One page is all you need to get them to read
It is a fact of life, for the writer who does not have an “in” in the industry, if you want to get an agent or producer to read a script, you’ve got to send them a well written query letter. According to most agents and producers a query letter should be “short, sweet and to the point.” The query letter is the first contact a writer makes with the industry and if it is less than persuasive, few requests for the screenplay will be the end result. “You’ve got to be able to give us a good, compelling reason why this story needs to be told and why this is a particularly special script,” says Marcia Kirkley of New York based, Homegrown Pictures. The query letter is the writer’s one page opportunity to sell his story and himself. If the letter is dull, meandering and plagued with typos, an agent or producer will likely expect the script to be the same.
“If a person can’t write a letter, how in the world are they going to write 120 pages?” asks Bruce Bartlett of the Los Angeles based, Above the Line Agency. “Overwriting is usually more of a problem than underwriting,” says Lawrence Mattis of New York based Circle of Confusion, Ltd. His clients, Larry and Andy Wachowski, writer/directors of the The Matrix were discovered through their one paragraph query letter. “If I see a letter that is six paragraphs, I’m not running to read it,” admits Mattis. How does a writer sell a 120-page script in one, two or three paragraphs? The same way a commercial can sell a product in 15 seconds or less. The trick is finding the words that can express the passion the writer has for the project and a concept that is engaging. “At the end of the day, the writing skills are going to have to come out in the script,” states Mattis.
“Typically the query letter will have a log line which sets up the genre and in very vague terms tells what it’s about,” says producer Marcia Kirkley. When querying producers, a one or two page synopsis is required; however, most agents find a synopsis helpful, but not necessary. According to Bruce Bartlett, the query letter is not enough for him to decide to read a script for his agency. “Unless you have a concept that is so incredible, you better give me a synopsis,” states Bartlett. “The problem I find is that writers give a log line that reads like the back of a video box and if you’ve ever read the back of a video box, everything sounds like an Academy Award winner and in reality it tells you nothing about the story. Why should I invest 2 hours of my time to something I have no concept of whether it’s good or bad? The only way I’m going to request the script based on the log line is if it’s the most incredible concept I’ve ever read.”
The log line or pitch should be quick and to the point, stating in the most engaging way possible, what the story is about in one to two sentences. Distilling 120 pages of screenplay down to that one to two sentence log line is extremely difficult and the writer should take as much time as possible to accomplish the task. Refer to the back of video boxes or listings in TV Guide for ideas on how to write the log line pitch, but make sure that what you come up with has something to do with your script. “I’ve gotten some wonderful query letters,” says Mattis, “I thought they were charming and intelligent, but the script that came afterwards was not as good.” When including background information in your query only include what is relevant. Awards, education, produced and published work should be mentioned, seminars taken and books read should be excluded. “If you’re going to include information about yourself, like in any sales situation, if it doesn’t help you, don’t put it in, if it does, of course list it,” adds Bartlett. “If this is the first screenplay you’ve ever written, don’t tell me that. If it’s your tenth, I don’t know if it necessarily helps your situation, but it doesn’t hurt it either.”
Fabricating background information should definitely be avoided since an agent or a producer is usually a phone call away from the truth. “It doesn’t help for them to fabricate background information,” says Mattis whose agency is completely open to first time screenwriters. “That stuff is not determinative, I’m much more interested in the script itself.” “Sometimes I’ll get letters where people say, ‘So and so referred me,’ and it will be someone who I don’t even know doing the referring,” says Mattis. “Maybe that person does know of my agency, but it doesn’t help if somebody I don’t know refers you to Circle of Confusion because that’s hardly a referral at all.” If the writer does know someone who knows someone, the best way to get the script to the agent or producer is to have that someone make a phone call on his behalf.
