How do I write an effective query letter?

September 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

As any screenwriting aspirant should already know, a query letter is basically a letter or E-mail that you send to an agent, manager or producer when you first contact them with unsolicited material.  The letter is your attempt to garner interest in you as a potential client or your script as a property for sale.  It’s very much like cold calling and what you’re selling is you as a writer.  It’s always a numbers game at best.

Sending out query letters is a long and involved process and not for a writer with thin skin.  It’s fraught with rejection and the unknown, but don’t take it personally because it’s only business.  Agents, managers and producers receive a steady flood of query letters and they’ll know within your first sentence if they’re interested in your project.  That’s why you need to grab them from the start and make your pitch clear and concise.  Less is always more.  Don’t use flowery language, bloated paragraphs or cute references to other films.  This will immediately mark you with the scarlet “A” for “amateur” and you’ll blow your only chance. Your script might just be amazing, but a poorly written query letter will sink you every time.

Your query letter must look professional and be free of typos and spelling and grammar errors.  If not, they’ll fear that you have the same lack of respect for your script and they will not waste their time with a read.  It’s necessary that your synopsis or logline be short, concise and immediately hook their interest.  Stick to one pitch and offer them one script in your letter.  If you offer too many scripts, your query will get bogged down and you’ll seem desperate and scattered, “Uh, I have an action-comedy, a thriller… oh, and a Sci-Fi Western too!”  Sell only one idea per query letter.  Agents and managers like writers proficient in one genre so they can sell you easier to the studios.

When crafting your letter, it’s also a good idea to include a brief paragraph about your experience and professional accolades in the business.  Did you win or place in a screenwriting competition?  Do you have any produced credits?  Any awards?  Did you graduate from a film school?  If you don’t have credits, it’s important to briefly mention any achievements to further sell the idea that you are a serious writer.  Also don’t forget to include all of your contact information.

If you send your query letter by E-mail, always place the letter in the face of the E-mail and not as an attachment.  If you send your letter by snail mail, always include a self-addressed stamped envelope to make it easier for them to respond.  The less work on their end, the better chance for a response.

So, where do you find a list of agents, managers and producers who are willing to accept unsolicited query letters?  A great place is the Hollywood Screenwriting Directory.  It’s a giant tome published yearly from The Writers Store.  It’s an indispensable resource to find the industry contacts necessary for your barrage of query letters.

Years ago when I was between representation, I remember sending out three dozen query letters from a list that I complied of companies that list their submission requirements their policies about submissions of letters, loglines and screenplays. Always follow them to the letter.

I cherry picked only those agents, managers and producers who would accept unsolicited query letters and I’d usually send out three to four a day.  Many companies would require a signed release form before they would read anything.  Others would only accept queries if you had an industry referral.

It took a few days to compile my list and I kept track of everything on a legal pad with a code system I developed to help me check the status of each query at any given time:  if I sent my query by E-mail or letter and when, if the company replied with a request or pass, and if I sent the script and when.  I remember that nearly half of the contacts eventually responded and of those maybe a handful actually requested to read my script.  My experience with query letters has been that I’ve never found representation from a letter and I never garnered a screenplay sale from one either.  You’re up against great odds and it’s a numbers game, but it’s just another method to chip away at the walls of Hollywood.

Now that you’re crafted a perfect query letter, your script needs to be in top shape before you even send out your first letter.  You’ve hyped yourself and your script, and if someone is willing to take a chance and read it, you’d better deliver the goods that you’re selling.  If you send a mediocre script that needs a rewrite, you’ll completely ruin your chances with that contact and that door will close for good.  Learn patience with this whole process, as it’s a long journey and the query letter is just one of the many paths to take.

Make your query letter short, professional and to the point.  If you don’t hear from them in a timely manner, do not follow-up with E-mail or another letter.  It’s an understood rule they will get back to you if they’re interested.  Again, realize that your script is the most important thing to you, but it’s just another script in the pile to them.  Also remember that you’re taking up someone’s time, albeit a few minutes to read your letter, but these are professionals who don’t appreciate amateurs wasting even a minute of their time.  That’s why Hollywood sets up elaborate filters to make it difficult for just anyone to lob a script over the wall.

Query letters are always numbers game at best.  If you can get someone to refer you to an industry contact, you’ll increase your chances of getting your material read because you now have someone vouching for you and your talents.  Take the process seriously.  Your query is your letter of introduction and many times it will be your only chance to garner interest from a particular company.  Hollywood is a business, and like any business it’s made up of connections and networks, so constantly build up your contact list as another important step in your pursuit of a screenwriting career.

Okay, get back to writing.

Scriptcat out!

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