The Lie Most Frequently Told In Hollywood

The LIE Most Frequently Told

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.”

Hollywood Lies No Sounds Like Yes

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.


  • “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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  1. I use to be an art dealer in NYC before I resumed screenwriting. I used to come up the the same “maybes” and “no’s”. A “yes” was “I’d like to have a piece of yours in my next group show”. Anything short of that was said to spare the artist’s feelings. It the same with writers. So now I’m getting what I used to dish out :) But protecting the artist’s and/or writer’s feelings is not entirely a bad thing.

  2. Stephanie, since I got to know you, I read your articles almost every day, and they really work!! Your advices are the best among those others which I read throughout my research.

  3. Your insight is pure Gold… (with capital “G”) Thank your very much. By the way, if you’re interested I could translate your articles into Spanish ;) Greeting from South America. :)

  4. Hi Stephanie,

    I’m a student interested in a career in screenwriting. Having only recently joined Good In A Room to get a deeper understanding of screenwriting, I wanted to know if you have any guides for someone who wants to start a career in screenwriting, such as things to start doing to have a better chance in the career?


  5. As a former production executive with Warner Bros. and now writer/director of commercials & features I can say unequivocally you are correct – so spot on it’s scary. The insight you provide Stephanie, is fundamentally important for creatives to understand and yet even when we do, the sting lingers. The difference between those who do and those who don’t is perseverance. However, not with those politely saying “No” but in finding others who may say “Yes”. While I know this truth from being on the other side and forced to feign interest, provide ego-assuaging ambiguity and yes, even silence, I still find myself trying to optimistically justify the black hole I have found myself in as an anomaly – “maybe they’re just really busy”. After nursing MY bruised ego I come to my senses and accept it as a polite “pass” and begin targeting other potential collaborators keeping in mind many studios passed on Star Wars, ET, almost fired Scorsese for The Godfather shooting in too much shadow, thought Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow interpretation was too far off the mark when shown initial dailies and the list goes on. Belief in one’s self & Perseverance.

  6. Thank you so much for all the great information, you put so much work into all this and It is so empowering for people like me who sometimes don’t have a clue about the way the industry works. I have signed up for an on line course with Hay House Publishing, so I’m very busy, but I still find time to open and read your emails, so keep on sending. Regards

  7. Thank you for this information, Stephanie.

    I am trying to get an agent and despite the fact that I have two features, a play, and some television dialogue work (etc) under my belt, I was frustrated with the complete absence of a callback or email response to my inquiries. I’ve managed to get a few on the line and even have a coffee with two of them, but after the initial submission, my follow-up inquiries fall into the black hole of unresponsiveness.

    It boggles the mind, really. [my city] is a smaller industry town, compared to L.A, and we have maybe a half dozen lit agents, but more than a few of them still believe that playing the silence game is preferable to responding with a ‘no, thank you’. I suppose they are trying to save face or avoid confrontation in their heads, but I believe a good business practice is open communication – plus, you avoid Writers calling you back two or three times and wondering if you’ve left the agency or traveled to Costa Rica to join some extremist tanned writer group.

    I’m confident I will eventually land an agent, but that’s not the point of this email. I hope that, as the next generation enters our profession, we can share insights and foster a more communicative and encouraging rapport with each other where we all benefit and flourish.

    Your links/emails are certainly helping the cause.



  8. Another reason they may not be telling you (with independent companies) is that they have other writers who are bringing in money or star attachments. After working in development for many years I’ve seen that happen a LOT. If you come in with either of those things, suddenly your script looks slightly better.

    FYI – Stephanie will tell you the brutal truth. In a nice way, of course!

  9. Then again, “NO” could also mean: “Yes, we think your script does have potential but… we were wondering if you would like to give it away for free or for a few bucks”, so I’ve been told many times over and over. And this OPTION agreement is also TRICKY business. “Would you be willing to sign it for free? If not then our official position is NO. I doubt any manager, agent or producer work for free and you know the option fee is about 3% of the production budget.

