QUERY LETTER TIPS: Keys to Unlocking Doors in Hollywood

Susan Kouguell, is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author of  The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself ). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell

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QUERY LETTER TIPS: Keys to Unlocking Doors in Hollywood by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #amwriting

A winning query letter is your key to unlocking an executive’s door, so take your time and be as thoughtful about your query as you were when writing your screenplay. Industry professionals view query letters as a reflection of the writer’s screenplay and writing skills. So the assumption will be if the query letter is poor, then the script will be too.

Your enthusiasm and passion about your project must shine through in your query. Query letters must have punch to entice the agent, production company, and/or studio to want to read your screenplay. Your query must stand out and show the reader who you are. Be original!

Your Query:

A query letter should be one page only unless otherwise requested. Most agents and executives prefer a standard, no-frills business letter. They often feel that writers spend too much time on design and not enough time on content. It’s the content that’s going to win them over in the end! That said; use standard white 20 lb. bond paper and a standard white #10 business envelope. Do not use fancy fonts. Fold your query letter in thirds with the addressee’s name, title, and address facing up. If you have an enclosure, fold the two pages as one. The self-addressed stamped envelope can be folded in thirds.

Use short paragraphs.

Never address your query: To Whom It May Concern. Always call ahead to confirm that the person you are submitting to is still working in that position and to confirm spellings, titles, and guidelines.

Queries should be typed, not handwritten, and be sure there are no typos. Have someone you trust proofread your query before submitting it.

Your query letter should stress how your script will meet the executive’s needs—not vice versa. Begging or asking for permission to send your script is selling yourself short. For example, several years ago I had a very talented client who was diligently working on a screenplay. When the script was ready to submit, she showed me a sample of her query letter. It was an honest assessment of her life but perhaps too honest.

The letter went something like this:

Dear Company:

I am married with a 4-year-old daughter and am currently working at a sales job. My husband is in graduate school, and we are living with his parents to save money. I am under a great deal of pressure to earn a better salary. I love to write and really want to make a living as a screenwriter. If you have some time and have any interest in my story idea, will you consider reading my script?

Do not include casting or box office projections as this is seen as amateurish. You must express confidence in your work and ability, but don’t overdo it! Avoid including the following type of bravado in your query: “My script will make $100 million at the box office. I’m confident that Tom Cruise and Madonna will want to play the lead parts. This is the best script that you’ll ever read.” You may be laughing in disbelief, but these are actual examples of queries that I have received from anxious screenwriters when I was working in studio and production company development offices. Yes, your project may make millions of dollars—and even attract Tom Cruise and Madonna to star—and it may be the best script an executive has ever read; but there are no guarantees. Promoting yourself and your project in this way is not a savvy way to grab an executive’s attention.

What to Include and Not Include in Your Query Letter

* If you don’t have any film or writing related experience but have taken a professional and notable writing or film course, then include this in your query. If you have no experience at all, you may want to state what profession you are in and what inspired you to write a screenplay although this turns some executives off.  Another suggestion is to mention the college you attended or even a hobby you have. This may set you apart from other writers. The person reading your query may have gone to the same college or share the same hobby, and this will help you to  establish a personal connection.

* Including the name of a personal recommendation is seen as a confirmation from another industry professional that your script has potential. It also shows that you are savvy and have some connections. But if you don’t have any personal connections,  don’t despair. Writing a winning query will get you in the door.

* If you have won or placed as a finalist in a reputable screenplay competition, congratulations! Definitely include this in your query.

* Film executives tend to differ as to whether or not a writer should compare his or her script to successful films. Some executives want to see that you’ve written a unique project that has never been seen before while others like to see how your project will fit into their marketing scheme. Remember, if you do decide to compare your script to a film, be sure that the film was a box-office success!

* Stating in your query that you have written other scripts aside from the one that you are querying them about is fine, but listing ten or so may be a detriment. The agent or executive may see this as a negative and be concerned that nothing thus far has happened with your other scripts.

* If you have already had production companies and/or studios read your script, including this in your query to agents seems to be split down the middle. Some agents feel that this is a positive since you are illustrating initiative while others feel that you are limiting their playing field with your project if it has already been read. This is your call—literally. Calling ahead and asking is your best bet.

* Do not send a synopsis or resume along with your query letter unless you have spoken to the agency, studio, or production company first; and they have requested additional material from you. If you do include additional material without being asked for it, this will be seen as unprofessional; and you will risk the query being tossed out.

* Never submit your script until it has been requested. Agencies, production companies, and studios are inundated with scripts daily, if not hourly. Sending a script without it being requested is unacceptable business etiquette and a sure guarantee that it will be thrown into the circular file.

A QUERY LETTER THAT WORKS
Your name
Address

Date

Executive’s name
Executive’s title
Address of company

Dear Mr. or Ms. Executive: (use a colon, not comma)

Begin with a friendly greeting and/or attention-grabbing line about your script. Certainly, your goal is to grab the reader’s attention, but don’t overdo it by flattering the addressee too much! Continue with a sentence such as: “I have just completed the feature screenplay that I would like to submit to you for your consideration.” If appropriate, include information about why your project may be the right match for their company.

Describe your script in the present tense and in three to four sentences. State the genre, who the main characters are using their actual names, what their major obstacle is, and how they plan to overcome it. Avoid using too much plot description. Your goal is to entice the reader to request your script, so don’t give away the ending.

Give a brief one-paragraph bio stressing your screenwriting or film background. For example: I am a recent graduate of _______ or my credits include: name films or scripts and awards. Also, add something unique about yourself that makes you attractive to the production company, studio, or agent. Always be honest! It’s a small film world; so if, for example, you exaggerate a credit, chances are very good you’ll get caught! Your closing paragraph should be brief. Invite the agent and/or development executive to read your script. Thank them for their consideration. And finally, use a couple of short sentences to wrap up. For example: I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,
Name
Phone number

Sending a script without it being requested is unacceptable business etiquette and a sure guarantee that it will be thrown into the circular file.

