top of page

Weak Query Letters Make For Weak Scripts

Updated: May 1, 2023


Article 6 of our 10-part Screenwriting Staffing Industry Series explains why a query letter can make or break your screenplay. To stay current, join our mailing list.


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. Or? Are just simply of touch with the modern-day industry.


As writers, we've witnessed firsthand the impact of Covid-19 and social distancing on the entertainment industry in 2020-2022. These times have taught us the importance of finding innovative ways to connect with decision-makers and stand out in a crowded market. That's why I STILL believe, even way before Covid-19, that crafting compelling query letters is the most effective way to pitch our stories and capture the attention of agents, producers, and executives.

In essence, the query letter serves as the vital companion to our scripts as screenwriters. Ultimately, it's all we're left with when the day is done.

I've graced the stage at esteemed conferences, panels, and festivals, armed with a mere 3-5 minutes to share my intellectual musings. Yet, I unapologetically dedicated my entire time talking about the art of query letters. Invariably, a fellow stage-sharer would cast a disapproving headshake my way. Guest what? Who cares! One cannot fulfill every cerebral appetite.


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.

Wikipedia - MGM

I once engaged in a spirited exchange through my blog with former MGM executive and best-selling author of GOOD IN A ROOM, Stephanie Palmer, following her 2015 blog post titled "The Great Query Letter Hoax." Our cordial conversation went viral and then caught the attention of Creative Screenwriting Magazine, which later published our debate, attracting a mountain of readers.


I still stand firm in my belief, which has been honed and tested over time. Yet, it's equally important to hear from someone with a past executive position, such as Stephanie Palmer, and her theories on the internet and query letters.


In this chapter, though, I aim to shed light on the significance of the query letter in the screenwriting industry through my own experiences and insights from fellow professionals.

However, I strongly advise you to stay until the end for my closing statement, where I will explore the debate and present both sides for you to weigh and make an informed decision.

But first, let's unravel the true essence of a query letter, and why it's so damn important.

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 don't have any. 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 provides a quick and impactful summary of your script.


A query letter can be likened to an online dating profile, a cover letter preceding a resume, a book cover introducing a novel, or an invitation extended for a wedding.

It is essentially your initial introduction, and as we have been taught since a young age, first impressions carry weight. Crafting a captivating query letter can unlock opportunities as it constitutes a significant portion of a sale, often up to 25% or more.

Steven Spielberg reportedly acquires 95% of his projects based on their concept or idea, not the actual script.


Did you hear that?


This implies that in Hollywood there is a high demand for fresh and unique concepts, as script revisions and character development can always be improved by hired writers. This means that Hollywood is always on the lookout for the opportunity to option and produce new and innovative stories. Essentially, what Hollywood is investing in are ideas. While everything under the sun has been done before, what sets your idea apart is your unique perspective on it. It's this unique take that directors and producers will take and make their own.


One of my favorite interviews of all time was with Dougie Brimson. Dougie is a multi-published, best-selling author, and increasingly sought after screenwriter, best known for penning the highly popular, award-winning Green Street Hooligans (starring Elijah Wood). Dougie is one of the UK’s most prolific writers.


We covered a wide range of topics, including age discrimination, staying true to your story, and the possibility of it being changed. Here's an excerpt:

"It’s about the story, so tell the bloody story! Until a director comes on board a script, it is only a route map anyway, because what’ll end up on screen is almost certainly going to be closer to their version of your story than yours. When a director becomes involved, the script will immediately become their baby, not yours, and you, as writers, will have to relinquish a parentage of it. That’s never easy at the best."

That being said, it's important to understand that people in the industry will read your script, but ultimately, it's the concept they are after. They will take your idea and inevitably put their own spin on it.


A query letter is your script’s concept, shrunk to about a half a page to a page.


I optioned my feature script COLOR BLIND to Christian Peschken, producer of 'Dillinger & Capone,' and 'The Flight of the Dove', back in 2013. He signed the contract and optioned the script solely based on the query letter. He only read the full script weeks later.