  10. good stuff but bewildering to a guy who grew up being taught ‘let your yes be yes and your no be no’

  11. Wtf??????!!! OMG I’m so confused now! I’m losing my mind right now! I wanna start cursing! Now I don’t know if my scripts are any good! I thought they were I never got any comments like those before but I don’t know! This isn’t fair! WTF is my honesty?! Excuse me while I lose my mind right now.

  12. Enjoyed reading this article and appreciate that the comments are still open.

    Stephanie- I just found your site and I’m looking forward to reading more as I’m new to the business of writing for TV.

    The issue that writers have in TV and Film is also true in marketing. I can think of a number of examples where I developed online content for startup clients; stuff that both I and the client liked. Then came the hand-off to their web designer/developer. Ugh. Needless to say, writing great content can be a torment when someone else is in charge of execution, and mangles are great project into an unfortunate end. And for those times when I was not functioning as Creative Director as I am now, I watched hours of work transformed with a visual narrative that minimized the impact of my writing. Thankfully the newer understanding is that content informs design, and I am hoping that with some of the changes taking place for TV that more emphasis will be placed on the story and the role of the writer being more involved in important executional considerations.

    I think the one thing that seems to be sorely missing here is some sort of technology component to help speed up the feedback process. Take for example Google Docs. I’ve seen many startups use the online Forms feature to get immediate feedback from prospective clients without having to make a follow-up call, so why not employ this with new screenwriters–especially if you’re sending them links via phone or email, or where they can download or view your script online? The second benefit to the writer is that you can move on and, with the promise of getting online feedback, you can look forward to putting your energies to more productive things, such as being creative and writing. With a little research, there’s likely a few more feedback tools like that could be used to amass a variety of feedback so that writers can do a better job of honing their craft. Stephanie- what do you think of such an approach?

    • I think it’s a great approach. If you do this, I’d love to hear how it works for you. Apologies for the suuuupppppeeer late response. This must have slipped through the cracks previously.

  13. Well seen and well said. Still, reading the depth and breadth of the interpretation required to parse the real meanings made me see quite another aspect of this.

    What a huge amount of wasted energy to be able to say yes, no and maybe!

    Nothing you said is wrong, on the contrary, it’s all right, very right. But if everyone who read this resolved NOT to engage in the kind of obfuscatory language-cloud system that is described here, the world would be a better place.

    Learn the ropes, for sure. But don’t add to the problem by forcing it on other people. Instead, learn to speak the truth – intentionally, with great care and empathy, directly, positively, and honestly. The truth is good stuff; don’t cheat the people you talk to out of the good stuff. Don’t make them wade through the crap like you had to.

  14. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon on a daily
    basis. It’s always helpful to read content from other writers and practice a little something from other sites.

  15. Hi Stephene! My name’s Tyler and I’m a high school freshman and am looking to be a puppeteer someday with my own original content. I read your blog religiously and appreciate your support for creative people everywhere trying to get somewhere in show business. I was just wondering if you could recommend some comedy writing books or sites in order to help me strengthen my abilities as a writer. Thanks for all you’re doing and helpful article, by the way.
    Much appreciated,

  16. A fantastic column! I’ve long quoted the saying, “In Hollywood, a ‘yes’ is a ‘maybe,’ a ‘maybe’ is a ‘no’ and a ‘no’ is an insult.” This explanation is terrific at helping writers understand what that means. Enlightening!

  17. Great info. And boy, does this remind me of dating!

    (If they don’t pursue you, they’re just not that into you!)


  18. That’s why I started producing my own work. There’s no point in waiting around for someone else when you know you can do it. So I worked with a few other people I trust and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also very hard to have to do every part of the production, but it forces you to be creative in ways you didn’t expect. For instance, I got out the sewing machine to make costumes I couldn’t find anywhere else. Being able to create your own work is the best way, because you don’t have to try to find a script you like and compete against a lot of others to get the chance.

