Sending Queries to Literary Managers About a Screenplay

When I work with writers giving feedback and guidance on their material and career paths, I often end up giving advice about how to gain access to agents, managers, and producers – which seems to most writers to be the biggest challenge of this business.

The common conception is that “who you know” is ultimately the key thing, because you can have the greatest script in the world, and if nobody in the industry will read it (because they don’t know you, and you weren’t referred to them by someone they trust), nothing will come of it, right?

True enough. However, this statement misses one key part of the equation: the industry is desperately hungry for marketable material and writers. And it always has been and will be.

No matter how few paid writing jobs or script sales there might be compared to the number of people who would like to have them (and that will forever be an outrageous ratio), the fact remains that the “development” side of the business is always on the lookout for more “stuff they can sell.”

How desperate are they?

Last year I met a very legitimate, big time manager of working screenwriters at a writing conference I was invited to speak at (where writers had also paid to get five minutes to sit across from the likes of him), and asked him about the best way to “get access” to him and others of his kind.

Here’s what he said:

Send him an e-mail.

What kind of an e-mail? The kind with a quick description of the script you want him to read, and consider representing. The kind that he gets dozens of, every week.

I know, the prospect of “cold queries” seems like a huge long shot, and compared to a personal referral, perhaps it is. But it’s not necessarily worse than the five minute “pitch fest” approach, because ultimately what a manager (or agent, producer or executive) is looking at, in both cases, is the content of the story being proposed. It’s either something they think could be sellable (in a pitch or a short query), or it isn’t.

This particular manager said he gets about 100 such query e-mails a week.

And he asks to read the script for about 80 of them.

That’s right, 80 out of 100.

Another high-end manager I met at the same conference confirmed that this same process works, and also said she also gets about 100 a week, but she only asks to read about 10 of the scripts. She’s tougher on the loglines and synopses than he is. (And it’s possible that some are even tougher — and that agents, for instance, will be harder to get the attention of than managers, due to the differences in what they do and how they do it.)

Here’s the one thing they both agreed about, though, which is really the key point I want to make: out of the scripts that do get to them, they have only have interest in less than one script a week — and maybe as few as a handful each year.

In other words, regardless of the synopsis in the query, the script almost always fails to impress them as something they could do something with (or the writer as one they could “sell”).

The big challenge, then, is not so much about getting your material in front of the professionals who can help you. It’s making sure that the script you put in front of them will really impress them, when you do. This is the hard part. And this is what is rare, highly valued, and highly sought after.

Of course, we all know this, on some level. But writers often seem to think the “access issue” is at least 25%, or even 50%, of what determines whether a screenwriter gets their work sold and produced. And they tend to put a lot of time and energy into trying to “crack the code” of getting their work to the right people in the right way.

But it’s really not that complicated or hard. It requires a little research and diligence (and a thick skin), but getting your logline and premise or synopsis in front of these kinds of people is fairly simple.

There are multiple sources online where you can find e-mail addresses for managers, as well as producers – such as Itsonthegrid.com and IMDB Pro. The e-mail should be addressed to a specific individual. The manager I spoke with recommends you provide the logline and genre of your script, then a paragraph or two synopsis of the story (not a tease, but a real synopsis that explains the story).

Below that, you might include any important contests you’ve won, or other impressive writing background you might have – though that is strictly optional.

Many will not be as generous as this manager, in terms of being impressed enough by the query to ask to read the script. In some cases, it will have to really sound like a viable movie they could sell – or at least a viable writer who is very much on the right track.

But getting the “read,” at the end of the day, is not the key thing. What’s key is delivering with a script they think has a chance, that they can really do something with when they get it.

I guess it depends on your viewpoint whether this is “good news” or “bad news.” But I will tell you it’s what people inside the industry all tend to believe. They’re not trying to keep out marketable writing and writers. They are just so bombarded by material that isn’t marketable, in their view, that they have to put up somewhat of a wall to allow them to focus on serving their existing clients – which, trust me, is a very full-time job.

But these walls are not as solid as you might think. And they all want what you pitch and send to them to be something they think could sell and get produced. They’re really on your side in that. The tough part is creating such a thing. I know, because I grapple with this challenge myself, as a professional writer (and consultant to other writers) every day.

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13 thoughts on “Sending Queries to Literary Managers About a Screenplay

  1. Pingback: Script in 10 days: Day 2 « Andrea S. Michaels

  2. Anthony

    Cold queries not only landed me a manager but I’ve also queried production companies and ended up in development on several of my original pilots over the past couple of years. The secret is to not let rejection get you down – I’ve been rejected over 300 times since I started writing three years ago. My manager has since quit, but it hasn’t slowed me down one bit.

    I’ve sent out more queries and I am now being read at several prominent management companies.

    If you’re committed to your craft, you’ll get there – Knock on enough doors and some one is bound to answer. Just be sure to target those that deal within your genre.

    “Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits” – Thomas Edison

  3. ruth

    Hey Erik – well said. first and foremost write a good script. scratch that. great script. i think another reason managers/agents don’t respond is because the script isn’t in their “wheelhouse.” assessing the market potential and targeting the right people go hand in hand so that you’re not sending what is really a low budget indie out to managers/agents who are only looking for studio fare. there’s a place for both out there but if you haven’t written the next “wild hogs” (or perhaps a female version the “wild hogettes”?) you will have to do a little more work to find the right people to send your script to.

  4. Yusef

    Hi Roy, How did you get it?, Got an email from her to have her in my contacts?
    Hi, Deborah, I am a writer of Chile and these are my first steps in the internationalization of my career. I need to know people working in this medium. My English is not very good but I try. Greetings to all and happy to meet you.

  5. chris m

    Mike Alber in the comment section – nice LL on Wild Hogs, btw. Now I know why I follow you on Twitter.

    Encouraging article Erik.

    I didn’t quit my IT career to pursue writing because I thought it was impossible to break through, but the doubts do creep in from time to time. It helps to be reminded that the industry does want “marketable material and writers”, and that it’s on me to deliver.

    Thanks.

  6. Bill

    Erik – Your advice and generous insights reinforce both my suspicions and approach about good writing backing up any query. My problem has been knowing when my script is good enough to warrant a query. I guess that’s where you come in. Thanks for the article.

  7. Deborah

    I guess I should say that sending out cold queries have gotten me really nowhere, however a friend of mine has introduced me to some very nice agents and producers. I am hopeful that soon I will leave the realm of consultant for TV and someone else’s films, to having my own out there.

    Happy writing all.

  8. Roy

    I was lucky to get two of my scripts read, after I sent queries to the assistant of a Oscar-nominated producer/literary manager. She passed, but it was by pure luck I got to her.

  9. Mike Alber

    Deborah, I know exactly what you mean about Wild Hogs; It’s the kind of broad comedy that not many of us aspire to write. But it strikes me that your statement (and the mentality of it) is part of the issue: this manager and others like him are looking for marketable scripts, not high art (in most cases). I’m sure lots of the people emailing him are delivering overly personal stories that don’t hold anyone’s interest (beyond the author’s) and have no chance of selling.

    Wild Hogs, on the other hand is different. You can see how a pitch for it (“a group of 40-something milquetoasts with families and real lives all buy motorcycles to experience the life they think passed them by”) is VERY easy to both understand and sell. And the $253mil at the global box office would support that.

  10. Deborah

    I must say; I have heard this several times over, and yet nothing. I am not afraid of sending in the cold query, nor am I a afraid of rejection. What I am afraid of is another “Wild Hogs” in theaters. (snicker) No really I am.

    Thank you for sharing this with us, and I look forward to hopefully working with you soon.

    All the best.

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