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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
Any other ways you’ve heard “No,” “Maybe,” or “Yes”? Let me know in the comments.
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