  19. One further thought: This reminded me so much of the book (that I haven’t read) & mediocre film (that I have seen) He’s Just Not That Into You. Except instead of trying to figure out why that guy/girl hasn’t gotten back to you (Answer: “Because s/he’s just not that into you!”) you’re trying to come up with a million reasons why that development exec/producer/studio guy/gal hasn’t gotten back to you. Answer: “Because s/he’s just not that into your script!” LOL

  20. This is a salutary reminder that we need to be good at hearing the BS disguised as flattery! My one question relates to payment: I’ve heard that more & more work is expected to be done on spec as development budgets are squeezed, and that this is affecting even experienced, produced screenwriters. The producer’s (or studio’s) attitude seems to be: Why would I pay someone for work if I can get this desperate writer to do it for free? Perhaps this falls into the “notes” caveat you mention as being a “Maybe.” i.e: if the producer/development person is willing to expend time trying to make something better they believe it’s showing enough potential to want to keep alive the possibility of it turning into a “Yes” down the track.

  21. Great stuff Ms. Steph!

    Heard ALL of these while in grad. film school…but as temp assistant one summer for a producer, trying to push one of his projects to the studios. He needed a film school student, I guess, at his side.

    Stranger? Hearing same producer say EXACT same words to someone else pushing their work.

    That’s why in this digital world now and the future…I’m doing as much dev. of my own indie genre features that I can shoot for small coin; and then leap frog to next step.

    I still create my HWD high concept specs and put those out; but I have to have one side…TOTALLY with my own control and work on going directly to global audiences WITH MY OWN PROJECTS.

    Otherwise? No matter how good my work is…the studio system will always have the last word.


  22. I predict this is going to get very high in search engine rankings – it’s a perfect picture for both sides.

    I’ve always said to myself, “‘No’ in Hollywood is ‘Yes’ without follow-through.” Amazingly similar to Chris Kelly’s description (but a little better, right?) hahahah!

    My only nit with the article is about “follow up”. If a real yes is “going to move quickly” then isn’t “follow up” – by definition – unnecessary?


    • I understand your point, Chris. Though follow-up can be tricky, it’s often where sales are made and relationships are strengthened. I think if you’re hearing a “YES” it’s possible that you or your rep would still follow-up. Could be something as simple as a thank-you note or email.

  23. Stephanie:

    Age-wise, I’m no chicken. I’ve known the No’s and can smell them coming a mile away. Maybe is not high in my book either. And though I’ve had some Yes’s, want to hear more. Life’s too short to slog through maybe’s and pretend Yes’s.

    Thanks for acknowledging this.

    Joan Kufrin

  24. UGH! That is hard to hear but EXACTLY what I need to hear. I did know it all, but I try to fool myself that maybe it is different for me. But to be a real professional, you gotta be able to take it on the chin, get up and figure out what you can do to turn that no INTO the yes! And that’s where Stephanie comes in! Thanks

  25. 4-16-13

    Stephanie Palmer:

    Thank you for your many inspiring words,
    as I am a subscriber to your mailing list,
    since you caringly spoke about “Good in a Room”
    many years ago at a Media Communications Assoc. meeting.

    I had a “not getting any money” experience,
    when I got a contract signed by a retailer owner
    for me to re-design their logo. Hesitating to give me
    a down payment, he kept asking me for more ideas
    for the words in the new logotype (not part of the contract).
    After going around circles and not receiving any money,
    I finally released him from the contract, so I would not
    waste any more time and effort.

    Robert Sheridan

  26. Is it considered bad manners if the question is asked, “Is this yes a yes or a no?” …or… “When can I expect to hear from you next?” … along with “can I have your cell phone number?” Where are the boundaries to get to the point? Thanks… Michael

    • Yes, you can ask, “Is this a yes or a no?” I prefer asking, “How would you like me to follow up with you?” and then let the decision-maker say, “Email me in a week” or “Call me on Monday.” Then, you can demonstrate your professionalism by following through as specified. Do not ask for someone’s cell number. If they want to give it to you, they will.

  27. Hi Stephanie, I appreciate hearing about the realities of this business. I have been out of a stressful work environment for a few years now and I honestly don’t know that I have the stomach for the back and forth of that kind of life again. But I want to see this project through. I know that getting the best professional advise will help me to give it my best shot. I hope that you and Jen will do that for me. The rest is in the hands of a higher power, and that’s just fine with me.

