Magic Bullet: Query Letters

Author’s note: Sorry for the delay since my last posting, guys. I’ve been working on a new project for CBS and it’s absolutely  swamped my schedule. I’ll try to be better about making this a weekly column.

First, some terms defined:

What is a Query Letter?

A query letter is usually a one page letter or email that you send out to agents, managers, and producers, etc. to try and entice them to read your script.

What is a Logline?

A logline is usually the first thing in a query letter and is the most vital piece of the message. It is usually 1 or 2 sentences long.

Rock you all night long

You query can rock all night… n’ party everyday

Okay, so let’s talk about query letters. First of all, the most important question is: are they still relevant? Do people still read them? And in what format? It’s important to first understand this aspect of the process in order to better write the query, and better your chances of a response.  And as with everything else, it all depends on who you’re sending it to, and what your goal is.

First, are they still relevant and do people still read them? Absolutely. If you send them to the right types of people. Let me give you an example: if you email a query letter to a Steven Spielberg or Scott Rudin, it’s more than likely not getting past the assistant or intern, who upon seeing the email, will more than likely delete it without reading.  High powered industry players get thousands upon thousands of these emails every year, and if they stopped to read any of them, they wouldn’t be able to do the actual work that makes them the megabucks.  So while I won’t say “don’t bother sending it to high powered industry players”, just know that it’s an incredibly tiny chance that they’ll even read it. For every story about Brett Ratner mailing a letter to Steven Spielberg to help finance his student film, there’s thousands of other stories of people who never even got their mail/email read.  Remember this snail mail thing for later though – we’re going to get into that in a bit.

The second thing you need to know about the types of people to send it to is to target these specific groups with your first wave of queries (in order of importance):

Self Portrait

Guymon’s self portrait

1. Lit Managers – In general, lit managers are always looking for the Next Big Screenwriter. While high powered managers like Guymon Casady have their plates full with clients and producing projects, you can bet the assistants and interns reading his mail/email are still reading at least a few of those query letters coming in.

2. Targeted Players – If you wrote a stoner comedy, would you bother sending it to Lars Von Trier? No, you’d send it to David Gordon Green, or John Jacobs, or you might try sending it to Adam Sandler’s shingle Happy Madison (but to one of the execs there, rather than Sandler himself). Again, target your queries to the producers, executives at production companies, and actor’s shingles who would respond to the material you’ve written.

3. Agents Who Handle Screenwriters – I won’t call them “lit agents,” as I think of that as a publishing term, but essentially the agents who predominately represent screenwriters. You can find this out by signing up for imdbpro.com for a free trial, or some clever googling of screenwriters that write similar material to you (not necessarily your favorite screenwriters), etc. Now, I put them last on the list because they are far less likely to open your emails, BUT, they might open a mailed in query letter. It’s still not likely, but if they aren’t too high up on the food chain, it’s worth a shot. While you’re googling or imdbpro-ing your screenwriter’s reps, you’ll probably see more than one agent. They usually put them in teams, so figure out which one is the LEAST senior of the two, and send it to them.

After that, if you’re emailing out your query, it only costs time to add more names to the list – so if you have it, why not shoot for the stars and email as many people as you can. Sometimes, it’s the “throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks” method that ends up winning the day. You never know who will end up being your script champion (even an assistant or intern can be enough at first), and it can’t hurt to have a bunch of them.

Okay, so that was all about strategy. Before I get into the actual content of the query letter, let me first say that you can have a killer query letter, but if your script is in rough shape, or isn’t the Absolute Best Version of itself that it can be, than all the time you spend writing and sending your query letter will be for nothing. So make sure your script is ready (with one caveat I’m going to get into later) before sending those query puppies out.

Now, finally, how to write the most effective query letter: most books tell you to write a one page query letter that includes a logline that’s 1 to 3 sentences long, a short synopsis, and a bio of yourself.

Hook'em Danno

Hook’em, Danno

Secret #1: the most important of all four is the logline. You will need it for more people, in more situations, and it will be the most read or heard thing about your story – far more so than your actual script.

Think of your logline as a 5 to 10 second pitch. Whether it’s a sentence or two in a letter or email, or whether you just bumped into a producer at Urth Caffé, it’s the one or two sentences you say or write most about your screenplay.

