Updated: May 14
The QUERY LETTER is not dead.
Let me say that again. The query letter is NOT dead.
There is nothing I am more passionate about in this industry than the power of the query letter.
It breaks my heart that so many writers are told that 1) the query letter is no longer relevant, and 2) no one reads query letters.
My theory behind the naysayers? They do not want you unlocking the power of the mighty query letter.
With everything being online due to Covid-19 and social distancing, there's never been a better time to write a query letter.
The query letter, in essence, is all we have as screenwriters to accompany our scripts.
I have spoken at conferences, panels, and festivals where I was only allotted 3-5 minutes to speak, and I monopolized my entire time talking about query letters. There was always one person who shared the stage that shook their head, disagreeing. Oh, well.
I have written numerous articles on this subject, and no matter who I have interviewed on my blog, I always squeeze in this one question: Do you think the query letter works? I will share some of their answers throughout this series.
I even went so far to debate former MGM executive and author of best-selling book GOOD IN A ROOM, Stephanie Palmer, after she wrote a blog on her site in 2015: The Great Query Letter Hoax. She and I engaged in a friendly debate, which was later published by Creative Screenwriting Magazine, garnering tons of reads. (I’ll be referencing portions of the article at the end.)
While I hold Stephanie and her site Good In A Room in the highest esteem, and to a certain extent understand her viewpoint, at the end of the day, she has been notably removed from MGM (studio system) for a little bit. I don’t believe she appreciates the way in which producers, especially indie and international ones, search for content in 2020. The studio system is dead, and her experience stems from working with MGM, which had to file for bankruptcy not too long ago.
1% (your major studios) access material the old-fashion way: word-of-mouth. The other 99% (all other producers) use the internet to discover new material and aspiring writers.
This day and age, whether you live in the heart of Hollywood or all the way in Bulgaria, query letters are used to get the ball rolling.
The way in which a producer searches for material has changed vastly. One can either accept this theory or dismiss it, but the facts can’t be ignored.
In a little over 7 years, I have shared well-over 1,500 screenplay requests with screenwriters. These are requests coming directly from industry professionals seeking new material -- this could be a feature, tele-movie, pilot, short, or web-series.
Not a single one has requested a script without a query letter.
Let me repeat that:
Not one of the 1,500+ producers, agents, directors, managers, and actors who have posted with me has ever produced a script without first seeing a query letter. This includes companies as big as NBCUniversal, to special effects giant Luma Pictures, all the way down the totem pole to a USC film student searching for a starter project for their thesis.
Competitor sites also live and die by the query letter.
Don’t believe me?
Go through the collection of screenwriting sites with screenplay requests.
Want to submit to them?
But they will only accept a properly-written query letter with a strict word count.
So what is a query letter?
A query letter is your cover letter. It is your way of introducing your script to an interested buyer.
Hollywood has a lot of problems. But their greatest problem is time. They have none. And when they do have time, which is slim, it’s not being used to read. If Hollywood-types were interested in reading for a living, they would have gone into journalism, sociology, law, or education.
Legitimate industry buyers and decision-makers can not read 2000+ scripts a week. They hardly have enough time to read the ones going into production. Why? Because they are in the business of making movies, not publishing words. But they do understand that all great movies start with a story.
A query letter quickly and effectively gives them an overview of your script.
A query letter is similar to your online profile on a dating site. It’s the cover letter before the resume. It's the book cover for a novel. It’s the invitation to the big dinner party you are throwing.
It is, in essence, your first impression. And what were we taught at a very young age? First impressions matter. Writing a compelling query letter opens doors. It’s 25% of a sale. Sometimes even higher.
Steven Spielberg says he buys 95% of his projects based on concept.
Did you hear that?
That means he knows he can hire a writer to re-work the structure and spruce up characters in your script. But it’s concepts that Hollywood lacks -- so they jump at the opportunity to option/ and produce new and innovative stories.
A query letter is your script’s concept, shrunk to about a half a page.
I optioned my feature script COLOR BLIND to the producer of 'Dillinger & Capone', 'The Flight of the Dove' back in 2013. He optioned the script based off the query letter alone. He didn’t even finish the script until weeks later.
I interviewed a business partner and industry friend of mine several years ago regarding query letters. Ashley Scott Meyers, Founder of Selling Your Screenplay, sold his first feature, DISH DOGS (starring Sean Astin & Matthew Lillard), by submitting his query letter to an advert on the back of an entertainment trade magazine back in the 90’s. Full article.