One thing to avoid discussing in a query letter is interest by a studio or a production company unless there is an actual deal on the table. “Some writers will say, ‘I’ve sent my script to Warner Bros. and they said they’re very interested in reading it but they can’t unless it comes through a WGA agent,'” states Bartlett. “Agencies work as a filtering process and the reality is that Warner Bros. has no intention of reading it. If studios could read anybody’s work, how many scripts do you think they’d get in a day? What Warner Bros. was really saying is, ‘Go away.’ If you can get an agent to submit it, then they’ll take a look at it.”
“So many times I get letters that say, ‘The whatever company is looking at it,’ and I’ll call and say, ‘Are you guys really looking at this,’ that’s more of an opportunity for me to find out about the writer,” adds agent Kimber Wheeler. “I’m not the kind of agent who is going to respond to the possibility of a deal, I want to know who this person is, what they’re writing about, how committed they are to their writing. Am I passionate about their material? Can I sell their material? Is there a market for it? Whether someone’s reading it or someone’s readers’ reader is reading it, it doesn’t matter.”
The structure of the three-paragraph query letter would start with a brief introductory paragraph with a one to two sentence pitch of the project, the second would include background information and the third would be the wrap up sentence or two to close the deal. Writers should also include information about the genre of the script and always have a phone number and a self-addressed stamped postcard or envelope inside for a reply. “Some writers will say, ‘Gee, I sent out fifty query letters and only three people even called me,’ says Kirkley. “But if you had that SASE, I bet you’d get a lot more responses, maybe in the negative, but you’d know that your letters were getting through and people were at least considering your material.”
In this electronic age of e-mail, many writers are trying to save on postage and send mass e-mails to producers and agencies, not a good idea in an industry that relies on personal relationships. “I just hit delete,” admits Bartlett. The e-mail method can be cold and impersonal especially when the e-mail is “cc:” to hundreds of other agents and producers. “I saw the e-mail list and it was like 400 people!” says Kirkley, “They pressed go and it just goes. Take the time to really address the letter to me, instead of just saying, ‘Dear Producer, here are my scripts.’ It just looks like you’re doing some mass junk mail thing.” While most agents and producers dislike the idea of e-mail queries, more and more writers are doing it. “If you’re going to e-mail, clearly you’re going to use the same query letter again and again and everyone knows that, I would at least try to personalize it,” advises Kirkley. “Don’t just do some anonymous mass e-mail to ‘Dear Producer’ or ‘Dear Development Exec.’ If you’re going to do that, at least find who the appropriate person is and try to do a little bit of homework.” The solution to the e-mail problem for Kimber Wheeler: “I don’t have e-mail.”
The log line is key in a query letter’s overall effectiveness, so a writer wastes a great deal of energy focusing on making a skimpy background look impressive or on irrelevant issues such as studio interest and casting decisions. “I think it’s amateurish to say, ‘Oh, we think it’s perfect for Rosie O’Donnell’,” says Kirkley, “I wouldn’t drop names unless you really had them attached. It may set a tone that’s clearly unreachable. Rushmore was written for Bill Murray and they got him, so they were lucky. If it’s a vehicle for a specific star, then it’s something no one else can really do.” If Rushmore had been a huge hit, hundreds of query letters with story lines for Bill Murray similar to Rushmore would flood agencies and production companies. Writers need to follow future trends not what is being produced in the present. Knowing what the agencies and production companies are looking for before they are looking for it is difficult, and having a sense of what will be hot goes back to one thing: Research. The Hollywood Reporter and other publications list films in pre-production and development and by focusing on those trends rather than the latest box office hit the writer can stay ahead of the game. “If I notice there’s a trend where [producers] are calling for dramatic love stories, if I get two query letters saying, ‘I have a dramatic love story,’ all of a sudden that’s what I’m looking for,” admits Wheeler. “We just went through two months of, ‘I have the next Waterboy.’ I’m not interested,” adds Wheeler. “Waterboy has been around forever, it’s so over right now so the trends for people not in the business is not to look at the movies that are already out. By the time that project came out or was sold, every other studio purchased something similar so that’s no longer a marketable property.”
