The Lie Most Frequently Told In Hollywood

In Hollywood, you will hear one particular lie all the time.

Unfortunately, most writers in Hollywood don’t realize that they’re being lied to.

How Hollywood Lies To Writers

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 aren’t true.

The Lie Is “Yes” (The Truth Is “No”)

Compliments such as “You’re a great writer!,” or “I love your script!” are versions of “Yes.”

But very often, these positive communications actually mean  “No.”

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

Hollywood Lies To You For A Reason

Decision-makers in Hollywood such as agents, executives, producers, and stars, 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 in Hollywood 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 Hollywood 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” In Hollywood Is Silence Over Time

Chris Kelly, a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher wrote this (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 in Hollywood 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.

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. 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 in Hollywood. 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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Discussion About The Lie Most Frequently Told In Hollywood

  1. Tyler

    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,
    Tyler.

  2. Taruhan Bola

    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.

  3. Charles H. Green

    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.

  4. conceptwriter

    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?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      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.

  5. Shawty

    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.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      It can be frustrating to realize that you may have more work to do to get your scripts to be good enough, but you can do it.

      • Shay

        I know I have to put work in my scripts now I think everyone’s lying to me….

  6. Shay

    Maybe if you’d read my script and be honest I’ll feel better…

    • Stephanie Palmer

      It is important to get honest feedback. I only have time to read my client’s scripts at this time and I am booked. But I highly recommend the script consultants and script coverage services recommended on my Resources page.

      • Michael

        It’s like the article played itself out in this one reply 😉

  7. Jon Miles

    Great re-post. Some knowledge just never gets old. Touchstone knowledge.

  8. Phyllis K Twombly

    It never hurts to be civil (unless you’re dealing with a stalker.) Thank you for explaining the ‘yes-with qualifications.’

  9. laurence anderson

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

  10. Niksa

    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.

  11. Julie

    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!

  12. Michael

    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.

    Cheers,

    Michael

  13. Shyma

    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
    Shyma.

  14. Simon D Scott

    Brilliant writing, as always Stephanie. Thanks.

  15. Daniel R. Chavez

    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.

  16. Fern

    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?

    Thanks,
    Fern

  17. Raúl Valero

    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. 🙂

  18. Gunel

    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.

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