Have an IMDb Pro account? Take a gander at Screenwriting Staffing's. All those scripts, either optioned, in development, or produced, started with a query letter. Ink Tip has been around since 2002. They boast 300 produced feature films. How did those start? From a single query letter.
Query letters are pop quizzes. It’s to see if you can adequately pare down your story in just a few sentences, getting to the brass tacks. It’s designed to see if 1) you understand your story, 2) if it’s high concept enough to be pitched in 30 seconds, and 3) that it has the potential to resonate with the masses.
During an interview on my blog, Robert Tobin, former development executive and author of How to Write High-Structure, High-Concept Screenplays, had this to say about being pitched to:
“It’s a test. If you can’t convey the essence of your story in one or (at most) two sentences, then it may not be structurally sound. A great one- or two-sentence logline indicates that the essence of your story is strong, and that you know what that essence is. If you don’t know your script well enough to pitch it in a sentence, then I probably won’t want to read your script after reading your query letter.“ Full interview.
If this doesn't seem fair, consider this: why would a producer think you can structurally and effectively tell a 90-minute story if you can’t structurally compose a half-page query letter?
Query letters allow you to showcase your creative writing in a very short period of time.
This all boils down to one thing: the goal of a query letter (or "in person" pitch) is to sell the script before they even read the script. Your query letter should be so convincing that they are already prepared to buy the script. Reading the script, at this point, will just solidify the deal.
So how does one write a query letter that garners a sale or warrants a read?
Let’s use this advert as an example:
John Smith, with Hollywood Production Company, is seeking a high-concept, contained DRAMA screenplay, with a limited size cast. Script should be in the vein of “Primer” and “The Brothers McMullen”. We prefer scripts that can be made for UNDER 2M. We will accept both WGA and NON-WGA writers, but we will only review submissions from writers with produced credits.
Never start off by saying “Dear Producer” or “To Whom It May Concern”. Most major platforms that connect writers with buyers provide the full name of the producer. Even if you are sending a blind query, where maybe you found the producer's information on IMDb or Linkedin, ALWAYS greet the person by name.
Next, tell the producer where you found them. If you are sending a blind query, this may not be needed. But if you are applying to an advert on my site, start by saying where you found them. This is important because writers are constantly collecting emails and sending query letters to producers randomly. This tells the producer you found them and their ad through a vetted service.
Since the producer is seeking a DRAMA, there’s no point in submitting anything other than a drama. Since this specific producer references 2 movies, take a look at their genres and sub-genres. PRIMER, for instance, is a drama-thriller. So if you have a thriller with dramatic elements, you should go ahead and submit. Always, always list your TITLE and GENRE.
The best screenwriters think like producers (refer to why you should work on-set). Grab the producer’s attention by referencing something in that ad. This producer wants something that’s limited location with a small cast. If your script falls into this category, say it right out of the gate.
A producer always appreciates material that has been vetted. This is where you would mention if the script has won any awards, received positive coverage, endorsed by someone important, and/or been optioned before.
Weak loglines make for weak scripts. There’s no way of skirting the issue.
So how would this look on paper?
Dear John Smith,
I saw on Screenwriting Staffing’s Screenplay Search Board that you were seeking a high-concept contained drama screenplay that can be made for under 2MM. I would like to submit my thriller-drama, SCRIPT TITLE, for your consideration.
SCRIPT TITLE takes place in only 3 locations, with a small, diverse cast. SCRIPT TITLE won best screenplay at Final Draft’s BIG BREAK CONTEST this year.
Furthermore, SCREENPLAYREADERS.COM gave the script a recommend.
The logline is the most crucial part of the pitch. It’s the spine of the query letter -- this will either make or break your query letter.
Loglines take time to master, but it’s worth the training. If you are unable to sell your story in one sentence, how do you expect producers to sell your story to investors?
Let’s first define a logline. A logline is a one to two sentence version of your 100+ page screenplay. Many experts describe it as the mini description in the TV Guide. Since the Guide is now dead, think of it as the blurb you find under Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Redbox. Your logline should resonate and reverberate in every single page of your screenplay. Your logline is the answer when someone ask you that banal question: “What’s your script about?”
