photo by Jon Fingas
Even if you’ve never set foot in Hollywood, you know that it can be difficult for actors, and especially actresses, to get film roles past a certain age.
So, just a century after the film colony migrated to the West Coast, California legislators have decided that entertainers should have the right to hide their age, at least on the popular show business website IMDb. Problem solved, right? Because in a business where power-lunchers dwell in hilltop mansions while grips, gaffers and walk-ons commute from distant deserts, everyone is entitled to an equal shot at fame and fortune. Besides, if you scrub the information from IMDb, no casting director would ever think of searching the rest of the internet. And someone with 20 years’ acting experience in adult roles might really be 31.
Assembly Bill 1687, as the legislation is known, has a seemingly worthy goal – offering hope to the underdog, the aging performer who never broke through and whose age is therefore unknown to the people who decide whether a particular headshot and resume warrants a call for an audition. The law faces serious legal and practical problems, but hey – they don’t call Hollywood the Dream Factory for nothing, do they? If Joe Hardy could lead the Washington Senators to the pennant in “Damn Yankees,” maybe the actors who failed to secure a part in “Sex and the City” could land a series like “Girls” instead if they just had the chance.
The statute targets IMDb via the database service’s IMDb Pro product, which allows entertainment professionals who subscribe in order to post more extensive resumes and biographies and to submit their materials to casting directors through the service. If a subscriber asks IMDb to remove references to the individual’s age or date of birth, the service will be required to comply within five days once the law takes effect next year. Although directors, producers and other personnel are all covered, it is clear the law is mainly aimed at actors.
IMDb, which is a unit of Amazon, has filed a federal lawsuit to block the law. It contends that requiring it to remove accurate data violates First Amendment guarantees of press and speech freedoms. It also observes that in many cases the information would be available online from other sources. IMDb agrees that the goal of eliminating, or at least reducing, discrimination against older actors is worthy, but argues that the state’s approach is fundamentally flawed.
I agree, which will not surprise readers who remember my criticism of Europe’s so-called “right to be forgotten.” Chilling free speech would be enough of a reason to reject AB 1687 on its face. But let’s set aside the First Amendment concerns for a moment to consider all the other problems with the legislation, which California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in September and which will take effect Jan. 1 if not blocked by the courts.
First, the only IMDb resumes that would lack age information would be the ones whose owners asked the service to suppress that information. Might that be a clue to those handing out jobs that the applicant in question wants to hide his or her age? I don’t know how that would reduce discrimination; if anything, since casting directors are often too busy to spend much time on a more thorough internet search, many might be inclined to assume the worst and move on.
Second, how does California gain jurisdiction over IMDb, or any other website, that happens to be based and operated outside the state? Amazon itself has a physical presence in California, so IMDb may arguably be susceptible to Sacramento’s laws even if all of the company’s entertainment-industry operation is handled from Amazon headquarters in Seattle. But what if I started a similar website in Florida – how would California obtain the right to tell me what I could publish on it? What if Amazon sold IMDb to an owner in Mexico, or more likely in China, which is close to catching up to the United States in overall box office revenue? If I were a California lawmaker, I would think long and hard about the risk of setting a precedent in this context that could hurt my state’s effort to assert sales tax jurisdiction over out-of-state online retailers.
Third, even though AB 1687 has strong support from the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA, it isn’t self-evident that ageism is the one-sided problem that the law’s supporters describe. After all, anyone who is 35 years old has at one point been 20 or 25. If a casting agent has decided to look for someone, say, under 30 to play a particular role, the 35-year-old won’t get a call no matter how young he looks – but an unknown 21-year-old may get his big break in the same situation. Like all unions, SAG-AFTRA primarily looks out for its existing members – meaning people who already work in the industry, not people who are looking to break in. This story has two sides, but there is nobody speaking on behalf of the younger actors, who could hypothetically lose out in the competition for the roles they are best suited to play.
Finally, entertainment is art. Those who make art are entitled to the widest deference to their vision of how art should be made, and those who consume it (meaning all of us) are entitled to their own preferences. If we want to see content produced by and for older artists, we just have to show up with our eyeballs and wallets; the content will follow.
To an extent, this has already happened. The plethora of cable channels featuring original programming, and the emergence of online producers like Netflix and Amazon itself, are creating vast new opportunities in the industry, for people of all ages on either side of the camera. Consider Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” which has been renewed for a third season, or Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning series “Transparent.” If we aren’t providing enough work for older professionals, that responsibility ultimately lies with viewers. The very definition of entertainment is to give the audience what it wants to watch.
IMDb will probably win its federal case either at trial or on appeal. But even if it doesn’t, California is not likely to meet much success in solving the problem it thinks it has, and it may create new problems for itself in the bargain. The reality of the aging screen star, or would-be star, is a story that is at least as old as Hollywood itself.