A well-written query letter can be crucial in getting your script noticed by a producer or executive. This is demonstrated by my example of a successful producer who optioned a script based solely on the strength of the query letter (concept), without even reading the full screenplay. It underscores the importance of effectively and concisely conveying the unique concept of your script in a query letter, as it can be the key to opening doors and making a lasting impression.


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 (Variety) back in the 90’s. You can read the Full article. Because of his overwhelming success with query letters, I asked him why the doubters?


"I’m surprised anyone doubts the value of query letters. It boggles my mind. As for why people don’t like to send them, I’m honestly not sure. I have a couple of ideas, though. First, I think a lot of people feel strange about sending an email to someone they don’t know and they worry that it will annoy them. Anyone who knows anything about sales and marketing knows you have to get over this fear. In my experience in sending out hundreds of thousands of query letters, it’s very rare that someone writes back annoyed.


There are two big mistakes when sending out query letters: The first issue is that the logline and query letter are not well written. These producers and agents see tons of pitches so you’ve got to stand out with quality of your writing. The second issue is one of volume. I get emails from people who have sent out 10, 50 query letters and when no one responds they think that means query letters don’t work. The more you send the better chance you have of finding someone who wants to read your screenplay."

IMDb - Google Play

If you have an IMDb Pro account, be sure to check out Screenwriting Staffing's page. All of the scripts listed - whether they are optioned, in development, or produced - began with a well-crafted query letter.

The process of crafting a query letter can be likened to a pop quiz - it tests your ability to effectively summarize your story in just a few sentences and get straight to the core of the story. The purpose of this is to evaluate three key factors: first, whether you truly comprehend the essence of your story; second, whether it has a high enough concept to be pitched in as little as 30 seconds; and finally, whether it possesses the potential to appeal to a broad audience.

During an interview on my blog, Robert Tobin, former motion picture development executive and author of How to Write High-Structure, High-Concept Screenplays, explained why he requests writers to provide him with a logline:

“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.


Ultimately, the objective of a query letter or an "in person" pitch is to persuade the reader or listener to buy the script even before they've had a chance to read it. A well-written query letter should be so effective that it convinces the person to make a purchase. Subsequently, reading the script would simply serve as a formality to seal the deal.


How does one go about crafting a query letter that not only captures the recipient's attention but also motivates them to make a purchase or at least read the script?


Let’s use this advert as an example:

John Smith, with Hollywood Production Company, is actively searching for a contained, high-concept DRAMA screenplay with a small cast, similar in style to "Primer" and "The Brothers McMullen." The production budget should not exceed $2 million. While they are open to both WGA and non-WGA writers, only writers with prior produced credits will be considered.

INTRODUCTION


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.


Afterward, it's important to indicate where you found the producer. If you're sending a blind query, this may not be necessary. However, if you're responding to an ad on my site, it's essential to mention that in your initial contact. This detail carries weight because writers are known to compile lists of email addresses and send query letters to producers at random. Identifying that you found them and their advertisement through a reputable service indicates to the producer that your query is a genuine attempt to connect with them.


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 science fiction drama. So if you have a sci-fi with dramatic elements, you should go ahead and submit. Always, always list your TITLE and GENRE.


One key aspect of being a successful screenwriter is to approach your work from a producer's perspective, which is why I have and will keep pounding away on the benefits of working on-set or in a production office. To grab a producer's attention, it's crucial to reference specific details from their advertisement. For example, if the producer is seeking a script with a limited location and a small cast, make it clear from the outset if your script fits those criteria.


It's also important to note that producers tend to appreciate material that has already been reviewed , so highlighting any awards, positive chatter, endorsements from reputable sources, or previous options or sales can greatly enhance the script's appeal.


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 recently came across your advertisement on Screenwriting Staffing's Screenplay Search Board seeking a high-concept sci-fi drama screenplay that can be produced for under $2MM. I am excited to submit my thriller-drama, "SCRIPT TITLE," for your consideration.


