The query is often the only way unrepresented, and under-represented, writers are able to attract attention to their script.
Via email, a query is an inexpensive avenue for contact. The greatest complaint you hear from writers is that no one pays any attention to their concepts or scripts. Managers simply don’t respond to queries, producers and agents ignore emails. Our company, Montivagus Productions, has received countless queries over the years. And we’re only a tiny company. Can you imagine the number of inquiries filling the email boxes of the large production companies, agents or managers?
I am here to level with you, though: The radio silence is not because of the bludgeoning volume of so many queries. It’s because your query sucks.
There should be at least as much advice out there on how to write a query as there is on how to write a screenplay. The query is the first step in a long and arduous process. It has one job—to get someone to request your written material—by presenting the logline and a little info about you. So let’s talk about the query and the adjustments you can make to get it read.
Some of the following missteps may seem painfully obvious, and yet they turn up in queries over and over again. Any one of these 10 gaffes in a query letter will make you look amateurish—or, worse, delusional.
Mistake #10: Declaring that your film will make money.
“This film is guaranteed to make $250 million or more at the box office.”
So with your vast knowledge and psychic powers, you can guarantee financial success? The studios can’t predict what will be a hit, or even what films will make a profit. This ridiculous forecast shows up more often than anyone could imagine, and statements of this kind diminish the overall impact of your query. Leave it out. That’s not something anyone should be predicting at this early stage.
Mistake #9: Declaring that your film has interest from a big name actor or actors.
“Al Pacino, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jennifer Lawrence have said they were interested in making this film.”
If you had real attachments, you wouldn’t be contacting us. And we’ll be the judge of who’s right for the part. This can only distract from the query at an early stage when you want the readers to invest themselves emotionally into the project. One of the ways readers do that is come up with their own ideas about who might be right to portray the characters. Keep your query simple.
Mistake #8: Calling the office.
It’s pretty easy to get someone’s office phone number and address these days, but don’t call or stop by. Send an email. If you call, you’ll get a receptionist or assistant, and pitching them is useless. They already have a lot on their plate, none of which has anything to do with greenlighting films. No matter how scintillating you think your pitch is, their job description includes making sure you never speak directly with the agent or manager or producer you want to pitch to.
Mistake #7: Not researching the company, manager or agent you’re soliciting.
You query a period piece to producers who make contemporary films, or you submit a $100 million concept when their focus is low-budget films, or you submit a low-budget indie concept when they make only high-budget tentpole pictures, or you submit a feature film concept to a manager or agent who only reps TV writers.
Do your research or don’t submit. In order to land a successful query, you must match what you are selling to what that entity is buying, seeking or repping. Otherwise, your query will be ignored. You may think an email doesn’t cost anything, so what the heck, I’ll just send it anyway. But if you want to be respected in this business, then give the respect back.
Mistake #6: Not telling the whole story.
Your query will contain a logline, and the logline is not designed to tell the whole story, so this point is a bit of a cheat. But on very rare occasions, your concept will be too complicated for a logline. If you’re using a very short synopsis in your query, instead of just a logline, then the whole story should be there. You wouldn’t believe how many thrillers, dramas or even comedy queries have a short synopsis that includes the phrase, “And a twist ending that you won’t believe!”
Readers are professionals; you’re not going to ruin a good pitch by telling us the ending. We want it and expect it. If your logline is strong, and you’ve mapped out all of the elements necessary to properly evaluate your story, we’ll take your query more seriously. If you hold back on that “amazing twist,” then we’ll assume that you haven’t thought things through, and therefore will pass.
We don’t like surprises. They’re rarely good.
Mistake #5: Not knowing whether your concept is even viable in the marketplace.
Look at what’s being made and what people are going to see; not just in the short term, but in the long term. There are certain genres that we see being produced over and over again, and some that haven’t been made in decades. Where does your film fall? Producers rarely take a chance on concepts by unknown writers whom they perceive as a high risk. If you want to write a drama about your great uncle’s goat ranch, wonderful, but don’t assume that anyone will care about that story just because you do.
Trying to ride a trend is equally risky. By the time your script is polished and ready to share, that type of film may be stale with producers and audiences have moved on. Know your market and know the limitations of the marketplace.
Mistake #4: Misunderstanding the genre or tone of your concept.