What your logline should include:
PROTAGONIST. This is your main character, your hero. The person we want to win. This should be established right off the bat. Even if your main character is an anti-hero, the whole logline should center around that character.
ANTAGONIST. The person standing in your protagonist’s way. The person we are supposed to loathe. Without this character, your story would be boring. Don’t be afraid to identify this character in your logline.
GOAL. This is what your protagonist is trying to obtain, accomplish. This is the goal that drives the 2nd act, the meat of your story.
OBSTACLE. This is where you list the central problem your character will face when trying to achieve their goal.
WHAT’S AT STAKE. If your hero doesn’t win, what’s on the line? Will the world be the same? Will your hero lose the love of his/her life? Will your hero lose the big game and not get the scholarship?
OTHER. Brilliant loglines also, while subtly, include GENRE, SETTING, THE HOOK, and CONFLICT. A logline that can sneak 1 of these four into the logline tend to garner the most interest.
There are times when adding your SUPPORTING CHARACTER/SIDEKICK works -- think Batman and Robin type story.
Loglines should NEVER exceed 70 words. At Screenwriting Staffing, writers are not allowed to submit loglines over 70. Sites like INK TIP require 60 or less. While most sites meet in the middle at about 65 words, most experts would tell you that the best loglines, the ones that sell in Hollywood, should be between 30-45 words. I strongly AGREE.
Let’s break down 4 loglines that were under 30 words -- not to mention all 4 films won Oscars.
ROCKY (1976): A small-time boxer [PROTAGONIST] gets a supremely rare chance to fight [OBSTACLE] a heavyweight champion [ANTAGONIST] in a bout in which he strives [OBSTACLE] to go the distance [GOAL] for his self-respect [STAKES]. 27 words.
THE REVENANT (2015): A frontiersman [PROTAGONIST] on a fur trading expedition [GENRE] in the 1820s [SETTING] fights for survival [GOAL] after being mauled by a bear [CONFLICT] and left for dead [OBSTACLE] by members of his own hunting team [ANTAGONIST]. 30 words.
DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012): With the help of a German bounty hunter [SIDE KICK], a freed slave [PROTAGONIST] sets out to rescue [GOAL, GENRE] his wife from a brutal [CONFLICT, OBSTACLE] Mississippi [SETTING] plantation owner [ANTAGONIST]. 23 words.
TITANIC (1997): A seventeen-year-old aristocrat [PROTAGONIST] falls in love [GENRE] with a kind, but poor artist aboard [CONFLICT] the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic [SETTING & THE HOOK]. 22 words.
Now that we know what a successful logline looks like, here are ten things to remember when writing your logline:
-- Never, ever give away the ending in the logline. The logline is meant to hook the listener. The goal: get them to want more.
-- Many experts suggest the purpose of a logline is to keep the reader on a path when reading the script. I agree 100%. But I’ll take it a step further. It’s also meant to keep you, as the writer, on path when writing. You should already have a preliminary logline completed before writing your script. Yes, once your script is completed, you will be able to compose a better one.
-- Have more than 1 logline. No, this does not mean to send 5 different loglines to a producer. But you should have several so you can see which one sticks. Tailor a logline to fit a specific producer. You should have one go-to logline, though.
-- Avoid using a character’s name. We do not know who the characters are yet, so we have no connection. Use words, like referenced above, such as: frontiersman, boxer, bounty hunter. If the person is historical, then yes, use their name.
-- Show them you are a wordsmith by using strong and active verbs. Also, stay away from cliché lines like: better late than never, being down in the dumps, as luck would have it, fish out of water, have the last laugh, and in the nick of time. These, among others, have been used a million times in loglines. If this is all you can come up with, then I already dread reading your script.
-- Loglines require re-writes -- a lot of them. Just like you wouldn’t send your script out to a producer after the first draft (at least I hope not), the same goes with a logline.
-- Always check for grammatical errors and typos. Your logline is the first thing they see. Grammatical errors here and there in scripts will be overlooked. Rarely will they be ignored in a query letter (again, first impressions).
-- Remember, loglines aren’t just for writers. An agent/manager will need a logline to pitch to their producer friends. Their producer friends will want a logline to pitch to their investors. Once the film is made, they will need a logline to use when advertising. When your film wins a major award at a festival, they will need a logline to put online and in the brochure. When the film is listed on IMDb or a similar site, it will require a logline under the poster. It's all about marketing, similar to what I'm doing with my pitch deck for DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA.