"SCRIPT TITLE" is an engaging and thought-provoking story that takes place in just three locations and features a diverse cast of characters. I am also excited to share that this script was awarded Best Screenplay at Final Draft's Big Break Contest earlier this year. Furthermore, SCREENPLAYREADERS.COM gave the script a recommend.

LOGLINE


The logline is the backbone of the pitch, and arguably the most crucial element of the query letter. It can either make or break the success of 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?


Back in 2014, I spoke with Douglas King shortly after he published his book Loglines: The Long and Short on Writing Strong Loglines. When I asked him if loglines were the most important part of the query letter, he said:


"Yes, it is. Most producers and production companies will not accept unsolicited screenplays, but through services such as Screenwriting Staffing and others, writers have an opportunity to reach these very same producers. Read almost any post on SS and you will find that almost 100% of the producers ask to only see a logline and maybe a synopsis before they decide on reading a full screenplay.


The reason for this is simple: it is easier to read one sentence to determine if they want to read more, than to commit to reading a 90 – 110 page script, especially when they are receiving hundreds of submissions. That means writers have 35 – 40 words to make a great first impression! That is why learning to write a compelling logline is so important. It literally could be the difference between having a producer read your script or having it languish on your computer’s hard drive.


It should also be noted that most major screenplay competitions require a logline to be submitted with the script."


Okay, so 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 the primary character, the hero of the story. This is the individual the audience roots for to succeed. It's crucial to establish the protagonist from the outset, whether they are a traditional hero or an anti-hero. In either case, the logline should revolve around this 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. The goal is what propels the plot forward and provides the narrative with substance and direction.


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. In addition, a well-crafted logline can also include other essential elements such as the genre, setting, hook, and conflict. By weaving in at least one of these four elements, a logline can capture the reader's attention and generate greater interest in the script.


In certain instances, introducing a supporting character or sidekick can enhance the story, such as in the case of a Batman and Robin dynamic.


A logline should never exceed 75 words. At Screenwriting Staffing, we restrict loglines to 75 words or fewer. Other websites, such as INK TIP, have even shorter limits of 60 words or less. While some websites allow for around 65 words, many industry professionals advise that the most effective loglines - the ones that sell in Hollywood - are typically between 30 to 45 words. And, fully agree with this assessment.


Logline guru, Douglas King, also had this to say during our interview:


The number one mistake of writers writing loglines would have to be their attempt to describe, what they consider, to be every important detail of a film. Ultimately this results in a multiple sentence, rambling description of a story instead of a concise summary of the main theme, character and conflict.


Writers get excited to describe their story and so they go on and on about all the “cool” story elements and forget to tell just the simple story that makes the film compelling enough to first, want to read, and second, want to see.


I read far too many loglines, that are two and three sentences, which describe in excruciating detail a character’s features, back-story and inner thoughts because the writer believes all of this is important, and it is to the film, just not the logline.


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.


-- Experts suggest a logline guides the reader when reading the script. However, I think it also helps writers stay on track while writing. You should have a preliminary logline before writing. You can refine it later after completing the script.


-- It's good to have multiple loglines for your script to see which one works best. You can also tailor a logline to fit a specific producer. But always have one primary go-to logline, and never send more that 1.


-- Avoid using a character’s name. We do not know who the characters are yet, so we have no connection to them. 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. Agents and managers need loglines to pitch to producers, who will in turn require a logline to attract investors. Once the film is produced, a logline is crucial for advertising. When the film earns recognition at festivals or major award shows, a logline is necessary for online and print promotional materials. Finally, when the film is listed on IMDb or other similar platforms, a logline is required to accompany the poster.


-- 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!

SYNOPSIS


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.

When crafting your synopsis, aim to leave the reader with a sense of what might happen (or will happen), but with just enough intrigue to make them want to dive in and discover the details for themselves. Even more satisfying is when a producer enters into the story with a presumed understanding of the ending, only to be caught off guard by a surprise twist. This unexpected element always manages to pique readers' interest and keep them engaged.