“I’ve written a hilarious family comedy about the real life story of Mary Ellen Smith, who drove her car off the Seven Mile Bridge, committing suicide and drowning her three small children in the process.”
A family comedy? Sounds like a drama to me. A tragic one at that. If this script has the black-comedy sensibilities of the Coen brothers, then that must be conveyed in the logline as well. Or if you’re walking that fine line, you may want to share the genre before the logline to clarify its tone.
Mistake #3: Basing your screenplay on a book, story or an already produced concept you don’t have the rights to.
I’m not going to get into all the legal ramifications of pitching a script you don’t have the rights to, but no one wants to tackle that problem. If the book, article or story is current, and of any interest, a studio will most likely have already secured the rights. Perhaps you’ve stumbled across an obscure graphic novel and thought you’d like to write the screenplay. Do a quick Internet search and find out if one of the major studios has already gobbled up the rights. If not, approach the writer for the rights—but odds are, you’re not going to get it for nothing. Do your job. In other words, if it’s not original, get the rights before you write it and don’t waste your (or our) time.
Mistake #2: Writing a query that is too long.
You have about one to two minutes to get your point across, so if the query is too long, no one will read it. They will stop and trash it. So many people assume that the more they write, the more interested in the project the recipient will be. They write a logline, often bad. Then an outline of the screenplay, often convoluted, and then more about themselves.
Write as little as possible. Less is more.
Before I get to the number one mistake writers make in their query process, I’ll share a bonus mistake. It’s the “I hate the very thing I’m querying about” mistake. Believe it or not, I’ve received more than my fair share of queries in which the writer has stated, “I hate movies today because they don’t make blah blah blah anymore.” Or “I refuse to watch television because everything is blah blah blah today.” Now that really makes me want to read your script.
Mistake #1: Writing a terrible logline.
In his article “I Wrote a 120 Page Script But Can’t Write a Logline: The Construction of a Logline,” independent producer and WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart discusses eloquently what a logline should be:
“A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible. It presents the major through-line of the dramatic narrative without character intricacies and sub-plots. It is the story boiled down to its base. It’s a window into the story. A good logline is one sentence. More complicated screenplays may need a two-sentence logline.
Often, the writer must exhaust all possibilities in order to devise the perfect logline.
A logline must present:
- who the story is about (protagonist)
- what he strives for (goal)
- what stands in his way (antagonistic force).
Sometimes a logline must include a brief set-up. A logline does not tell the entire story. It merely uses these three (sometimes four) major story elements to depict the dramatic narrative in an orderly and lucid manner.
For instance, a logline for The Wizard of Oz may read:
After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.”
Remember that your logline must seem fresh. It can’t be boring, no matter how well-written it is. If it’s stale and boring, it means we’ve seen the elements many times and your screenplay is nothing new.
Example of a Good Email Query to a Manager:
Dear Mr. Williams,
I am currently seeking representation for my new thriller, THE FUGITIVE.
A doctor falsely accused of murdering his wife struggles on the lam as he desperately searches for the real killer with a relentless federal agent hot on his trail.
I am a former FBI Analyst and an avid reader of thrillers. I have combined my experience in both fields to write this screenplay.
May I send you a copy?
Obviously, not everyone is a former FBI employee, or an attorney or brain surgeon, but if you can find one small thing that connects you to the concept, add it. You’re really a salesperson for your script so if you have a little line or two which ties you to the work, put it in. If not, leave it out. (Less is more!)
Bryan W. Simon
February 22, 2016
Dear Mr. Simon,
Since you are a director of independent films, I would like to send you a copy of my latest script, SIERRA PASS. SIERRA PASS is a character driven thriller.
Logline: A disgraced former small town sheriff, now caretaker of a deserted western movie set town struggles to survive when escaped convicts arrive in his isolated town.
I’ve always been a fan of Western and classic noir films and have combined these two genres into SIERRA PASS.
May I send you a copy?
Peter B. Williams
The query is the first and perhaps only introduction you will have to your script, and the most important step in getting your screenplay some attention. If the screenplay is brilliant and the query bad, you’re no further ahead than if you hadn’t written a screenplay at all. MM
Bryan W. Simon is an award-winning director, writer and educator. Simon directed the big-screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway play, Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!, and the comedy documentary I’m No Dummy, as well as indie feature Along For The Ride. Simon and is the co-producer of the Seminar Series presented by The American Cinematheque in Hollywood. Visit bryanwsimon.com