Quick Tip #1: Never write about how great you, or your script is. This makes you sound desperate and amateurish. Your script stands on it’s own two feet – so let it.

Now, from my experience as a manager, having all four components is a total waste of time. Since all I care about is the logline, give me a professional greeting, a fantastic  logline (with a great hook), and a professional exit. Let the logline speak for itself, the rest is fluff.

Now, my only caveat with not including any bio information is if you’ve won any prestigious screenwriting competitions, or if your occupation has anything to do with the story at hand. For instance, if your day job is as a detective and you wrote a murder mystery. It lends an air of credibility, and is the only time it’s worth writing a short bio.

Secret #2: As a manager, I never once asked to read a synopsis or treatment. Nobody in the industry has any time, and if someone can’t write a good query letter or logline, we figure they can’t write a script. It takes more time to read a synopsis than it does to read the first few pages of a script. And seasoned pros can tell if it you’re a good writer from just a couple pages.

Quick Tip #2: Do not mention any names for actors that should be in the movie, or directors of the script, etc. etc. etc. Again, it makes you sound amateurish – as a producer, many times our top choices for casting never appear.  Even if you wrote in to an actor’s shingle, don’t say “you would be perfect for this role”. Just give us a professional greeting, a great logline with a hook, and exit stage right. That’s it.

Why?

Why does THIS picture come up when you google “query letter”?

Secret #3: Make sure those first 5 pages of your screenplay are absolutely stellar and attention grabbing – even if it’s just how brilliant you write on a technical level. Those 5 pages make or break whether anyone reads any further than that.

Quick Tip #3: If you have more than one script, only include one (maybe two) loglines into your query letter. Instead of cluttering up the page with logline after logline, have a website with your full list of loglines and link to it in the letter/email.  They will click to read more if they are interested.

Now, remember how I said there was one exception to making sure your script is ready to go before sending out a query letter? Well, for those of you with multiple ideas and don’t know which one to write next (or which one to focus on polishing/rewriting), there’s a great blog out there written by a former development executive by the name of Alex Epstein. He wrote something on his blog that I agree with strongly, especially for those of you in that particular situation:

As a development executive, you might think I’d be peeved if people used me for free market research, but actually, I wish they would. Then I’d be more likely to find a screenplay that I could do something with.

If you send out two hundred query letters and get back two responses, you may not want to waste your time writing the script. If you get back ten, you might want to write the script. If you get twenty, stop sleeping and write the damn screenplay already.

Pretty genius way to figure out what to focus on, right?

Okay, so since we are hanging out in the wayback machine, remember how I said that it was important to remember that letter Brett Ratner sent Steven Spielberg to help him fund his student film? Here’s the lesson:

Nowadays, more and more people are EMAILING query letters. It’s cheaper, and takes less time, and the industry (sometimes) reads them. The perfect solution, right? Well… since there’s more and more email and less and less snail mail, if you want to stand out from the crowd, you could mail in a query letter and *possibly* have a higher probability of it getting read. It’s the “purple cow” concept of marketing.

to be or not to be

To snail mail, or not to snail mail…that is the question…

Now, because it costs more time, and A LOT more money to send a snail mail, you have to be even more selective and targeted with who you send it to. And something to keep in mind is this – is it worth it to you to spend about 50 bucks and a bunch of time sending out snail mail query letters, to *maybe* increase your odds by 2 or 3 extra requests for your script than you would have gotten if you just stuck to email? If the answer is yes, and you have a very specific and targeted list, then read on. If the answer is no, then you can skip the next paragraph. It’s like a choose your own adventure book in here!

Once you have your targeted list of who makes the kind of material you’ve written, call and talk to the assistant. Make nice, be friendly, and ask if they accept submissions. If they do, get the assistant’s full name, verify the address and thank them. If they don’t, ask politely if the assistant would be interested in reading your query letter. If they do, do the dance outlined above. If not, thank them for their time, wish them a good day, and cross that one off your list. So, now you have your envelope addressed to the assistant, make sure the letter’s heading addresses the assistant by name (and not your targeted producer, etc.). It’s a nice touch, and they will appreciate it. Every little bit helps, especially since the assistant will have to stick their neck out for you later if they like and read your script when they tell their boss about it. Lastly, include an email address or phone number to call back rather than a SASE. First, it saves you money, and two, it saves them time.

