In an initial pitch meeting, if an executive is interested in working with you, he or she will likely ask you a series of tough, possibly annoying, and occasionally “trick questions.”
It isn’t really that the exec is trying to trick you. Trick questions are tests to see if you are a professional and know how to handle yourself under pressure.
The Secret To Answering Trick Questions
Trick questions often have a question hidden within. If you can figure out the hidden question, you can give a much better answer.
In this post, I’ll help you anticipate five of the most frequent trick questions, show you the questions hidden within, and help you to create better answers in advance.
Trick Question #1: How long have you been working on your project?
If you say that you’ve been working on it for years, you sound like an amateur who can’t write quickly enough to work in the big leagues. If you say a couple months, then it sounds like you’re not serious enough about your work to take the time to make something great.
The hidden question is: Do you really know what you’re doing?
Think about the different ways you could truthfully explain how long you’ve been working on your project, and put your best foot forward.
- “I read this article three years ago and it really stuck with me. Then I had the idea, “What if_____?” and I wrote the draft over the last six months.”
- “When I first got the idea for (project title), I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I noodled with it for a few years, thought about putting it down, but the story just kept sticking with me. Eventually I figured out the missing piece of the story and then I rewrote the entire thing in five months.”
- “About a year or so.”
Trick Question #2: How much would this cost?
You could make most movies for two million, $20 million or $200 million dollars depending on whom you cast. Even if you’ve worked as a line producer and have extensive experience budgeting, if you’re selling a script as a screenwriter, estimating cost isn’t your job.
If you provide an estimate (which almost assuredly isn’t what the executive is thinking), it’s easy for the executive to dismiss your perspective. Executives know that film budgeting, whether for an independent or studio film, is a moving target.
That’s really what this question is about—it’s a way to filter out the amateurs who take the bait and answer something way too low or way too high. Remember, in this meeting, you’re the creative professional. Your job is to imagine and create. The executive’s job is to budget and produce.
The hidden question is: Does this person understand how the business works?
Here’s how to answer: Don’t give a specific number and turn the question back to the executive.
- “I’m not sure. What do you think?”
Trick Question #3: How do you see the casting?
This is a trick question because you think they want to hear your opinions, but they’re asking you to make sure you’re not obsessed with wacky or outlandish casting ideas.
For example, when I was at MGM, the following would happen frequently: a new writer would answer, “My best friend has a small part on a TV show and would be so awesome for the lead. You should really consider him.”
This well-meaning statement would give me pause. Would you really want your friend who hasn’t ever acted in a movie to have the lead in your first major film more than, say, Ryan Gosling or Robert Pattinson?
Here’s another example: one time, I had a writer pitch me passionately that Dustin Diamond (“Screech” from Saved by the Bell) would be perfect as the lead for a big-budget action thriller. “My dream cast,” he said.
Dustin Diamond may be the right actor for a certain projects, but it showed me that the writer wasn’t on the same page of trying to make a big studio film.
The hidden question is: Are you aware of the marketplace?
Here’s how to answer: Mention a couple of well-known stars and well-regarded independent film stars and then turn the question back to the executive.
- “I think for the main character, (big star) or (big star), also possibly (up-and-coming star). For the father, I could see a guy like (established film actor) or (beloved TV character actor). Who are you thinking about?”
Before a script is purchased, talking about casting can be a slippery slope. Once the project sells, at the appropriate time in the casting process you can float any names that haven’t already been raised by someone else.
Trick Question #4: What’s the weakest part of the script?
This is a question for which you should be prepared at all times. It’s just like when you interviewed to get into college or for your first job. The standard question is, “What is your biggest weakness?” or “Why shouldn’t we hire you?”
This is a test to see how objectively you can look at your work. Pros know that every word they write isn’t perfect and they can immediately identify sections or aspects that are stronger than others.
The hidden question is: Can you handle being challenged?
Here’s how to answer: Be willing to show there are things you are working on, that you’re willing to work with notes, and keep a positive focus.
- “I’m still looking for places to tighten up the second act.”
- “The humor feels stronger to me in the beginning and the end—I could use a few more good lines in the middle.”
- “I am concerned that the climactic fight sequence in Act III is a bit too violent, though I can turn the volume down on that if necessary.”
Trick Question #5: How did you get started as a writer?
The hidden question is: Are you an expert?
Fair or not, the executive is going to judge your expertise and capability as a writer from your story of how you became a writer.
The most common answer goes something like this: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Been writing short stories since I was a kid. Love movies. Then I took a writing class with a great teacher and (blah blah blah).”
Here’s how to answer: Demonstrate your expertise.
- “I’ve been obsessed with (detail relating to your project) for years, and realized that there’s never been a story that focused on (a marketable aspect of the genre).”
- “When I was working as an (unusual previous job), (unique experience) happened. I started researching everything about the topic and this project was the result.”
Now that you can answer these trick questions, I hope you’ll feel more confident going into your next meeting!
Have you experienced other “trick” or especially difficult questions?