You've given them enough information to be interested, but also made them curious enough to want to read more. It's possible they could offer you a deal now, but the goal is to keep them engaged and wanting to know more.


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've emphasized throughout this industry series, brevity is key. In screenwriting, the goal is to convey as much as possible with as few words as possible. After all, our primary objective is to captivate audiences visually, not through excessive dialogue.

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.


-- It's best to avoid using a character's dialogue in the script unless they're a well-known figure. Otherwise, without proper context, it's difficult for readers to understand who the character is, what they represent, or what the subtext of their dialogue might be.


-- 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.


-- 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.


-- To ensure your synopsis is effective, write five to ten summaries and have your friends and family read them. If they come back with questions, you know that something isn't working. This is also helpful when pitching to different producers. For example, let's say you have a horror script, and you've crafted a genuinely scary synopsis. However, a producer is seeking a thriller with horror elements. In this case, you'll want to tailor your synopsis to emphasize the thriller elements of your script while still including enough horror to grab the producer's attention.


-- 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”. By indicating that your script aligns with the producer's requirement for a limited number of characters, you've successfully conveyed its suitability for their project.


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.

YOUR BIO.


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.


When providing details about your career, it's crucial to focus only on the highlights. Since you're not applying for a screenwriting job, bombarding the producer with information about your upbringing, education, or a lengthy list of credits can quickly turn them off.


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 categories apply to you, it's appropriate to list your education. However, if your training isn't directly related to film or screenwriting, only include it if it's relevant to your script. For example, if your movie is a medical drama and you have a degree in nursing, it would be appropriate to mention it.


-- If you can't add any of the previously mentioned credentials to your bio, it's important to explain to the producer why you're qualified to write the story in question. For example, if your script is a war film and you served in Iraq for two years, share how that experience inspired you to write this particular story. Similarly, if your script is about baseball and you played at the collegiate level, let the producer know. Even simply sharing these basic details can instill confidence in the producer that your story is worth considering.


-- 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.”


-- Ultimately, providing links to your work is the most effective way to showcase your talent. IMDb is the most widely used platform, but having a professional website is also helpful. I would also suggest LinkedIn, Coverfly, and Script Revolution.

YOUR CLOSING.


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? While it's possible to send more than one logline, it's generally not recommended. If you do choose to send multiple loglines, limit it to no more than two. Sending more can suggest to the producer that you're inexperienced and have a surplus of ideas but lack the ability to sell them. Each query letter should focus on one main idea. If you want to include another script, ensure that it meets the producer's requirements. Instead of writing two separate query letters, you can include a sentence at the end of your first synopsis or after your bio, indicating that if the current script doesn't fit their needs, you have another project you'd like to pitch, along with its logline.


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 2-3 weeks.


Should I mention that my script is a cross between 2 films? Deciding whether to use a comparative phrase like "it's like X meets Y" in your logline is a personal choice, and both options can be effective. However, if you do choose to use this technique, it's best to include it at the start or end of the synopsis rather than in the introduction. While you may see comparative phrases frequently used on social media platforms like Facebook and Reddit, these are typically used by filmmakers or producers when pitching their pitch deck to investors. For example, you could use a comparative phrase like "'Bonnie and Clyde' meets 'Man on Fire'."


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 (Founder of Selling Your Screenplay) 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?

Mad Men

It can help you pitch in person.


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 unite two people together, but has a undertones similar to DRIVING MISS DAISY undertone since the two characters hail from different social classes and racial backgrounds.


PRODUCER: Seems interesting. Where’s the film set?


YOU: It’s set in Chicago. It follows…. INSERT LOGLINE.


PRODUCER. That’s quite something. What’s the story really about?


YOU: INSERT "CONDENSED" SYNOPSIS.


PRODUCER: A producer friend of mine is searching for a star-driven baseball film to shoot this summer, taking advantage of the fantastic tax incentives offered in Illinois. I may even co-produce the movie with her. Would you mind if I take a look at your script?


YOU: Of course 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). And, if you are on social media, just search my name.