-- When all else fails, focus on these 3 questions: Who is the hero? What does your hero want? What’s at stake if your hero doesn’t get it?
-- If you ignore all the other bullet points, please pay attention to this at least: A logline is not a tagline. JUNGLE BOOK (2016) (according to IMDb) TAGLINE: “The legend will never be the same!” LOGLINE: “The man-cub Mowgli flees the jungle after a threat from the tiger Shere Khan. Guided by Bagheera the panther and the bear Baloo, Mowgli embarks on a journey of self-discovery, though he also meets creatures who don’t have his best interests at heart.” Understand the difference? Good!
Here is the synopsis for BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee.
It’s the early 1970s, a time of great social upheaval as the struggle for civil rights rages on. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department, but his arrival is greeted with skepticism and open hostility by the department’s rank and file. Undaunted, Stallworth resolves to make a name for himself and a difference in his community. He bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan.
Posing as a racist extremist, Stallworth contacts the group and soon finds himself invited into its inner circle. He even cultivates a relationship with the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), who praises Ron’s commitment to the advancement of White America. With the undercover investigation growing ever more complex, Stallworth’s colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), poses as Ron in face-to-face meetings with members of hate group, gaining insider’s knowledge of a deadly plot. Together, Stallworth and Zimmerman team up to take down the organization whose real aim is to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream.
If there is one single debate on screenwriting forums and social media pages that gets everyone all revved up, it’s how a synopsis should end. Some say you MUST give away your ending; some say NEVER give away the ending. I have a theory that upsets everyone. Do both.
Write your synopsis in a way that when they get to the end, they have a general idea what might (or will) happen, but in order to find out for sure, they must take a read. You know what is even more rewarding? When the producer goes into it thinking they know the ending, and BOOM! The twist. This always excites readers.
In any case, you have pitched your story from start to end. So, if they wanted, they could lock you in now. But you’ve also left enough intrigue to warrant a read.
Just like with loglines, there seems to be a universal rule of thumb with word count. Most online platforms subscribe to around 500. Some will allow up to 750 (which I believe is way too long), while others want under 250 words.
As I say throughout this entire industry series, less is more. Say as much as possible with the least amount of words --- again, we are in the business of entertaining people visually, not verbally.
8 tips for creating a robust synopsis:
-- Take us on the hero’s journey. Introduce us to the hero (it’s now okay to say his/her name), hit every turning point, tell us what’s at stake, and what your hero will do in order to succeed. Only hit the high points; don’t get bogged down with details.
-- Don’t list anything that you wouldn’t list in your script. For example, don’t tell us what the hero is thinking; don’t tell us how it smells or feels. Talk to us the same way as you did while writing the script.
-- Avoid using a character’s dialogue in the script. If you are writing a script about someone famous, then yes; otherwise, we don’t know who these characters are yet, the context of the line, or if subtext was indented.
-- Distill your script down to only the most essential factors of the script. Maybe you are like me? When I drive to the store I pretend my script has been made, and I’m now watching the trailer play in my head. Think of your synopsis like a trailer -- what are the most important parts? What would you show to get people to pay $14 to see your film? This is what you want in your synopsis. As I alluded to on the power of short scripts, I created a short film as a pitch for my feature. The short was meant as a "trailer" for the full story in the feature.
-- Remember, a synopsis is not a treatment. Treatments, under no circumstances, leave cliffhangers and twists -- it’s straight to the point. Your synopsis is meant to take them on an exciting journey. The first time your synopsis becomes dull, they won’t take time to read the script.
-- Write 5-10 summaries. Have writer friends and family read it. See if they understand your story. If they come back to you with questions, something isn’t working. This also comes in handy when pitching to different producers. For instance, let's you have a horror script. You write a very scary synopsis. But a producer posts a lead where they are seeking a thriller with horror elements. At this time, you will want to tailor a synopsis that shows the thrill factors of your script, while sprinkling in enough horror to appease the producer.
-- I believe spacing is also crucial; in a synopsis. You only have half of a page to pitch your entire query letter, but try not to group more than 3 sentences. White space is king. It also makes for an easier read. Same goes with scripts. You can read more about white space here.
