Q&As: lessons from a decade of hosting

Posted on April 16, 2020 by Anna Smith

Categories: General

Q&As can be one of the hardest things to get right as an exhibitor. We spoke to Anna Smith, film critic, broadcaster and Q&A host for some words of wisdom on how to hit the right balance with these discussions. 

In theory, post-screening Q&As bring in punters and add value to the cinema experience. In practice, they can be uncomfortable, embarrassing and – perhaps worst of all – dull. We’ve all been there, shifting in our seats and counting the minutes, praying the host will wrap up soon so we can bolt to the bar. As a film critic who actually likes appearing in public, I must have hosted hundreds of Q&As over the past ten years, and while I can’t pretend they’ve all been perfect, I’ve learned a lot – and some of it might be useful for you.

Anna hosting EIFF Q&A
Anna hosting EIFF Q&A

FOR THE HOST

Whether you’re interviewing the director, writer or star of a film, try to watch it twice if you can – first, enjoy it as an audience member, then take detailed notes on the second viewing. Research your subjects by looking at their social media, reading interviews with them, and finding any videos you can. Observe how they typically respond. Do they give short answers? If so, make sure you have a lot of questions up your sleeve. Are they notoriously chatty? Politely brief them in advance about how much time you have for each answer. Previous interviews will also give you a sense of what topics they are most interesting on, and what they’ve been asked a million times and are probably bored stiff of by now. Try to think of unusual lines of enquiry that lead to detailed, irreverent anecdotes and raise a smile.

Westwood Q&A
Westwood Q&A

I’m often asked if I get nervous going on stage and the answer is: not any more. Practice is key. But if you’re new to the game, try breathing exercises, positive visualisation and acting confidently – fake it til you make it, basically. This will also relax your interviewee, as will chatting to them before the show, letting them know what they can expect in a friendly, casual manner (excessive formality just makes everyone more nervous, as any airline captain will tell you). This chat applies as much to A list Hollywood stars as it does first time filmmakers: everyone needs reassurance that you are in control. That includes the cinema staff, too – take the time to check in with as many of the key players as possible, from the manager to the person putting chairs out and handing you the mics (though of course in smaller venues, this person may be one and the same!).

On stage, have more questions than you need, and decide which to abandon as the chat takes its own natural turns. It sounds obvious, but don’t just read questions: listen to the answers and follow up with what springs to mind. The best Q&As are a conversation, with the host asking the questions that are in the audience’s thoughts. 

For time keeping, wear a large watch that you don’t have to look at closely, or better still, have a wall clock visible. Cut to the audience around halfway through, if they look numerous and/or keen. Prompt a shy crowd with potential topics, or ask a question of them to warm them up (e.g. ‘Give us a cheer if you loved this bit’). Ask them to wait for the mic, and try to develop a code with the roving mic person so you can avoid people who look drunk, or are known bores. Do not be afraid to politely pre-empt a talker by explaining that time is short. Bring the questioning back on stage when you need to, especially if you have several guests of varying degrees of fame: everyone should be included. And don’t overrun – it’s better to wrap up a few minutes early at a natural point than drag things out with an involved last question.

Rocketman Q&A

FOR THE VENUE

Choose your host wisely. If you have a budget, it’s worth hiring someone as experienced as possible who is confident on stage as well as knowledgable about film. Sometimes the interviewee will suggest a host, which can lead to a good rapport, but do check them out first. Make sure all your speakers arrive in good time to relax with each other first – this is especially important if the film has a sensitive subject matter. Ensure the speakers don’t go on stage hungry or thirsty, or desperate for a pee or cigarette.

Flag up the Q&A to the audience before the screening. Afterwards, get talent on stage as soon as you can, noting the filmmakers’ preference regarding the credits. I once had a director close to tears on stage because the cinema staff cut off the credits midway through. I managed to calm her down, but it was not a good start!

Ensure that a staffer with a roving mic is clearly visible to everyone – try to have two for a large audience. Also make sure that the screening is accessible to all. Consider hiring a BSL interpreter, and be aware of audience members who may have learning disabilities. If you have been contacted in advance by customers about any requirements, share the information with your host so they can help make the audience Q&A inclusive. And be creative. Why not offer nervous audience members the chance to write questions for the host to read, for example?

Finally, if your guest is famous, find out if they’re happy to stick around and chat to fans or whether they need to be ushered out quickly (this may take a few members of staff if they don’t bring their own). 

Sienna Miller Q&A
Sienna Miller Q&A

FOR ONLINE Q&As

Since lockdown began, a lot of companies have had to adapt fast. We usually record my podcast Girls On Film on stage or in a studio – now I’m recording it at home, with my producer and guests all down the line. For audio, we use Cleanfeed Pro or Zencastr and then edit the results, but if you want to do a live video Q&A with audience questions, I’ve seen reasonable results with Zoom and YouTube feeds, where you can have audience questions in the live comments section.

In all cases, make sure you have thorough tech tests well in advance with everyone involved, considering location, time of day, backdrop, lighting and whether you need headphones. Make sure the talent is well briefed and confident with the set up, with plenty of support. Everyone should have a phone nearby in case they get cut off – keep it in eyesight but in silent mode.

Encourage your audience to send in questions in advance via your website and social media, tagging your guests and asking them to retweet it. If you can reach the fanbase of your interviewee, this is a good opportunity to gain followers as well as pertinent questions.

Finally, unless the topic is forbiddingly serious, here’s something that people too often forget to do: ENJOY YOURSELVES. Enthusiasm is infectious, and having fun means any tech hiccups can get laughed off more easily. On stage or online, it’s all about creating a warm, inclusive atmosphere and sharing a love of cinema – which is why we are all here. Have fun.

Girls On Film podcast
Girls On Film podcast

Anna Smith is a film critic, broadcaster, Q&A host, Chair of the London Film Critics’ Circle and host of the feminist podcast Girls On Film. Her website is annasmithjourno.com

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