5 Trick Questions Hollywood Executives Ask—And How To Answer Them

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.

Examples:

  • “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.

Example:

  • “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.

Example:

  • “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.

Examples:

  • “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.

Examples:

  • “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?

[Flash Sale] Learn How To Protect Your Screenplay Or TV Pilot From Being Stolen In Under 20 Minutes

How to Copyright and Protect Your Screenplay or TV Pilot

Without Paying $1,000-$3,000 To An Entertainment Lawyer. Normally $29, Now $9


Claim Flash Sale Deal →

Discussion About 5 Trick Questions Hollywood Executives Ask—And How To Answer Them

  1. Gordon Mathieson

    Wise words for us all. I will take this lesson with me as I pitch my two Chinese American Film Scripts.

  2. Ruth Livier

    Great advice. Very helpful as I prepare for my upcoming pitch meeting.

  3. Troy Allen

    Terrific hearing how the gears turn during pitch meetings at studios and producer’s offices. Coming from a past creative exec at MGM turned mentor/coach/adviser helps really give honest pause for all the hopeful scribes out their who don’t want to put their own foot in their mouths. Thanks again!

  4. Sarah Beach

    Another trick “question” for those with something-off-mainstream scripts is “I wish there was a graphic novel so I could see what the film would look like.” The hidden question in that is “Is there an audience for this?”

    But learning to hear the hidden questions is important for survival in Hollywood.

  5. scott123

    I was pretty happy with myself that, while reading this I as able to answer these questions pretty well with my own script. Good Article!

  6. Keith Sauerland

    Stephanie, Thanks for all the insight and tips. I have always thought that a good writer would never inflate his own balloon. I am fascinated by your explanations of how the questions can steer the progression of and the failure of a pitch meeting. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the opportunity to present any of my scripts. Perhaps, my loglines need improvement.
    Fifteen years ago, when my children were younger, they would ask me to tell them a story after I tucked them in bed. It started during the Christmas holiday and continued on most every night after that. Over a great many story times, I soon developed a skill for making up the stories as I went along.
    Years went by and I also began to realize that unusual things always happened to me. Sometimes on the way to work and then other times they would surprise me even when we were on vacations. They would occur when I was alone or when I was in a crowd. Occasionally, I would tell my wife, my kids and sometimes my friends about them. Some were funny and some were scary, but all were definitely quite different. From time to time, friends would tell me that I should write them down in a journal, and I did. As I undertook the enjoyable work of transcribing the stories, I discovered that some unrelated smaller episodes could be tied together to make a longer thriller.
    Five years ago, I began to put them together. Finally, I finished my story in manuscript form. Since then, I have worked on other script ideas but completed the script for the movie. Though, I have rewritten THE DEERFIELD HOUSE many times, each time I was not satisfied. Perhaps there is still more that can be enhanced.
    I would like to have people enjoy what has evolved in my mind and born onto paper. My writing should grow the same experience in the readers’ mind that I felt in living the story in my imagination.
    Is this the kind of intro that I should use when I pitch one of my scripts?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Glad to hear that you’re keeping track of your ideas and have a script you’re excited about. How wonderful that you evolved it telling stories to your children!

      Regarding how you pitch it, I would not explain the genesis of your idea in this way.

      The decision-maker is evaluating the quality of your project based on the quality of your idea’s genesis story. Any explanation of “How you came up with this idea?” should showcase your relevant expertise and credibility.

      Your source of inspiration is part of what gives the decision-maker confidence in you and your work. Think about how you might position yourself as an expert in the thriller genre. Good luck with The Deerfield House!

  7. Hank

    “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?”

    Yes. Over Robert Pattinson? Yes.

  8. Katherine Bennett

    Stephanie: These tips and tricks are so important – I have found similar practices in other fields – not surprising. We as writers are asking someone to take a chance on our story and us, as a writer. Their questions along these lines, understandable. I appreciate the frame of reference you’ve given us all. Thank you so much.

  9. Paul Undari

    To share is a writer’s compulsion. To share wisdom is a writer’s confidence. You have my confidence. And, now, I have yours. I will be attending the Pitch Summit in Burbank in two weeks. And it is to you that I have to thank for my new-found courage. Hollywood, here I come.

  10. Flora

    Stephanie, thanks for the great practical advice. I am glad that you take the time to respond to your fledgling writers. When I get scared or pressured about my writing, I think of the Depression era copy writers who wrote for their next meal. Now, that’s pressure!

  11. Clorine

    Thanks again Stephanie for the wonderful advice, it will help lots to know this information.

  12. Myrna Lou Goldbaum

    Hi,
    I just learned a ton of valuable info here. I am a published author with 3 non-fiction books. Just completed CRUISE TO THE OTHER SIDE, a paranormal fiction book. It has been edited and now I am re-working all the suggestions and corrections. I will be sending out query letters this spring and also pitching it as a movie.