-- Lastly, just like I alluded to in the introduction piece, try to use keywords that the producer posted in your synopsis. Using the above advert as an example, if your script has a few characters, make sure to say something like “4 people trapped in an elevator”. You have now suggested to the producer your script matches their limited character count needs.
Check out IMDb, Simply Scripts, or your favorite movie’s official site to read what a film's synopsis looks like. If you still own DVDs, pull out your favorite movies and see how they pitched it on the back. You will also see there are no spoilers. In other words, they didn't tell you the ending.
Bio’s are important and oftentimes forgotten. A bio, like your intro, should be minimal, but still pack a punch.
The bio is not meant to pitch your story; it’s to prove your worth, add incentive, and show you are relevant.
It’s important to only hit the high points of your career. You aren’t applying for a screenwriting job, so if you bury the producer with where you grew up, your lengthy education, and 30+ credits, you can kiss the deal goodbye.
Here are 7 of the best things to list:
-- Produced work. Do not list all of your produced projects. Choose 2, at the most.
-- If you just completed a writing assignment, you should list this. It shows you have a good track record working with producers.
-- If you haven’t had any produced projects or writing assignments, list some of the top contests your script has placed in or won.
-- If none of the above apply to you, list your education. If your training is not film/screenwriting related, only list it if it goes hand-and-hand with your script. For instance, if your movie is a medical-drama, and you have a nursing degree, list it!
-- If you still can’t add any of this to your bio, let the producer know why you are qualified to write the story you want them to read. If this is a war film, and you were stationed in Iraq for 2 years, tell the producer why that experience inspired you to write this script. If you have a baseball film and you played at the collegiate level, let the producer know. Just by telling the producer these basic details gives the producer confidence that your story has some merit.
-- Just like the intro and synopsis, your bio should mirror the advert. If the producer is only seeking produced writers, it’s imperative you list your produced credits. If the writer wants only non-WGA writers to apply, list this in your bio. If, for any reason, the producer only wants to work with writers in Los Angeles, you should say something along the lines of: "I am an award-winning screenwriter based in Los Angeles.”
-- Above all, links to your work are the best. IMDb is the most popular. If you have a professional site, that works too. Twitter and LinkedIn can be useful, but only if you keep your posts professional. If you reference a produced film in your bio, have a hyperlink to the movie’s official page or trailer.
The simplest of them all. Close by thanking the producer for their time, remind them you can send the copyrighted script over as soon as possible, and close with a “sincerely” followed by your FULL NAME, EMAIL ADDRESS, and PHONE NUMBER.
Here are 5 questions I am often asked when sending a query letter.
Can I send more than one logline? Yes, but it’s not strongly advised. But only 2. Never send more. It shows you are inexperienced and have a bunch of ideas, but no sales. Each query letter should feature one main idea. If you want to add another “script” in, make sure it meets the producer’s requirements. Instead of writing 2 query letters, at the end of your first synopsis or after your bio, say something to the effect of: if “blank” script doesn’t fit your needs, I would like to pitch “blank” script, enter logline, then close it out.
When do I follow up on a query letter? NEVER. If you are submitting to a screenwriting lead, you are seeking them out, not the other way around. If they come to you asking for a query letter, follow-up after 1-2 weeks.
Should I mention that my script is a cross between 2 films? This is another topic that’s oftentimes debated. If you choose to do this, consider doing it at the start or end of the synopsis, not in the intro. I know you see this a lot, probably on Facebook groups and Reddit -- but these are usually filmmakers or producers pitching their pitch deck to investors. Take mine. 'BONNIE & CLYDE' MEETS 'MAN ON FIRE'. I include this in my pitch deck, but not until 7 slides down.
Should I list my copyright #? NO. This should not even be included on your title page of your script, let alone your query letter. This screams amateur.
If we have a mutual friend, should I list this? NO. If you have a mutual friend and you feel the relationship is solid, have your friend make the introduction. That will improve your chances of getting a response.
What if someone steals my idea? I think Ashley Scott Meyers said it best in my interview with him:
“Amateur writers greatly overvalue their ideas. Great ideas are not what’s in short supply in Hollywood. What’s in short supply are great ideas executed in a well written screenplay. Agents and producers aren’t interested in stealing ideas. They’re interested in reading well written screenplays and building relationships with writers who can consistently produce them. You can’t steal that. If all you have is one great idea that someone can steal, you’re not a screenwriter and you are in the wrong business.”