    I look forward to your classes.
    All the best,

  28. Ms. Palmer,

    It is also well known (William Goldman and about
    every person, writer, producer, former studio head,
    has written about it) that most of the “suits” have
    little or no idea what makes a good script, a good
    story. If one film brings in the money, they make
    half a dozen more of the same.
    Sadly, that is a fact. Im endeffect it comes down to
    your ‘connections.’ Not the quality of your work.
    But reading your essentials for this line of work
    is very valuable.

    Thank you.

    Barbara Wyatt

  29. Sooooo true!
    In the beginning for a writer or producer it helps a little to not know when they are being less than truthful because you tell yourself you’re good enough to keep trying. But all of the above definitely prevents us from spinning our wheels on stuff that is going nowhere if this is something we actually want to make a career out of.
    Looking forward to your online class.
    Thanks Stephanie!

  30. What if they read your script, then say:
    “Really liked it. Is there anyone attached? Actors? Producers? Financiers?”

    What would that one mean?

  31. Stephanie,

    I have tried to tell people about this on a number of occasions, but they always seem to think that I am just being a jerk, or I don’t “Get It” about their work. This is a brilliant and concise way to give the information that some people just don’t like a piece of work. Hey, not every script is Gone With The Wind…

  32. Funny you should post this today. Just last night at a writers group reading, one of my colleagues complained “that it’s been over a month” since she sent something in. Another colleague said: “You should call them”… It seemed obvious to me that she was resisting. Then she said “I don’t want to harass them.” Driving home I thought, what would I do? I think one call is fine and then forget about them if they don’t respond. Am I right?

  33. This article should preface every book about the business. Maybe final draft should make this as one of those default reminders before you print or save a PDF to send out.

  34. Print! Super great post, Stephanie. But I believe it’s worth mentioning your tips also relate very well to the general business community; so good on you.

    With regard to getting paid, my experience was as follows.

    Began writing a documentary about Family Court in 2010. (Created, in 2001. Have worked with two DA’s in two counties, as well as the State Bar to crack down on Unauthorized Practice of Law, among other things.)

    In 2011, was contacted by a well respected, pretty well known director. Quickly realized he had the chops and the financing to make a great, far-reaching documentary.

    Swallowed ego.

    Executed an agreement to work with them. The only part I didn’t like about the contract was Arbitration. Mainly because the rules of Arbitration differ from regular, civil court and generally not in favor of plaintiffs. Also, I don’t trust JAMS, or any other so-called “Neutrals.”

    One last wrinkle. The LLC financing the documentary was located in another state. That meant any claims to settle any disputes had to be in that state.

    So I called the money guy and very nicely, said,

    “I’m crossing out the Arbitration part because I loathe arbitration to put it mildly.
    Also, flying to [insert mid-western state] is a *completely* separate conversation.”

    He laughed. I laughed. We had a nice conversation.

    Result: No arbitration, I got paid, and my recommendations for people to be filmed were used. Last most of my on-camera stuff is on the cutting room floor.

    That could be both a good and bad thing. :)

    (The big boys are shooting for the Toronto Film Festival. Something I could never do.)

    But returning to my main point, Stephanie, this is a very important post both in and out of Hollywood. Thank you.

  35. Another great article, Stephanie. Well done!

    I think another reason why some execs aren’t always honest with their feedback is because it takes time to get into ‘the why’ of a pass, and the ensuing conversation / defense of why they feel the way they do. Time is at a premium for everyone. Sometimes the quick ‘it’s not right for us’ response is in the exec’s best interest, despite what we want to know as writers.

    Thanks again for another valuable article, and for sharing your expertise with others.

    • I got a call from a west coast agent on a Saturday morning to tell me no. What was interesting was that she actually took the time (on a weekend, no less) to call and say no. She said my writing was powerful, emotional, moviing, etc. And that she knew she couldnt sell it in Hollywood. She raged against the machine, spent half an hour telling me how much she detested what the industry had become, that I was “better than Hollywood”, etc. It was the most impressive “no” one might ever hope to hear. But why pick up a phone and spend so much time with me? Obviously, I was flattered, but, per the first line, “no” is a long silence. Instead, my no was a long rant. I don’t mind, of course. I loved her insights into the business but i have always been a bit curious why she made that call.

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