    Because I am a Master Palmist of course there is a palm reader in the story line. They say write what you know about; I did.

  13. Essie

    I was directed to your site by a link from another writer, and have spent the last half hour looking through your back blog posts. They’re all great, but this one in particular resonated with me. I’m currently putting together a pitch for a stage play, and reading your advice it clicked how I could specifically use my expertise in another field to sell my idea in the pitch. Thank you very much for all your advice. Much appreciated.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks so much for your note, Essie. I have a special fondness for theater because I majored in theater directing in college. So glad the posts have been helpful to you.

  14. Becky Van Deraa

    Thank you so much for sharing your advice,I am very encouraged.

  15. willis ikedum

    This is awesome. Thanks for sharing, it has blessed my life and prepped for the future. God bless you Stephanie.

  16. How To Write Faster and Smarter | Gideon's Screenwriting Tips: So Now You're a Screenwriter...

    […]  likely buyers for your project. Develop your Answerbank with answers to the trick questions you’ll probably be asked in […]

  17. Javier Dampierre

    Stephanie,

    thank you very much for all your wise advices. They are extremely helpful.

    There’s still something that it’s a little bit confusing to me. Every single pitching or meeting I had with a producer, they asked me about the approximate budget of the movie. Obviously as a screenwriter you’re not an expert, but if every single producer asks you that, that might mean that it’s important that you have some clue about production, doesn’t it? And to know the ‘size’ of your movie. Because they -for example- cannot make a movie more expensive than 2,5 million… so why should they waste their time listening to a pitching of a 10 million dollar movie? Sometimes the pitching itself doesn’t convey the details of the movie, so it’s hard to evaluate the cost of it.

    In my case, a project I want to sell in the States (I’m from Spain, so forgive my lousy English :-), is a project I’ve already optioned in Spain, and there’s already a budget for the film (they couldn’t raise the funds so the movie was not shot). Would it be helpful to tell the producer exactly what is the budget, and which are the heaviest expenses, etc, etc?

    Thank you very much!!

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks for your comment. If you’re asked about the budget, I recommend saying something like, “I’ve written this to be a low-budget film. Of course, you know better than I how casting and other issues impact the budget, but from the perspective of locations, action set pieces, and special effects, this is designed to be a low-budget project.” I also think you can say, “We have a budget in Spain that was (____) though obviously that would be different here.”

  18. Sara

    A couple of questions about the questions 😉
    I hear a lot that producers don’t want you casting your own script. However, is it appropriate to say, “As I was writing it, these are the actors that I envisioned?”

    Also, in regard to the development of the story, …to show that you know what you are doing, is it okay to say that, “This plot had grown to be so elaborate with so many characters that I broke it down into two different stories/screenplays. And, this is one of them?”

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Sure thing, Sara. When it comes to casting, I recommend that you don’t volunteer who you see in the roles, but are prepared with answers if asked. As for the plot complexity issue, it’s great that you have pared the project down into different screenplays. This is minor, but I wouldn’t bring it up unless specifically asked. This may not be the right analogy, but think of it like a first date. Generally, it’s better if you don’t bring up past boyfriends or bad dates that you’ve had because it can take the conversation in a direction that isn’t ideal. Does that make sense?

  19. David

    Hi Stephanie, thank you this advice is a great start. Question. What is someone has the idea can develop the pitch but not the script due to lack of experience? The idea is solid just needs a good writer although I have written parts and character development. As well, this applies to the US but what about Canada?
    thank you

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Hi David. I’d suggest trying to find a writer who would work with you on the script. Generally, writers will want to get paid, of course, but you may be able to find someone who is interested in the idea enough to want to write it on spec (to be paid if and when a deal is made). In my experience, this holds true in Canada and the US.

      • David

        Thank you Stephanie I am in the process of looking but if you should happen to fall onto someone, I believe this is a really really good idea for a half hour comedy. I am in the process of copywriting. thank you

      • Stephanie Palmer

        Sure thing.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Hi David. I’d suggest trying to find a writer who would work with you on the script. Generally, writers will want to get paid, of course, but you may be able to find someone who is interested in the idea enough to want to write it on spec (to be paid if and when a deal is made).

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks for your question. I suggest trying to find a writer who would work with you on the script. Generally, writers will want to get paid, of course, but you may be able to find someone who is interested in the idea enough to want to write it on spec (to be paid if and when a deal is made).

  20. cynthia

    Hi stephanie
    Am an amateur producer. I want to produce a long seasonal movie with an awesome storyline but don’t really know how to pitch the movie to tv networks for broadcast. Any helpful tip on steps to take or suggested networks all over the world.

