Query Letter Catastrophes

Besides a perfect pitch for your screenplay, what else should you include in the query letter that you send to film companies?  It’s more important what not to include.  Here are the ten statements you’ll certainly want to avoid:

1.   “The movie based on my script will make you richer than a Saudi oil billionaire and spawn five sequels.”  Don’t tell the producer what to think, and don’t make wildly unrealistic predictions for your script.  At this stage, never mention that you have written or are planning sequels.  This is presumptuous.  You haven’t even sold the first one yet.  If the film is a huge hit, believe me, they will ask for a sequel– even if the film is Hamlet and nearly everyone was dead at the end.

2.   “My screenplay was a semi semi-finalist in the Rinky-Dink Screenwriting Contest.”  Don’t get me wrong.  You should feel proud of doing well in any screenwriting contest.  And winning or even being a finalist in major ones, such as Austin, Sundance, the Nicholl Fellowship, or our own Big Break™, is a huge feather in your cap, and definitely worth mentioning in a query letter.  But these days there are so many other screenwriting contests out there, that producers aren’t necessarily going to be impressed by the fact that you won or placed in one of them.  It really depends on the quality and reputation of the contest.  If you won one of the lesser-known screenwriting contests, should you mention this in your pitch letter anyway?  Yes– especially if you don’t have any other screenwriting credits.  But be aware that unless it’s a major screenwriting contest, the producer is likely to greet that news with a big yawn.

3.   “I used to write for my high school newspaper, The Bailey Bugle, and won the Hoity-Toity Poetry Contest in college.”  Even if you have no other writing credits, be careful about which ones you include in your query letter for your script.  If you have any relevant credits– you’re a produced playwright or screenwriter, won a film festival with your short film, or have a college degree in film or screenwriting– that’s worth mentioning.  Credits as a writer of poetry?  Not so much.  What to do if you have no credits at all as a writer?  Not to worry.  Just pitch your script.  If your pitch is great, you might get requests to read your script anyway. Yes, it happens.

4.   “It’s like Rocky meets The Sound of Music.”  Pitching a script by saying it’s like ‘this’ meets ‘that’ is really passé.  At best, you’ll look out-of-touch.  At worst, you’ll seem like an amateur.  If you do decide to pitch your script that way, make sure that the comparison is one that makes instant conceptual sense to anyone reading or hearing it (hint: the example I’ve given here makes no sense at all).  And use only recent, hugely successful movies as touchstones.

5.   “My script is WGA registered and copyrighted, so don’t even think about stealing my idea from me.”  Legitimate producers take it for granted that you registered and/or copyrighted your script, and they are not planning to steal it from you anyway.  It is not necessary to mention what you did to protect your material– nor to put any of the registration information on your script.

6.   “This is draft number 17, and I’ve been working really hard on this since 1997.”  Producers assume you are sending them your best draft– and you really don’t want to announce how many drafts it took to get there.  You certainly don’t want to let them know how many years your script has been sitting around unsold.

7.   “If this idea doesn’t tickle you pink, here are pitches for three other scripts I’ve been working on….” While it’s great to have more than one project, don’t pitch more than one idea in a single query letter.  If they’re interested in other ideas from you, they will ask you if you have any.  Also, by volunteering that you have other pitches, this implies you don’t have confidence that the first concept will appeal to them.  The one exception is if you are pitching to an agent.  In that case, it’s useful to mention that you also have several other completed spec scripts (assuming you do).  But, even when approaching an agent, you shouldn’t pitch more than one script at a time.

8.   “Naturally, I also want to star in and direct the movie.”  The more “hats” you want to wear, the more you saddle your script with encumbrances, and the less likely you are to sell your script.  If your goal is to be a writer-director or writer-actor, that’s fine, assuming you have proven ability and an impressive reel.  And you can always shoot your movie on your own.  But if your priority is to sell your screenplay, you should be prepared to step aside if, say, they love your script, but want Tom Hanks to star in the movie instead of you.  Yes, being actor-writer-directors worked for Damon and Affleck, and for Stallone.  But it may not work for you.

9.   “I know the script still needs work, but….” Never denigrate your own material.  The material you send out should be your best work.

10.  “I want Johnny Depp to star in my movie.”  Yes, and I want to play center field for the Yankees.  If you want to write a role for Johnny Depp, write the best damn part you can—and find a legitimate way to get the script to him.  But when submitting the script to producers, you’ll just seem presumptuous if you tell them who you want to star in your movie.  And remember: if the role really is perfect for Depp, you won’t be the only one that this occurs to.

Keep pitching.  See you next month.

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