I’ll add to this by saying you can have the greatest story in the world, but if no one knows it exists, how will it ever be produced?
So now that we know how to write a query letter, what else can a query letter do?
It can help you pitch in person.
I would recommend reading the whole interview, but I wanted to provide an excerpt from my interview with Stephanie Palmer.
Here is what she says and where we both agree:
“I’m not a historian, but the query letter has had a long history in the novel world, and as I’ve said, query letters can work for novels but not screenplays. While I don’t know the history of the query letter in Hollywood, I can state that I first read query letters as an intern at Marty Katz Productions in 1997 and there hasn’t been a time in my experience between 1997-2015 where they have worked. Hollywood is a competitive business and it’s a relationship business. It’s not fair but that’s how it is. Use a strategy that’s been proven to work, develop your relationships, and leverage them. That’s how you become a full-time, successful, professional writer.”
I know what Stephanie is trying to say -- and yes, it makes sense. She’s right.
But let’s look at it this way. Let’s say that writing a query letter does not work, and it is a waste of time.
While I strongly diagree, I agree entirely that personal relationships are the best way to facilitate a sale. Where can you meet decision-makers? Film festivals, film commissions, working on-set, writers conferences, panels, industry mixers, pitch-fests, award ceremonies -- even at a bar.
So let’s say you are at a film festival, chit-chatting over cocktails with a Los-Angeles based producer. The producer asks you what you are working on?
Beautiful. Here is your chance.
You would first introduce the project. You’re not going to dive into the specifics, you’re still not sure if the producer is just making small talk.
YOU: Just completed a comedy-drama script; it’s similar to FEVER PITCH in the sense that it shows how baseball can bring two people together, but has a DRIVING MISS DAISY undertone since the two characters are different races and come from different social statuses.
PRODUCER: Seems interesting. Where’s the film set?
YOU: It’s set in Boston. It follows…. INSERT LOGLINE.
PRODUCER. That’s quite something. What’s the story really about?
YOU: INSERT "CONDENSED" SYNOPSIS.
PRODUCER: I have a producer friend that is looking for a baseball film to shoot this summer. Most likely, I will be co-producing the film with her. I’d love to take a read if you don't mind,
YOU: Excellent! Thank you so much. Here is my information (hand over a business card). You can also find more about me online, as well as my last feature film (insert bio and your previous film).
Sounds a lot like a query letter, huh?
Will this be precisely how a conversation starts and ends? No. But this should serve as an excellent example of why even writing a query letter can help you.
Your in-person pitch won’t be as formal as your query letter. But in essence, what you are doing is pitching your story and yourself in the same manner you did when writing your query. You are giving this producer enough information and intrigue to request the script for a read formally.
Not every screenwriter will have the opportunity to make this connection in person. That’s why a query letter is so important. It’s a way to reach out to industry professionals seeking material (from all over the world) who also use the internet (which makes up over 99.9%) to find new material.
To close this series out, I wanted to quickly talk about pitching your script in a meeting.
-- Never, ever start by saying this movie will “make them rich” or “change their lives”. You need them, not the other way around. If you don’t need their money, then make the movie yourself.
-- You are not a car salesman. Be sincere but confident. Be casual, but professional. They need to know you believe in your project, but they also want someone open-minded, flexible, and passionate. Hollywood is all about relationships. If you aren’t someone easy to work with, you will never work a day in your life.
-- How pitch should mirror your genre. If it’s a comedy, you better make sure that the people you are pitching to laugh. If it’s an action-thriller, you should speak with command and urgency.
-- Don’t just jump into the pitch. Take time to make small conversation. Introduce yourself, get everyone’s name in the room. Thank them for allowing you to tell them about your story. Feel the room out. Do they have a photo next to Tiger Woods on the wall? Maybe quickly talk GOLF. This will lighten the room.
-- Always find a better genre. For instance, you may say your film is a DRAMA. Okay -- what kind of drama? A coming-of-age drama? That’s where they roll their eyes. That can mean anything. Find sub-genres and hybrids. If it’s a drama, try saying: guy-cry drama, tearjerker drama, melodrama, slice of life drama, true crime drama, euro-spy drama, inter-racial drama. Get the point?
-- Never underestimate the person checking you in. This could be the receptionist, assistant, intern -- anyone. These will be Hollywood’s future executives.
