“The Lie Most Frequently Told In Hollywood”

April 18th, 2013 by

I don’t often get the opportunity to bounce around screenwriting blogs like I used to. Simply too busy. But the other day, I stumbled across a Facebook post from Billy Mernit which led to this, and that led me to Stephanie Palmer’s blog Good In A Room here, and that led me to contacting Stephanie to ask if I could post her post in its entirety here.

Yes, it’s that good.

And yes, Stephanie kindly agreed.

Here is Stephanie’s post in full:

You know those stories where the hero is lied to, but doesn’t know it, and the best friend knows about the lie and has to decide whether or not to tell the hero?  With rare exception, the sooner the hero is told about the lie, the better.  It might hurt, but better to know the truth.

In this post, I’m playing the role of the friend, you’re the hero, and I’m hoping that you won’t be upset when I tell you:

Sometimes, the compliments you get from decision-makers about your work aren’t true.

These compliments, these times when you hear a version of “Yes,” often are lies–and what is actually being said is, “No.”

That’s why today we’re going to talk about exactly what “No,” “Maybe,” and “Yes” really sound like.

The Lie Is Told For A Reason

Decision-makers don’t tell you the truth because they are trying to protect their relationship with you.  They want you to send them your future work, so they lie in order not to hurt your feelings.

This lie is a problem for writers, directors, and producers who are taking meetings, sending out scripts, and thinking a deal is close at hand… when in reality, they’re being told “No” time and again.  Unfortunately, they keep chasing leads that aren’t there and wasting precious time.

I don’t want you to be wasting your time.  I want you to be the kind of professional who understands the subtext, knows when he or she is being told the truth, and can act accordingly.  So let’s talk about the ways that “No,” “Maybe,” and “Yes” are communicated.

“No” Is Silence Over Time

Chris Kelly, a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher wrote this in a recent article (crediting Merill Markoe):

In Hollywood, ‘no’ is silence over time. The way you find out you’re not getting the job, that they passed, that they didn’t respond to the material, that they’re going a different direction, is silence. It’s the call you don’t get.” (via Huffington Post)

Other forms of “silence over time”:

  • If you can’t get an in-person meeting at all.
  • If your emails don’t get returned in one week.
  • If your calls don’t get returned in two weeks.
  • If your script has been passed along (to a star, director, or producer), and you haven’t heard back in a month.

If you pitch to a decision-maker and they want to be in business with you, they will get in touch as soon as possible.  If you haven’t heard back, the answer (almost always) is “No.”

Unless They Pay You, The Answer Is “No”

That’s the title of John August’s Scriptnotes Episode 71.

John’s screenwriter co-host, Craig Mazin, elaborates:

Unless there’s money, the answer is no. Isn’t that terrible? And it’s so unfortunate because there’s thousands and thousands — so many wonderful, creative ways for people to say no to you. And so many of them sound like yes, which is horrifying really to contemplate, but it’s human nature. Nobody really likes saying no to somebody. Nobody wants to be mean. No one wants to see that look reflected back to them.”

If you’re not getting any money, the answer is probably “No.”

“No” Often Starts With A Compliment

When people in Hollywood say “No,” the medicine is typically accompanied by a spoonful of sugar.

Examples include:

  • “This has a lot of potential…”
  • “This is a great piece of writing…”
  • “I love the main characters…”
  • “This is hilarious…”
  • “We love it…”

If you’re getting compliments like this, they can be true, but don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of these compliments translate to:

“You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you….”

“No” Usually Ends With An Excuse

After the compliment you get the excuse:

  • “… but isn’t the right fit for us.”
  • “… but we are overbudget.”
  • “… but would be too expensive.”
  • “… but we have another project that is too similar.”

If you’re hearing reasons like these, don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of the reasons translate to:

“…but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

“No” = Compliment + Excuse

Most of the time when you’re getting compliments on your writing followed by an excuse about why you’re not getting any money, the actual compliments and excuses are not the truth.  The truth is that they are saying:

“You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you, but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

This is a hard thing to hear because we want to believe that the compliment is real because that’s something to feel good about.  We want to believe that the excuse is real because it lets us save face.

The thing to understand is that if your work was good enough, you’d at least get a “Maybe.”

“Maybe” Comes In Three Flavors

The first kind of “Maybe” is: Notes.

When someone actually takes the time to give you feedback on what you’ve done, that’s a victory.  It means that they want to be helpful and that, if you are able to make the changes, they may be willing to take another look or meet with you again.

The second kind of “Maybe” is: Stall for time.

Examples:

  • “I’ll take a look at it.”
  • “Let me get back to you once I’ve had the chance to read it.”

This is a gray area, and typically means one of two things:

  • “I like you personally and don’t want to offend you, but I don’t think this is good enough yet, and I want you to send me your future projects.”
  • “My assistant will take a look at it and then tell me what he or she thinks and if the feedback is extremely positive, then I’ll take a look.”

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to decipher the difference between a “Maybe” that means “No” and a “Maybe” that means “Maybe.” The best thing to do is to follow up after an appropriate amount of time, typically two weeks.

The third kind of “Maybe” is: Let’s move this up the chain.

Examples:

  • “Let’s get Matt Damon (or other Big Star) on the line right now.”
  • “Come meet my boss.”

This is a hopeful sign. It means that if the star, director, or higher-level executive is interested, then this could quickly turn into a “Yes.”

“Yes” Means Things Are About To Move Fast

“Yes” sounds like this:

  • “I’m going to have Business Affairs call your agent.”
  • “We’re going to make an offer. Wait by your phone.”
  • “I’d like to option this for [$$$].”

