Let’s cut to the chase: Most post-screening Q&A sessions are terrible. It’s not one person’s fault, but usually just a byproduct of the circumstances. Moments after watching a movie, audiences get the chance to engage with the people that made it, in a public environment with no obvious filter. In some cases, a Q&A might include insightful observations, but it can go wrong in many ways. On the opening weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival, one Q&A was derailed by an offensive question aimed at Michelle Pfieffer by the moderator himself; in another case, following a screening of “Westworld,” an obsequious audience member droned on so long he used up all the time.
Some blunders are understandable: Often, the people asking the questions have no professional obligations or even an understanding of why real-life talent is suddenly standing in front of them. For many audience members, merely having close proximity to a filmmaker or actor feels like a special interactive privilege, but that doesn’t mean it also requires some responsibility. Here, we present some etiquette guidelines that every Q&A participant should keep in mind, lest you incur the wrath of an angry audience.
“This is More of a Comment Than a Question…”
The worst cliché of all Q&A sessions. This is not a town hall session; it’s an opportunity to ask about the work at hand, not to sound off about it. Save it for your friends in the lobby. In many cases, this remark sets the stage for an opinion about the movie, or the talent involved, both of which are fair game for pontification in a different context. But remember the Q part of the Q&A equation. It’s designed to be a two-way street. Your comment is a roadblock. —EK
“I Have a Two-Part Question…”
Nope. One question per person. If the audience is cautious about raising hands, feel free to circle back with a second question later on. Generally speaking, however, the two-pronged approach is problematic for, well, two reasons: 1.) You assume that both questions have equal weight, when in fact the Q&A process is egalitarian unless the moderator stipulates otherwise. 2.) You’re making the object of your question do extra work that could lead to confusion, slow things down, and muddle up the process. In almost every occasion, this will lead to someone answering a question, then pausing, furrowing their brow, and forgetting the second part. Save them the trouble. —EK
Keep It Brief
Think about it: You’re not the only person in the room. There’s no better way to demolish that important sentiment than to eat up valuable time asking a long, rambling question (or, worse, issuing a long, rambling comment) that puts both the audience and the talent at the mercy of whatever the hell you’re asking about. Beyond that, keeping things succinct also means that the person you’re actually asking is more likely to answer what you’re actually answering, not some off-shoot tangent that you sputtered out while trying to get to the meat of your ask. —KE
“Will You Read My Screenplay?”
Yes, breaking in as a screenwriter is a hustle, but you are making a grave misstep using a post-screening Q&A to pitch your script. If you have something great that is going undiscovered you need to find a way to talk it, or yourself, in a way that makes people want to read it. By standing up at a Q&A you are making yourself look desperate, untethered and the exact opposite of someone who wrote something people should read as you create a cringe-worthy moment that sucks all the oxygen out of a theater. Also, there’s an infrastructure to this process — agents, managers, etc. — for a reason. Most people aren’t even allowed to advise on screenplays without some input from their teams first. —CO
“How Much Did You Improvise?”
For heaven’s sake, certainly don’t ask this question if the screenwriter is within spitting distance. What this question usually means is that the movie felt so naturalistic, so funny, full of characters so alive and flawed that you feel as if you know them. If that is the case, it’s probably because the people making it wanted you to feel that way and are good at their jobs. It’s also a bad question because it really only has two answers: Yes or no. If yes, the creative person may at best be able to share one scene or off-the-cuff line that made it in, it probably won’t be the one you were thinking it would be, and you’ll be able to say, “Huh.” In most cases, the answer will be, “Actually, none of it was improvised. So-and-so is just that good.” And then you’ve wasted a question. —JD
“What Advice Do You Have for a Struggling Actor/Screenwriter/Director?”
Yes, the talent at hand probably does have a whole cache of sterling tidbits to dole out to eager listeners, but so often when these kinds of questions are asked at Q&As, it’s not a genuine request for help, but a sly way of letting on that you also have your own showbiz dreams and you’re just hoping for some recognition. It’s the more low-key version of “Will you read my screenplay?” couched in what initially might seem like a valid request. Have an actual question about something you’re struggling with in your work? Get specific, and tailor your question to the talent and their own experiences. Writing an adaptation? Ask a screenwriter who did a successful adapted script for one tip. Want to break into acting? Ask a star if there’s a book you should read or a particular performance that served as a guide. —KE
Confused About the Ending?
Here’s the thing about ambiguous endings: They’re meant to be ambiguous. This has puzzled Q&A attendees for as long as filmmakers have been subjecting themselves to the collective insanity of their audience, and is among the more uncomfortable questions a writer/director can be asked. It’s natural to want closure to a story, but if a movie’s ending leaves you with unanswered questions, it may be best to leave them unanswered. —MN
No, You May Not Have a Selfie
How is that even supposed to go? You hop up onstage, scramble over, crouch next to the person, and the rest of the audience gives you silent death stares for the rest of the night? Is that really the impression you want to make? These people are at work; they’re here to discuss their craft. Asking for a photo wastes everyone’s time, and the results probably won’t be worth the risk of an angry mob. —JD
Never Ask a Question That Google Can Answer
This one — like many of these Q&A guidelines — should be self-evident, and yet it seems like people still need to be reminded that post-screening chats are short, time is precious, and everyone has access to the entire wealth of the world’s information in their pocket. You have the artists sitting there in front of you, so don’t ask something that a machine could tell you in the time it takes to pull up a Wikipedia page! Ask subjective questions, not objective ones. Two big no-no’s: What camera did you use? And what was your budget? (If the answers aren’t online, maybe there’s a reason for that.) Q&As are often a waste of time, but they can be very special if the people in the crowd actually recognize how rare it is to be able to reach through the screen and speak to the people behind the movies. —DE