Secret #4: The only other time to have bio information in the query is if someone from the industry (of note) has ever bought or optioned one of your scripts. Someone may not be enthusiastic about your logline, but this might entice them to ask to read anyway.

Quick Tip #4: If you’re sending out an e-mail query, don’t attach the query letter to the email. Just make the query the body of your email, period.

So, that’s everything you ever wanted to know about Query Letters…or maybe a lot more than you ever wanted to know, depending on your mood. Hopefully you will use all of these tools to get your screenplay read by agents, managers, and producers. As always, I wish you great success.

If you ever have any questions or want some advice, feel free to email me at michael@scriptawish.com.

Happy writing!

Your four quadrant high concept inspiration of the day.

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13 thoughts on “Magic Bullet: Query Letters

  1. Raj

    Useful article.Thanks.

    Just a thought came across my mind while reading the post.
    Though snail mails are unique and helps to stand out from the crowd , From an agency point of view, won’t they discourage postal mails and prefer emails for their operational effectiveness?

  2. nell

    Wondered what your thoughts are on services such as Script Delivery, where you sign up, pay a fee and they send the query to pretty much everyone in the Hollywood Directory. I know someone who tried that a while ago. I believe the letter goes out generic (no “dear so and so”) yet, my friend did get many responses and requests for his script. No one produced it but it yielded a couple of meetings in LA.
    Thanks!

  3. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    @Dan

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. That’s a good question – my advice would be to ask to speak to the literary department, and then once you’re talking to someone from there, I would ask them who to send it to. They’ll either give you a name, or, if they don’t, ask the person you are talking to if you can address it to them. If you’re going to go through the trouble of snail mailing a query, address to someone specific. Addressing to a general “Literary Department” has the same impact as sending an email. Remember, the whole goal behind snail mail is that it’s unique and addressed to someone in particular. You lose that, and you lose the advantage of snail mail.

  4. Dan

    Great article! I had a question though: when calling literary agencies to get information such as whether they’re taking submissions and who best to address the query to, many of them say “literary department”. Now, since I’ve read that it’s always best to address it to a person, what do I do in that case? Should I write “Dear Literary Department”? Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

  5. bigmikeappleMichael G. Apple

    Wow – thanks! That’s exactly what I was looking for. I’m pretty sure I would never have just stumbled upon this nugget. Thanks for your help. Best of luck!

  6. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    @Michael Apple

    Thats a great question. Basically what you want to do is find out the agents and managers for the screenwriters, and producers of those movies who write material similar to yours. For instance, if you write an R-rated buddy comedy, maybe you’d look up the representatives for the screenwriters of THE HANGOVER, as well as the producers of that movie. Most of the time, the information on who reps these writers are hard to find on google, and you have to resort to signing up for a 2 week trial of imdbpro.com (make sure and cancel before the two weeks are up so you don’t get charged).

  7. bigmikeappleMichael G. Apple

    Great article – very beneficial. One question though, how does one go about narrowing down agencies to a specific and relevent type. Will this be something Google (or such) can handle? Is there a trick? This sounds like an important piece of the puzzle. Appreciate the help.

  8. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    Madi,

    The name of the game is for them to request the script. By attaching it, or mailing it along with the query, it will look amateurish – which you are obviously not. As well, it’s easier to keep track of who actually reads your script if they request it rather than if it’s attached, and that’s just as valuable. If you are getting lots of requests, for instance, but after reading it nobody is interested, that tells you something very important – you’ve got a great concept but it’s not executed as well as it should be. Does that make sense?

  9. Madi

    Should you send the actual script with the query letter? Obviously it would cost more to mail, but if you’re emailing, shouldn’t you also attach the script?

  10. Jacob

    One thing I want to mention, in my experience if an agency says they don’t accept unsolicited material, it means NO QUERY LETTERS. Even if it’s single page, with a single sentence.

    I was under the impression that unsolicited material amounted to something more than just a single-page letter, like a script or demo reel, or dvd or something.

    Just a thought. Might save somebody some stamps.

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