-- Do not boast about all the people who have been interested thus far. For starters, why aren’t they producing this project? Secondly, it’s essential to make them feel important. You came to them, and no one else.
-- Always have a second script to pitch. If you can read the room and they are clearly unimpressed, ask if you can talk about another project you are working on.
-- Once you pitch your script and the meeting has concluded, don’t continue pitching. You will sound desperate and overeager.
-- Understand you are not the only writer pitching.
-- Be there early, just not too early.
-- If you do not do anything right during the meeting, make sure you are at least friendly and easy-going. This might just land you another meeting the next time you have something that fits their needs. Be yourself!
I have often heard professors, screenwriting gurus, and other industry minds suggest to bring props, visuals, and papers to hand out.
My thoughts? I’d like to end this series by sharing a personal story:
In early 2016, I was invited for an interview at the CNN building, where ZEE TV has an office. It was to be a writer on their new show. A day before the interview, the associate producer told me that the executive producer, who would be the one conducting the interview, was also looking for low-budget feature projects to produce in India that would eventually stream on their network. She told me if I had anything to come prepared to pitch. She ended by reminding me to bring my resume.
I took an Uber so I could prepare on the way there. I stopped at a FedEx on Sunset and Vine, near the CNN building, to print out my resume. It dawned on me to also print out both query letters for my scripts.
So I did.
I got to the interview, and we discussed my writing abilities, my take on their new show, what I could offer, pay rates -- all of that fun stuff. The interview went great, and we were all but short of a handshake to make the deal final.
The associate producer told the executive that I had a couple of scripts to pitch.
I had my pitches already memorized. I’ve pitched these scripts before.
But this time, before starting my pitch, I handed both the producers my two query letters.
As I started in on my verbal pitch, I noticed their eyes were focused on the papers, not me. It distracted me because what I was saying was different than what was on the document (what was on paper was more formal). I stopped a few times, trying to remember what to say. I noticed they hadn't looked up. I took a drink of water and continue. I stumbled over my words a lot and finally stopped halfway through and asked them if they had any questions.
They kindly looked up and said, “No, we will be in touch.” I never heard back.
On my way home, I knew exactly what I did wrong. I gave them something to do during the pitch, which meant their focus was not on me. In hindsight, I should have left them the query letters after I pitched so they had something to reference. Before is, I never handed out a query letter (or pitch deck/show bible) before pitching in person. But since this was parlayed with an interview, and I was already told to bring a resume, I decided why not?
Later that evening, I had coffee with a director friend of mine. He told me he made the same mistake once after pitching a film to MaraVista. He said he had his proof of concept and visuals all laid out on the table, and instead of them listening to his vision and what he could bring to the table, they were more focused on the material given to them.
Lesson learned? The only thing executives should be focused on during your pitch is you and nothing else. Do not give them any reason to turn their focus from you and what you are saying.
I’m now in the process of pitching my feature film to investors (I'm the director and writer). With quarantine, most of my meetings have been conducted over Zoom. I send them the pitch deck first, but not how to buy investment units. They have an understanding of the story prior to our meeting. I don’t want them to think about numbers yet. I want them to think about the story. Are they attracted to it? Do they think people will buy tickets? Would they like their name associated with it? The answer is usually yes, or we wouldn’t even be talking over Zoom. Now that I have their interest, I will then speak about investments (it’s low budget, so it’s not like I’m startling them with figures). The point is, it’s all about practice, and the more I pitch, the more I improve.
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Article was written by Jacob N. Stuart.
Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenwriters and screenplays with film and television entertainment professionals. Since 2013, Jacob has helped facilitate over 250 success stories (sales, options, hires, and representation), most notably a Christmas movie produced by Hallmark in 2017. Here is a small list: www.imdb.com/search/title/?companies=co0524287
Jacob is also an award-winning and produced screenwriter, with over a decade of film experience. His films have been screened at theaters across the globe, as well as distributed traditionally through dvd/blu-ray. He currently has 3 films (2 features, 1 short) on VOD, including the award-winning film AN ADDICTING PICTURE. He holds a Bachelors in both Film and Entertainment Business from The Los Angeles Film School. He has also written for other top industry publications, including Final Draft, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and MovieMaker Magazine.
He currently teaches film ethics/theory at Westinghouse Arts Academy online part-time.
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