What To Do Once Your Query is Completed

Before sending your query out, have it read by an industry professional or someone whose opinion you respect. Ask them if the query was enticing enough for them to want to read your script. Once you receive the green light to submit your query, it’s time to put on your producer’s cap. You are the best person to represent your script. Even if you have an agent, your agent has other clients; and you will still have to do the legwork. You have labored over and lived with your script for months, maybe years. Don’t take any chances.

To start the querying process, begin by developing a marketing plan:

* Most writers target only the major studios. Don’t limit yourself. Numerous independent production companies produce quality films. Additionally, cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and Lifetime are producing high-caliber projects.

* When looking for an agent, target the Los Angeles and New York agencies first. Some suggestions to get you started in your search for agents include: The Guild Signatory Agents and Agencies List, which can be found on the Writers Guild of America web site: www.wga.org.

* When researching production companies and studios, one of the most reliable resources is the Hollywood Screenwriting Directory.

* Go to the Netflix and peruse the “New Release” section or read the backs of DVDs or search IMDb to determine which studio or production companies produced the projects in your genre and query them.

* Read the trades: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, for example, list films in pre-production and development. These suggest the trends that may be “hot,” and then query the companies listed.

* Go to films in the genre that you’re working in. Contact the producers and directors with a query letter. Call these companies and ask what types of projects they are currently seeking.

* Ask people you know for contacts. You never know where this may lead. If you don’t have any personal contacts and you are looking to query actors or directors, contact SAG (Screen Actors Guild) or the DGA (Directors Guild of America) for the names of their  agents or managers and send your query letters to those people. Be aware that most agents and managers will shield their clients from first-timers because they want their clients to make money. Often they will consider a project for their client  only if there is financing already in place.

Target about 20 companies to start with. Send out the 20 queries and see what type of response you’re getting. If you are not getting any positive feedback, then rewrite your query before targeting the next 20 companies on your list.

If you want results, you should call every agent, production company and/or studio on your list prior to sending your query. When looking for representation, you should ask which agent is looking for new writers. Learn the company’s submission rules and find out what they’ve produced in the past and what they are currently looking for. For example: Querying a major studio or big packaging agency with an experimental narrative art-house script or querying a boutique agency or an independent producer with limited financial resources with an action script will most likely be the wrong choice.

Making the calls is certainly time consuming, but it’s well worth the investment. Also, you can verify the correct spelling and title of the person you are querying. This is crucial because there is a revolving door of executives in the film industry.

Calls will give you the opportunity to make a personal connection to the receptionists and assistants. Keep in mind that today they may be the assistant or receptionist, but tomorrow they may be the agent or executive. A kind letter and/or call may be very welcome to assistants who are often over-worked, underpaid, and not appreciated.

If you are having some concerns regarding whether or not a company and/or agent is legitimate, always trust your gut instinct. If the company is new, call or do research to find out whether they have a production deal with a studio and/or some type of financing. You may also inquire what type of experience they have in the film industry. Ask for references.

Research Checklist:

If the executive likes your synopsis and/or spec script, you or your agent will be contacted to set up a meeting, at which time you may be asked to pitch additional projects.

* Use an up-to-date resource directory. Remember, development executives come and go, so someone who’s working at a company today may be gone tomorrow.

* Be sure that your project is appropriate for the studio or production company in terms of budget range.

* Find out if the company expects talent or financing to be attached to your project.

* Learn what other projects the company has produced either by calling them or researching the trade publications and other resources.

* If the company is new and has no credits, ask for references. If none are forthcoming, you do not want to work with this company.

* If an agent and/or company requires a reading fee, do not send your script.

My Query Letter Has Been Sent Out. Now what?

While you are anxiously waiting by the telephone and your mailbox for a reply, take some deep breaths. Meanwhile, at the executive’s office here’s a possible scenario: An executive’s assistant reads your query. If he or she thinks that the company will be interested in your script, it will be passed on to the executive. If the executive is interested, you or your agent (if you have one) will be contacted to submit your synopsis and/or spec script. If the executive likes your synopsis and/or spec script, you or your agent will be contacted to set up a meeting at which time you may be asked to pitch additional projects.

The response time to your query may be several weeks. If a month passes, you may call and ask if they have received your query and/or send another letter stating that this is your second query. If there is no response, assume that they are not interested and move on to the next person or company on your list. Also, you may not hear back if you have forgotten to include a SASE.

If you receive a positive response from a prospective agent but the agent charges a reading fee, this means that the agent is not WGA signatory. Never pay a reading fee. Agents who are WGA signatory cannot charge a fee. You want an agent who is signatory because he or she must abide by the WGA rules which protects writers interests.

If a company/studio reads your query letter and is interested in reading your script, generally they will send you a release form to sign. A release form is a legal document that protects production companies and studios from charges of theft of ideas. Chances are they will not read your script unless you sign the release. If the release form is from an established and reputable production company or studio, you should not be afraid to sign on the dotted line. However, if you have any doubts or questions, contact an entertainment attorney to review the release form with you.

It’s vital to keep a copy of your query for your files as well as a list of to whom you submit your letters. Keep a notebook or use an Excel spreadsheet —with the following basic categories: our script title, company name (production company or agency), receptionist/ assistant you spoke to, target person, material sent (query, synopsis, script, or pitch) and dates, and responses.

Once you do get a positive response, be sure not to rush into a relationship with the first person who expresses interest in your work. If an agent or company is interested in you, then you must find out about them. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions. And always, get a contract!

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