Reader Question: How to go about the query letter process?

“Is there any direction as to how to go about the query process? Should I target a few dream-list agencies or should I paint the town with ‘I have a script, it is good, should I send it to you?’ Letters?”

This question posed by Richard Desjardin in response to a recent post.

I’ve written about this subject a number of times — and I’ll include excerpts and links to some of those posts below — but it’s an important topic worth revisiting.

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In Episode: 264 of the excellent screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes, hosted by John August and Craig Mazin, they had as their guest Peter Dodd, a lit agent at UTA. In their wide-ranging and informative conversation, the subject of query letters came up. An excerpt from the podcast transcript:

John: OK. So they start, they say like, “Hey, I read something that’s really great. You’ll want to read her.” And what is the next step for you? So if they said you should read her, are you reaching out to Christina? Are they sending you the script? What’s happening?

Peter: 90% of the time they’ll include the material. They’ll say, “Hey, I just read a great sample for this project. You should check this out. I don’t think this writer is represented.” Or they’ll say, “Hey, I read a great sample. You should check this out. I think this person is unhappy with their agent, or unhappy with their manager. This could be an opportunity.”

John: Great. So, what’s an interesting is none of what you’re saying is about a query letter. Like a writer has not written to you saying like, “Hey, I’m looking for an agent.” Does that ever — are any of your clients based on a query letter, like they reached out to you?

Peter: No.

John: Not a one?

Peter: Never.

John: All right.

Peter: Never happens.

John: No one that you met at a conference who offered you a business card or pitched you a script?

Peter: No. People have tried, but no. None of the actual clients that I work with now have come in that way.

Craig: This is why John and I spend a lot of our time frustrated, because there is — I’m sure you know this — there is a large cottage industry designed to take money from people, and in exchange give them the secrets to getting an agent, and getting representation, all the rest of it. And there’s this obsession over query letters. It’s absurd. It is the most bizarre Fellini-esque circus of nonsense you’ve ever seen.

Peter: And it’s complete highway robbery, because that’s not the way that agents look at or think about material.

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Okay, two things. The “cottage industry to take money from people” of which Craig speaks is absolutely real. There are query letter and logline ‘experts’ and consultants who are quite willing to take your money for their supposed expertise in helping you ‘get representation’.

By and large, that is fool’s gold.

Later in this post, I am going to provide for you a sure-fire way to get read by reps… and I’m giving it away for free.

Second, it is a fact that agents — or at least a vast majority of them — will not respond to query letters. I have spoken with many of them about this very subject and they all echo what Peter Dodd says: They find writers almost exclusively by referral from people inside the business who they know and can trust.

So there you are, sitting in your home hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Hollywood left to ask, “Then how the hell do I get an agent?”

My take: That’s the wrong question. Your question should be this:

How do I get a manager.

Managers are different creatures than agents. Although many of them are former agents, you can pretty much spot the difference between them this way: Agents wear suits, managers wear blue jeans.

Okay, big generalization, but believe me, it holds some measure of truth: Agents are more about deals. Managers are more about working with talent.

You can see right there why managers would be more open to responding to unsolicited queries than agents: Since they are — generally speaking — more hands-on in their relationships with writers, they actually are more motivated to source new talent. If they can find a new writer client, work with them to help develop scripted projects, they become a kind of ‘partner’ with the writer and establish a long-term relationship with them.

Which is great because (A) many of them really enjoy helping writers craft a career in Hollywood and grow as creatives, and (B) all of them like the 10% cut they take from the writer’s earnings.

Bottom line: Whereas agents as a rule do not accept unsolicited submissions or query letters, there are plenty of managers who do.

How do I know? Because I’ve talked with a host of managers who told me that’s the case. Plus numerous writers have said they got management representation via query letters. Here are two examples. From my February 2014 interview:

Aaron Guzikowski: “I had written one [spec script] and basically sent a query letter to three management companies in LA that I randomly pulled out of the Hollywood Creative Directory and one of those responded. The guy is Adam Kolbrenner who is my manager today.”

Guzikowski wrote the superb movie Prisoners starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal which Aaron developed — 20 rewrites! — with Adam Kolbrenner before setting it up.

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Next from my October 2013 interview:

Scott: Rumor has it that in order to get your script in front of potential Hollywood reps, you basically carpet-bombed hundred of managers and agents with emails, some which were simply this: “A girl is trained to be an assassin; would you like to read my script?” Is that true and what were the specifics of your outreach process? How long did it take for you to land a Hollywood rep?

Seth Lochhead: Yup. I did it. And it was almost completely, utterly futile. But I learned a few lessons: 1. Be succinct with your letter writing (it took me a long time to realize Hollywood wasn’t interested in me as a person, they’re only interested in my ideas, so keep your query on point — tell them the idea and sign it so they know where it came from). 2. I wouldn’t have had to email so many folks if I had just done a bit of research into the companies I was approaching. After a bit of research, I found a small handful of companies that suited my needs and, lo, I got two and only two responses (both within a week of each other, both toward the end of my carpet bombing cycle). One was from a kindly direct to video producer who made pulpy action movies and the other was from a kindly intern, Kemper Donovan, at Circle of Confusion (a company that represented some of the best A-list pulpy writers in the business). This all happened within 6 months of finishing the script. I signed with Circle, Kemper was promoted, and within three months Focus expressed interest. Three months after that I signed with WME (née WMA). And I’ve been a professional writer ever since (8 years… yikes!).

That script was Hanna which went on to become the terrific action film starring Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett.

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So to sum up re query letters: Agents: No. Managers: Yes.

Got that?

Okay, now for my sure-fire way for you to get a manager’s attention via a query letter and for this, I am quoting whole cloth from an earlier GITS post:

Query letters do work. However you have to look at the query letter as part of an entire approach and that has to be grounded in this: Your scripts. A person can write the greatest query letter in the world, but if their story concept and execution on the page isn’t great, that’s a pass.