Sounds a lot like a query letter, huh?


Will every conversation about your script start and end exactly like this? Probably not. However, this example demonstrates why mastering the art of writing a query letter can benefit you on all fronts.

Your in-person pitch won’t be as formal as your query letter. In essence, you're presenting your story and yourself in a similar way to when you wrote your query. You're providing the producer with enough information and interest to ask for the script for a formal read.

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.

Let's 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.


-- Your pitch should align with your genre. For instance, if you're pitching a comedy, it's important to make sure that the people you're pitching to are laughing. On the other hand, if you're pitching an action-thriller, you should speak with a sense of urgency and command.


-- 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 mood.


-- Always try to specify your genre as much as possible. For instance, if you describe your film as just a "drama", it can be too vague and unexciting. Instead, try to find sub-genres or hybrid genres to make it more interesting. For example, you could describe it as a coming-of-age drama, a tearjerker drama, a slice of life drama, a true crime drama, a euro-spy drama, or an inter-racial drama. The key is to be specific and make it sound unique.


-- Don't underestimate the importance of the person checking you in, whether it's the receptionist, assistant, or intern. They could be the future executives of Hollywood.


-- 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. If there is significant interest in your project, you can mention it when asked if anyone else is interested. However, don't bring it up unless prompted.


-- 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.


-- Remember, when pitching your script, keep in mind that you are not the only writer vying for attention. There's line of other writers waiting behind you


-- 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!


As we approach the highly anticipated debate with former MGM executive, Stephanie Palmer, on the topic of query letter effectiveness, I want to quickly touch on a topic that often arises in screenwriting circles. Many "experts" advise bringing props, visuals, and handouts to a pitch meeting.


My thoughts? Here is a quick personal story:

In 2016, I was granted an interview at the illustrious CNN building, where ZEE TV had a small office. ZEE TV is one of the leading South Asian entertainment channels in the world. The purpose of the interview was to discuss a potential writing role on their new show. Little did I know, fate had a different plan in store for me that day. The associate producer revealed to me over a text that the executive producer, who would be conducting the interview, was also on the hunt for low-budget feature projects to produce in India for their network. And just like that, an opportunity to pitch my own scripts presented itself. I hopped into an Uber to prepare on the way, but it wasn't until I stopped at a FedEx near the CNN building that an idea struck me - why not print out both query letters for my scripts?


As the interview commenced and we discussed everything from my writing abilities to pay rates, the associate producer casually mentioned that I had a couple of scripts to pitch. I had already memorized my pitches, but this time, I handed over my query letters before beginning my verbal pitch. As I launched into my spiel, however, I noticed that the producers' eyes were glued to the paper in their hands, rather than on me. I stumbled and stuttered, realizing that my well-crafted words were falling on deaf ears. By the time I finished, the producers simply said, “We will be in touch” and I never heard back, not even for the job.


It was a harsh lesson, but one that I won't forget anytime soon. As I commiserated with a director friend later that evening, he revealed that he had made the same mistake in a pitch to MaraVista not so long ago. Instead of focusing on his vision, they were distracted by the materials he had presented. The moral of the story? Executives should be focused on you and your pitch, and nothing else. Don't give them any reason to turn their attention away from you and your brilliant idea.




I debated 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 on my blog that went viral, which was later published by Creative Screenwriting Magazine, garnering tons of reads.


Before I present my case, I believe it's essential for you, the reader, to consider both perspectives. After all, she raises some compelling points. Her impressive credentials speak for themselves, having served as Director of Creative Affairs at MGM. In this role, she oversaw the acquisition, development, and production of numerous feature films, such as 21, Legally Blonde, Be Cool, The Brothers Grimm, and Agent Cody Banks.


Let's dive in and examine some of her insightful excerpts on query letters and using the internet to pitch scripts:


1) "As a producer, I would never do a script search via the internet. I’m not saying that there aren’t any good scripts online or any unknown writers. I know there are. But again, it’s about percentage choices. As a producer, I only have so much time."


2) "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."


