screenplay, with credits such as “Screenplay by”, Written by” and “Writer”.  This excluded other people who were credited with the writing process but did not actually write the final script, such as “Story by”, “Characters by” and the writer of the source of an adaptation such as a book or a novel.  I looked at two sets of films – the 100 highest grossing films of each year for the past two decades and the 100 highest grossing films in each genre of all time.  In summary:

  • The average age of a screenwriter on a top grossing Hollywood film in 2014 was 46 years and 10 months
  • That’s three years older than the average director of the same group of films
  • Almost 43% of Hollywood screenwriters are between 35 and 45 years old
  • 5.5% of screenwriters of top grossing films are under 30
  • The youngest credited writer is Aaron Seltzer who co-wrote Spy Hard at just 22
  • The movies with the oldest average screenwriters were musicals – average age 60.6 years
  • Horror films have the youngest writers, at just 44.5 years old

Hollywood screenwriters are younger than directors (just)

The average age of a screenwriter on a top grossing Hollywood film released in 2014 was 46 years and 10 months.  The average age of the director over the same period was 49 years and 9 months.

Average age of screenwriters of top grossing films

Almost 43% of Hollywood screenwriters are between 35 and 45 years old.  They start younger, too, with 5.5% being aged under 30 when their film was released, compared with just 2.6% of directors. 

Age spread of screenwriters of top grossing films

Hollywood screenwriter Aaron SeltzerThe youngest credited writer of a top grossing film released between 1994-2014 is Aaron Seltzer who co-wrote the Leslie Nielsen classic Spy Hard and was just 22 when it was released.  Special mention should go to Racer Rodriguez, son of indie director/god Robert Rodriguez, who was credited as having co-created the story of 2005 The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D, despite only being 8 years and two months old when the film was released.

The oldest credited writer (as per my definition above) is Halsted Welles, who was born 101 years old before his film 3:10 to Yuma was released in 2007.  Impressive, more so considering he died in 1990.  The 2007 film was a remake of the 1957 film of the same name, which Halsted wrote.  His credit on both films is “Screenplay by” although in the more recent film he shares the credit with screenwriting duo Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (who were 39 and 37 years old respectively when the 2007 film opened in US cinemas).

The young write to kill; the old write to dance

The movies with the oldest average screenwriters were musicals (average age 60.6 years), family films (57.8 years) and fantasy films (57.4 years).  The genres with the youngest writers were horror (average age 44.5 years old), music (44.6 years) and sport (46.2 years).  Music films are films which feature music prominently but are not musicals in the traditional sense.  These include Walk The Line, 8 Mile and Saturday Night Fever.

Average age of screenwriters of top genre films

Methodology

For today’s research into Hollywood screenwriters I created two datasets…

  • Top films of each year.  These are the 100 highest grossing films of each year at the US box office (according to IMDb) between 1994 and 2014, inclusive (this relates to their US release date).  That’s 2,100 films in total. 
  • Top films of each genre. These are the 100 highest grossing films in each genre (as defined by The Numbers / Opus) released at any time before the end of 2014. 

I chose to look only at writers with full writing credits (“Screenplay by”, Written by” and “Writer”) for a couple of reasons.  I wanted to look at the people who are actively working, rather than everyone who had some involvement in the film’s creation at some time.  I don’t wish to demean the time, effort and talent that goes into writing a play which is then adapted into a film, but the original playwright is not strictly in the film industry (unless they also wrote the screenplay, in which case they would be counted in this research).

Secondly, if I had included the age of the original writers of the source material then the average age would have been a lot older due to the inclusion of Homer who was born around 800 BC, Plato (427 BC), Suetonius (140 BC), Appian (95 AD), Shakespeare (1564), Austen (1775), Dickens (1812), etc.  I felt that these guys might skew the numbers somewhat.

When reading this research there are a few things to bear in mind…

  • Hollywood screenwriters for whom I found detailsHistorical data accuracy. The further back in time we study, the more prone we are to data errors. 
  • Age relates to age on the first day of the film’s theatrical release. Films normally take between 12 and 24 months from shooting before they are released, so to get a true measure of the age of the screenwriter at the moment of filming then the results above need to be reduced slightly.
  • Missing information.  I was able to find reliable dates of birth for 67% of my Hollywood screenwriters.  This is a higher percentage than for directors (85%) but I guess that’s the nature of a writer’s life.  Whilst I could certainly be happier working with a higher percentage of screenwriters’ birth dates, the missing info seems evenly spread throughout the dataset so should not have a huge effect on the conclusions.

Epilogue

Next week I’m going to look at producers. I’ve not looked at the data yet but my guess is that they’re older, with Executive Producers being the oldest.  Tune in next week to find out…

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7 Responses

  1. Ernest Baldrich September 7, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    Very interesting, your article I found of great interest, Greetings from Argentina !!!

  2. willymolloy September 14, 2015 at 8:55 pm #

    Excellent article!

  3. David Thorndill December 23, 2015 at 2:10 am #

    I started my first screenplay three years ago at age 67. I’m working on my fourth action packed spec screenplay. They have done well in contests, but it’s hard to get any serious directors or producers to even look at them.

  4. David wooldridge February 20, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    On average how much does a screenwriter make from a film

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