So first and foremost, come up with strong story concepts. Write scripts based on those strong story concepts. Get feedback and rewrite those scripts until they are in the best shape possible. Then do one more pass just to be sure.

One way to maximize the power of your query letter is to write more than one script. Indeed as I’ve have written about here and here, I recommend writing three scripts. And to create the path of least resistance, here is my advice:

Write 3 scripts: Not just one. Not two. But three scripts. Written, rewritten, reviewed by pro readers and/or a strong writers group, revised again, and brought to the best level of readability and marketability possible.

Rationale: If you have 3 scripts in hand, this demonstrates to someone in the business you are not a one-hit wonder, you are prolific, you are persistent, and you have an effective approach to mapping a story and getting it from FADE IN to FADE OUT. Also 3 scripts triples the chances you can find a set of eyeballs which responds to at least one of your stories.

Write 3 scripts in 1 genre: Not 3 scripts in 3 different genres, but 1 genre.

Rationale: It is easier to sell you to the town if you are known as an Action writer, a Comedy writer, a Drama writer, and so on. The fact is, people will put you on lists based on whatever script first gets their attention. Like it or not, this is your brand. And having a brand makes the life of managers and agents a whole lot easier to sell you and your writing services.

Write 3 scripts in 1 genre which is mainstream: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.

Rationale: Scripts in mainstream genres as opposed to those that are not (e.g., Western Musical, Animated Horror) are easier sells because they are more likely to represent what studios, production companies, and financiers are actively developing. So much of it is about their comfort level and if you’re up for a writing assignment in a certain genre, and you have credibility in that genre, again path of least resistance.

Write 3 scripts in the $5–20M budget range: Write at least one on the low end and no more than two at the upper end.

Rationale: If you write a script with a budget of $100M or more, there are only 6 potential buyers. If you write a script with a budget of $50–100M, there are virtually no buyers. However if you write a script in the $5–20M range, there are literally dozens of buyers. Even if they don’t acquire your script, your reps can paper the town with it and get you meetings. With a $100M script and severely limited number of buyers… not so much.

Write 3 treatments: In addition to your 3 spec scripts.

Rationale: Assuming you go on the bottled water tour, the first thing they’ll say is, “Love your script.” The second thing: “What else you got?” Having 3 stories worked out in your back pocket makes you that much more marketable.

Write 3 treatments based on your strongest story concepts: And this goes for your spec scripts, too.

Rationale: Along with execution and voice, story concept is one of the most important sales elements of your script. Moreover if you can demonstrate you can generate great story ideas, that makes you all that much more desirable for representation.

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If you do this, you can write a query letter which — if your story concepts are strong enough — should almost assuredly get the attention of a manager. Why?

* With 3 scripts and 3 treatments, you are giving them a lot of script and story material they can use to sell and position you in Hollywood. Indeed any one of them could translate into a sale or option, and at the very least, if they are well written, serve as a writing sample to get you meetings with producers and execs around town.

* With 3 scripts and 3 treatments, you are saying to a potential rep, “I am not a fly-by-night writer, I am persistent, productive, and motivated. Moreover because I have created so much content, I have developed an approach to story prep and writing which has prepared me to work well under deadlines and pressure.” That’s the subtext your productivity will convey to a manager.

* Because your stories are all within one genre, that makes it easy for a rep to ‘brand’ you and put you up for open writing assignments in that narrative space.

Note: I’m not saying this is the right or only way to go about things, only that it’s the path of least resistance.

What to do after you’ve done the work and created the content? Sign up for Done Deal Pro ($30) and IMDb Pro ($150). Pick your strongest script and research 10–15 movies of the same type, genre, or arena from the last 10 years or so. Hopefully at least some of them have done well at the box office, but even if they have not, if they have solid critic ratings, that’s fine. Go through IMDb Pro and find the producers who are managers (this is one big difference between managers and agents, the latter cannot produce movies, managers can). Once you have a list of manager-producers for 10 movies or so which are similar in some key respects to your script, go to Done Deal Pro and check out the Management database there. You’ll likely find email addresses for most of the managers. If not, Google them and with some mental elbow grease, you’ll probably surface their email.

Now it’s time — finally! — to write your query letter. For your email subject line, I’d put: “Have 3 spec scripts, 3 treatments, all same genre”.

In your email, lead with the logline for your best script. Keep it short. A logline isn’t supposed to tell the story, rather it’s supposed to sell the story. Hook their attention.

Note you have 2 other specs and 3 treatments, each has been thoroughly written, vetted, and revised.

“Interested?”

And out.

Don’t mention how you were a quarterfinalist in some obscure script contest.
Don’t blab about how excited you are at the prospect of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.

Let the strength of the writing you’ve done speak for itself. Blow them out of the water with your creativity and productivity, and a brief query. That’s a nice, neat package.

Again I can’t imagine any manager not wanting to at the very least talk with you.

So as I said, query letters can work, but they are best served by being part of a holistic approach whereby you lean on your creative passion to generate content in a smart way. And one approach is what I’ve outlined above.

Just like I say, “It’s not just about writing the script, it’s about learning the craft,” likewise this:

It’s not just about the query letter, it’s about getting your act together BEFORE you seek representation.

There are NO shortcuts. There are NO secret paths into Hollywood. Your talent and voice have to stand for themselves on the PAGE.

And to get their attention, lead with a great logline. For help on that front, check out this post.

Richard, I hope that answered your question!

I’m curious to hear from any of you who have used query letters to break into the business. If so, please head to comments and share your experiences, as well as advice on how to write a compelling query.

Twitter: @JohnAugust, @clmazin, @SMLochhead

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