Remember, a great piece of material, a great pitch, a great writer—these are all very rare commodities. If a decision-maker believes that your work is that valuable, he or she is going to move quickly to sign you, buy your material, or otherwise bring you on board.

There is really not much to add to this as Stephanie does a thorough job. It’s like the old line: How do you know someone in Hollywood is lying? When they open their mouths. Okay, so that is extremely cynical and hyperbolic. But there is a large grain of truth in it.

Honestly much of this has nothing to do with being overtly two-faced and almost everything to do with how damn busy people working in Hollywood are, so they almost always default to a line of least resistance mode. And letting down writers gently is the best, most efficient way to handle a pass.

That’s regarding “No.” What about “Maybe”? That is rife with possibilities. In some cases, it’s actually a pre-Yes. Take script readers, for instance. Even if they absolutely love a script, they will almost always give it a Consider instead of a Recommend. Why? Because that way, they are covered in case the higher-ups don’t connect with the script. If they give a script a Recommend and it doesn’t fly with the buyers, then they may question the reader’s trustworthiness when it comes to assessing stories. A Consider is safer. Thus Maybe can mean a sort of Yes. Then again, it can also mean Maybe. Or there are times when it can mean No.

So what do we do with this information? Understand it is a reality. Understand each of us will get fed a variety of lines in our tenure as writers in Hollywood. And understand the single best way to avoid rejections is by learning the craft, practicing the craft, and producing inspired professional quality screenplays.

To learn more about Stephanie, go here.

12 thoughts on ““The Lie Most Frequently Told In Hollywood”

  1. Hollywood — it’s not who you know, it’s how you no.

  2. Matt Bird says:

    I don’t buy either of the standard excuses, “they don’t want to piss you off” or “everybody in Hollywood is really busy”. First of all, it *does* piss people off. Second, if a publisher rejects your novel, they tell you. If a newspaper or magazine editor rejects your article, they tell you. These people are actually much busier than movie producers, since they put out a lot more material.

    Why does the movie business do this, when no other business that hires writers does? Because the movie business attracts immature and slimy people. It’s as simple as that.

    Book publishing and journalism aren’t sexy or exciting, so they tend to attract mature, sober, honest people who care about their responsibilities, which includes saying “no” even though it’s no fun.

    Movies, on the other hand, are sexy, flashy and cool, so they tend to attract starry-eyed, glad-handing, spineless weasels who would rather lie to your face than treat you with simple respect, simply because they think that their job should be all-fun-all-the-time.

    It’s disgusting.

    This is why almost every screenwriter I know is leaving the business behind and working on that first novel.

    1. Despina says:

      That’s a sad thought for aspiring screenwriters who think in scenes rather than prose…

    2. Matt–Since you use the word “disgusting” to refer to what you consider to be disingenuous, would you apply that to your friends as well? Because no screenwriter who is making too much money leaves the business to write books because Hollywood execs aren’t honest. They do that because they’re not making enough money screenwriting. (And good for them, writers should write in any medium that pays well!)

  3. Erica R Maier says:

    Scott, do you think if they were more honest, more quickly, that it would churn more QUALITY work? I mean, if I was told point-blank by an executive that my script was simply not good enough, it would force me to go back to the drawing board until it was. (Or is that your agent/manager’s job to be honest?)

    If you’re falsely complimented to spare feelings, then you’ll just keep putting out crap, ESPECIALLY if you’re not savvy enough to know that you have to “decode” everything that’s being said …

    Frustrating. But obviously not a process that’s going away soon … you just gotta learn how to play the game, I guess.

    1. Despina says:

      Methinks it has to do with all the egos they constantly stroke. It’s BS really. I’d much rather have the straight and dirty than the dance-around-the-bush party.

      1. Erica R Maier says:

        Me, too, Despina. Me, too.

  4. In my book, THE STARTER SCREENPLAY, I have a subchapter called “A PASS BY ANY OTHER NAME”. Here are some ways executives pass and what they mean:

    “Not for us at this time” is meaningless. Unless you’re operating on the assumption that time travel devices are on the horizon.

    “Our slate is full” is just bullshit—there’s no such thing as a production company with too many projects. The company hires more vice presidents when that happens.  

    The “similar project at our company” or “around town” claim is an easy out, as sometimes it’s true. But if the executive thinks there is ANY chance of your script selling, they’ll email it to agents and managers to gain favors. The exec may also discuss your other ideas or pitch you ideas to write for them on spec.

    “This project isn’t commercial” can be true. But if they think you’re the next Charlie Kaufman, they’ll refer your material to an agent or manager.

    It’s a complete blow off when a company tells you to come back with a talent attachment. Does it need to be said that they’d reconsider if Tom Cruise wants to star in your project? This response may be honest if a studio executive calls an agent and lists specific actors or actresses they need to move the project forward. But when a producer
    says this to an unrepresented writer, it’s a surefire “PASS!”

  5. [...] Scott Meyers wrote a fantastic blog post any screenwriter should check out. [...]

  6. JewelDole says:

    I remember forwarding Ms. Palmer’s post around a few weeks ago.

    I think it’s great she straight up translated all the various “no’s”, but her best point was at the end, where she says – look, if they aren’t on the phone with you, inking a deal asap, with money – it’s a no, period.

    So you got a “no.” Maybe a bunch of them. Everyone does. It took Platoon 7 years to get made. Don’t blame the business – make your work the best it can be, and find the right home, the right fit.

    You only need one yes, and it’s normal in any industry to weather a lot of no’s to get it. Best to plan for that.

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