  21. Melissa McGuire

    My brother and I have developed a historical 1hr TV drama. The story was my idea and my brother is the writer behind the project. We are about to embark on the pitching process with a treatment/ pitch package which includes a short summary, an short history explanation and character breakdown for the project. If my brother is the writer behind the project and I have created the story would it be beneficial for both of us to attend these meetings? Is there a general rule about who should be pitching the project if two or more people are involved in the project? We also, included a piece in the document about who we thought would be ideal to cast for this unique project, should I take that out of the project?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      From what you have shared here, yes, it would make sense for both of you to attend the meetings. In general, the person who will be the head writer should pitch the show, though if you are going to be writing partners, you can pitch together. As for casting, if you have interest from the actors, you’ll want to include that, but if it is your “dream” cast, I wouldn’t include that in the initial pitch as producers may have a different casting direction in mind.

  22. Dominique K. Pierce

    Hi, I’m really enjoying your site. I have yet to find a resource on the internet that rivals this. I was reviewing your post about having an Answerbank and came across a few “trick questions” that aren’t addressed here. Would you consider doing a follow up on these:

    • Who is the intended audience?
    • If we don’t buy this, will you spec it?
    • When can you get us a draft?
    • What project is this most like?

    Thank you!

  23. Oriel

    Hi Stephanie! I first want to say– I find your site to be incredibly informative and helpful to aspiring screenwriters.

    I wanted to ask your advice as I am preparing a video pitch for a spec ad so I can break into directing. I thought of a concept that I had story-boarded and animated a pitch complete with music score and voice over to send to some contacts in New York who have worked with large and small agencies. I decided to do it this way as its short and concise. Its in the editing stage now but am wondering what you think of this approach?

    I also would like to know how I can submit this by myself to other agencies as an unknown. I do not want to rely on my contact solely but want to get the attention of an agency so I can work out a deal to direct this. I’ve even prepared my budget for a pay-cut since I am an unknown and have potential crew (who are really good and work in the industry) willing to cut corners if it goes into production. I’ve gotten a lot of attention for this idea I just want to know that I get that attention from important agencies.

    Any help is greatly appreciated.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Hi Oriel,

      Thanks for your comment. Without seeing the work, it’s hard to say, but as a strategy, it could work. The more great work your have on your reel, the better, but this sounds like a good place to start. It sounds like you want to start at the very top and that’s hard to do— football players don’t debut in the NFL— same idea applies with directors. I’d suggest seeing what opportunities you can find locally and regionally to direct ads, build up your reel and experience, and then focus on agencies when you have assembled more “proof” that you are ready to be signed. Best of luck!

  24. The Pitch Meeting Structure Used By Hollywood Pros ‹ SSN Insider

    […] The trap: getting defensive If the buyer is genuinely interested, you are likely to be asked a number of difficult questions (even trick questions). […]

  25. The 23 Meeting Questions You Should Expect After the Pitch ‹ SSN Insider

    […] information on trick questions can be found here and […]

  26. nidhi

    Hi, Stephanie,

    I recently subscribed and love reading your treasure chest of posts. Do you have a link to some good pitch videos to get an idea of what it’s like for someone who has not pitched before?

    Thanks.

  27. Willis Ikedum

    Hey Stephanie,
    Seeing my comment of 2013 makes me happy. Now I have few questions.
    1. I have a comedy thriller(with “The sixth sense” kind of twist) and a psychological drama(with a global pandemic like, HIV/Aids theme) scripts for pitching. Which one has the best possibility of being picked up?
    2. These scripts can be set anywhere in the world. The budget for each of the scripts in my country Nigeria, will not be more than N30,000,000 respectively which is like $250,000. Is it wise to tell an executive the budget in my currency and translate it to dollars? I obviously don’t know what the budget would be if shot in the US.
    3. Is it also wise to also enter some of my scripts for screenwriting fellowships and contests where I will have to submit my scripts in full? I have the feeling someone will steal my idea and tweak it a bit to fit their country.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Hi Willis,

      1. Just based on the concepts, either one— really based on which script is exceptionally written.
      2. No, you don’t need to share the budget. It’s good to be prepared if you are asked, but most scripts can be made for $200,000 or $2 million or $20 million, and the writer is not expected to be an expert at budget estimation.
      3. I have not heard of anyone’s projects being stolen from the major screenwriting fellowships or contests. This doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened or couldn’t happen, but the odds are very, very low. My feeling is that there is a zero percent chance that a project will get made if it isn’t shared with anyone or submitted to any contests. Personally, I would rather encounter the small risk that something could be stolen for the great potential reward if a project gets made. Here is some more information about copyright and protecting your idea.

  28. Pitch Meeting Structure Used By Hollywood Pros | indieactivity

    […] If the buyer is genuinely interested, you are likely to be asked a number of difficult questions (even trick questions). […]

  29. teknoloji

    This is a great tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.
    Short but very precise information… Thank you for sharing
    this one. A must read post!

  30. 12 Warning Signs You Might Have A Great Idea | Indieactivity

    […] someone asks you a question about your story that you don’t know how to answer, you see that as an opportunity to improve weak areas in your pitch, your project or […]