To Sir, With Love: Query Letter Problems
February 19th, 2014
From the Mailbag:
My dilemma is that after 2 straight months of querying managers, (not onto agents yet) 10 letters every Monday like clockwork, I must say the results have been rather dismal (2 passes and no word whatsoever from the other what...78?).
Now I've studied your logline construction post and I guess my question is--is this normal practice for managers? One would think in order to foster the career of an emerging writer, a manager would at least read said writer's script (or the first ten pages at least), no?
A manager (or anyone looking for writers) cannot waste time simply soliciting scripts for the sake of it. And most in the business who consider new writers are inundated with opportunities to read scripts. The supply far far outweighs the demand. Never expect anyone to respond to your query other than favorably. A manager could get hundreds of queries a month, and it would be a full-time job to respond to them all. Some writers take great offense and deem it rude if their letter is left unanswered one way or another.
Get over it.
We are inundated with letters via the U.S. Postal Service, fax machines and e-mails. There are even services that will write the letter for you and “blast” it to hundreds of e-mail addresses.
Since many writers do not have connections or access within the industry, they write letters to agents, producers and managers, hoping to stir up interest in their work. These missives are referred to as “query letters.”
Although there are those who feel query letters don't work, they do work. If the letter has the right stuff.
In an earlier blog entry (“Foreign Correspondence”), there is a simple, clean example of a query letter and some things to avoid when querying.
For instance, avoid casting the movie or offering up marketing ideas (leave that to the pros). Only pitch one script per letter. (Don’t let anyone know about your thirteen scripts that haven’t sold.) Don’t overstep the boundaries of common sense.
In one letter, a bold, neophyte said, “I am asking 1.2 million (negotiable) for this script. $500 grand down, and the balance on the first day of filming the movie. (This movie has a gross potential of 80 million dollars.) Contact me after 2:00pm. I take college classes during the day.”
Because of lawsuits, many companies will not even look at query letters - which are considered “unsolicited”. (However, I’m not sure how anyone knows it’s a query unless they look at it.) I have, on occasion, actually received query letters for the query letter – asking permission to query.
There are all sorts of query letters. Some try to be cute. Some try to be memorable. Some try to be hilarious. Some strike a theme like being written on papyrus – if it’s pitching an Egyptian epic. Others come with bribes – like food or toys or some interrelated piece of paraphernalia.
There is a website that publishes goofy query letters from hapless writers. The demographics for the site can’t be geared for those in the industry, since we’ve seen all sorts of postage-stamped tragedies. (Do paramedics visit rotten.com?) Ironically, many writers visit the site for hours of entertainment – never realizing that their own letters are probably just as goofy.
You cannot go wrong with a short letter that features one brief paragraph indicating your intent, one brief paragraph to convey the concept (via a logline), and a final, brief paragraph to introduce yourself. No particular order necessary.
Some might want to lead off with the logline or some sort of question to pique the reader's interest. In a query for MINORITY REPORT, an opening question to pique interest might go: Would the world be a better place if we had the ability to capture criminals before crimes were comitted?
If the letter goes over a half page (including letterhead and addresses) you’ve entered the Yucca Flat of 8 ½ x 11.
There is no real science to writing a query letter because the truth is that regardless of how beautifully written or clever the letter might be, if the concept (logline) doesn’t grab the reader, it’s a pass. (On the bright side, a well-written letter could land you a job as the manager’s assistant.)
On a rare occasion, an exec might be inspired by the letter itself - in spite of the lackluster concept. But I’d rather find a serviceable letter surrounding an amazing movie concept.
Let’s dissect the body of your letter:
I am a screenwriter currently seeking representation for myself and my new comedy spec, A LITTLE OFF THE TOP.
After intercepting a ransom demand, a barber--masquerading as a private eye, reluctantly joins forces with an angst ridden teen in attempt to rescue the daughter of a stuffy millionaire at a fraction of the cost.
I studied screenwriting at AFI where I completed several high-concept screenplays and at LACC where I developed and directed several short films.
May I send you a copy?
At quick glance, it looks good. Short and simple. No misspellings.
First sentence: “I am a screenwriter….”
Not the best way to start the letter. Since it’s an easy assumption that you’re a screenwriter, you don’t need to say it. 99% of all queries are from screenwriters. If you were the producer (and not the writer), you could include that because it’s out of the ordinary.
“…currently seeking representation for myself and my new comedy spec, A LITTLE OFF THE TOP.”
This feels redundant – especially the “for myself and my new comedy spec….” Why not condense it with something like: “I am currently seeking representation for my new comedy….” Leave out the word “spec.” Its usage here feels superfluous.
So, your first sentence is pretty much a disaster.
But since screenwriting is more about constructing a story rather than syntax, per se, we can let this slide. After all, the heart of the query is the logline:
After intercepting a ransom demand, a barber—masquerading as a private eye, reluctantly joins forces with an angst ridden teen in attempt to rescue the daughter of a stuffy millionaire at a fraction of the cost.
The logline itself is competently written. (You’ve clearly had good tutelage.)
The misfire here is the concept itself. I'm going to assume this is an accurate representation of your script. It would be retarded for you to offer up anything else.
In a nutshell, this concept is unlikely to entice anyone into soliciting the script (and you’ve got the empirical evidence to back that up).
Although the idea of “intercepting a ransom demand” has some sort of potential, there is little “cause and effect” within this concept. Everything feels slapped together. It isn’t clear why a barber is involved in any of this or why he poses as a private eye. Then an angst ridden teen enters the mix and has no obvious relation to the barber or the kidnapping.
This might make a tiny bit more sense, for instance, if the angst ridden teen were the shampoo girl, and the kidnap victim the daughter of “Fantastic Sam.” At least there would be some connective tissue to the various parts instead of the disparate nature of the logline as presented.
At this point, no one will read further. It isn’t necessary.
“I studied screenwriting at AFI where I completed several high-concept screenplays….”
Why didn’t you pitch one of those?
“…and at LACC where I developed and directed several short films.”
“May I send you a copy?”
This last part will only be noticed as the bottom half of the paper is eaten up by the shredder.
I understand why your letter has not been received favorably. Do you?
If you're not getting any responses, it's most likely your concept and no fault of the manager.
You could get all sorts of advice and assistance on how to write a query letter. But, the fact is a letter is only as good as the concept it's pitching.
About the Author
Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher. For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors. He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program. Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor. He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has taught at Los Angeles Valley College, UCLA and is currently an adjunct professor in the MFA program at National University. He is an award winning and Emmy nominated producer with credits that include THE COLLECTOR (2009) and its sequel THE COLLECTION (2012), as well as writing and producing the documentary MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS (2010) for Oprah Winfrey. He is a member of the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He has read over 35,000 scripts throughout his career.