Agents and producers agree that cutesy gimmicks can work against the writer. Singing telegrams, messages in a bottle and other flashy ways to draw attention to a project can make the scripts arrival a hard act to follow. “I have on my desk what I consider to be the most fun query letter I’ve ever gotten,” says agent Lawrence Mattis. “It was a script about baseball and the query letter was written on a baseball. It came in a box and I’ve kept the baseball on my desk because it was so cool. Quite honestly the script was not particularly good and we passed on it, but the baseball is still on my desk 3 months later. It doesn’t help the writer any ultimately because I didn’t end up representing him, but at least it certainly made me respond positively.” “It is a business and query letters in the form of a page of the screenplay or anything else, I just don’t have the time,” says Kimber Wheeler. “There is a part of me that thinks if you have to dress it up creatively, what’s the matter with the subject matter?”
Not all query letters will work with every agent or producer and writers should avoid the cookie-cutter approach. Instead of photocopy hundreds of “Dear Agent” or “Dear Producer” letters, the writer should do some research and find specific names to address their letters and also what types of scripts the agency or production company handles. If an agency or studio financed production company specializes in big budget features, you would not send a query letter for a small, personal drama and conversely, an independent production company or boutique agent may not be interested in a high concept action script. “Be selective and know more about the producer you’re submitting to instead of sending out a blanket hundred letters to everyone in the world,” says independent producer Marcia Kirkley. “I do original arthouse films so I’m not going to be interested in your high concept buddy movie.” The goal of the query letter is to get the agent or producer to read a particular script and having more than one script to pitch on a query letter defeats that purpose. If the writer has several scripts, he may want to target one script per letter to a specific group of agents and producers. Few agents and producers have the time to read ten scripts by an unknown and to have them read through ten pitches and ten synopses to decide which one to read will prompt them to toss the letter in the circular file. “What’s scary is when [a writer] has 12 screenplays and they ask which one do I want to read,” says Wheeler. “They think, the more the better. I’m not interested. One great one will always win me over than six mediocre ones.”
The letter should start with a catchy opening one to four line paragraph that reveals the genre of the script and states briefly what the story is about. A synopsis paragraph up to four lines can follow to reveal more information about the story, with a more detailed description saved for the accompanying synopsis page. The final paragraph should include any relevant background information and a brief closing statement. No begging, pleading, apologizing or promises of great wealth should end or begin the letter. The industry works mostly by referral and a writer should attend seminars, conferences and other events to meet people who can make the letter a welcome opportunity to read the writer’s work rather than an annoying nuisance. It can take weeks for a writer to get a reply to his query and it is strongly advised that he include an SASE, [self-addressed, stamped envelope or postcard, SASP]. Agents and producers are more likely to respond to a query letter if an SASE is enclosed, but it is still no guarantee.
Although the wait for a response is frustrating, writers should be patient with the process. The worst thing that he can do is call the agency or production company two days after mailing the query letter and asking if they are interested in the script. Agents and producers prefer to deal with people with whom they can work and if a writer makes a pest of himself with daily phone calls, he is certain to make a very bad impression that will certainly lead to rejection. No matter how well the query letter is written and how impressive the writer’s background may be, agents and producers may still say, ‘no.’ For whatever reason, the project is not something that they are interested in representing or producing. The writer needs to move on and query other prospects. It is likely that the writer will get back more “no’s” and “not taking on new clients letters” than “yes, send it over” but the only way to win the game is to stick with it. “This is an industry in which a lot of quality stuff does not sell,” admits Bartlett. “It’s a function of what the studios are buying at any given time.” The process can be quite discouraging, especially if the writer limits his queries to a handful of prospects. The more companies queried, the more chances a writer has of getting a reply. Additionally, the more scripts a writer has under his belt, in a variety of genres and budget ranges, the more prospects he can target. “It seem impenetrable and mysterious,” says Mattis. “The answer is you have to write a good script. That’s a mysterious and difficult process.”
This article appeared in the 1999 Annual Screenwriters Guide published by New York Screenwriter Magazine. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.