3) "The kind of screenplay purchases that get a writer into the Writer’s Guild, that make it possible for them to be professional writers, these projects are purchased for a lot of money and by specific buyers who only want to deal with writers who come with referrals. $150K is a common deal for a screenwriter and regardless of the implied total cost to make and market the movie, a buyer isn’t going to spend $150K on an unknown writer who contacted them from a query."


While I have the utmost respect for Stephanie and her website, Good In A Room, I must respectfully express my strong disagreement with her three primary points.


Let's analyze each of them individually.


1) Stephanie left MGM in 2005. Consequently, she has been detached (as far as I know) from the "script search" arena during a time of significant change. Many script search platforms, hosting sites, and screenwriter job boards didn't exist back then, and those that did were in their early stages. The Blacklist emerged in 2005 (more on them later). InkTip was founded in 2002, the International Screenwriters Association in 2008, Virtual Pitchfest in 2005, CoverFly in 2014, and FilmFreeway also in 2014. Stage 32 launched in 2011, Script Revolution in 2016, The Mandy Network in 2015, and lastly, Screenwriting Staffing made its debut in February 2013.


Although many of these platforms are my competitors, I've personally experimented with each of them as a screenwriter. While my experiences with these "sites" have been varied, I'll do my best to maintain objectivity for the sake of presenting my argument.


She points out that as a producer (and she often alludes to the majority of producers throughout our convo), they wouldn't search for scripts online due to time constraints. However, she might be overlooking the fact that these platforms were specifically designed to help producers find material efficiently and effortlessly.


Here is how I pitch to pros wanting to post on my site:

At Screenwriting Staffing, we appreciate the value of your time as a film and television industry professional. That's why we've crafted a streamlined platform to effortlessly connect you with your ideal screenplay and/or screenwriter.

As I've mentioned numerous times throughout my series, with a decade of expertise under our belt, we have successfully facilitated over 300 collaborations between industry professionals and screenwriters, resulting in more than 110 produced projects (as of now).

But let's also consider other platforms. According to InkTip's website (whose success can be verified), since 2002, 400 movies have been made from scripts found on InkTip. Additionally, over 300 writers have gained representation, and thousands have had their scripts optioned or been hired.

So, what types of companies are posting on these sites? Excellent question. Let's take Virtual Pitchfest as an example. Their database of professionals willing to review "unknown" writers, as she (and others) have put it, includes Alcon, Thunder Road, ABC, NBC, and New Republic Films, just to name a few.

Since 2013, I have been approached by executives from major players such as Universal Studios, Lifetime Network, and even the award-winning SPFX company, Luma Pictures, who posted with my site. Here is just one example: One of our writers successfully pitched "A Bramble Christmas" to Shelley Hack, SVP Development for Smash Media, resulting in the project being produced by Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and airing during the holiday season. I'd estimate that only about 20% of my writers are WGA members who are "unknown," as some might say. These executives didn't specifically request WGA material; they were open to all submissions.


There seemed to be this reoccurring theme that and filmmaker worth their salt would not use sites like mine. On February 20th, 2023, we shared a success story on our site and social media:

Academy-award-winning filmmaker Roger Christian OPTIONS Viking feature screenplay "NORTH WIND" from Brad Cathermam through our Query Letter Campaign service.

Roger Christian is a talented set decorator, production designer, and director of feature films. His exceptional work on the original Star Wars earned him an Academy Award, and he received an Oscar nomination for his contributions to Alien. As a director, Christian helmed the second unit for both Return of the Jedi and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. His directorial portfolio also includes feature films such as The Sender and Nostradamus.


Don't fall into the misconception that industry heavyweights don't read query letters


In 2010, MGM filed for bankruptcy. While MGM produced some of the most classic movies of all time (The Princess Bride, 2001: A Space Odyssey), their business model proved outdated when they filed for Chapter 11. It's hard for me to believe that they are keeping up with the times.


To conclude my argument for #1, I'd like to touch briefly on The Blacklist. Their website includes language such as "virtual", "online profile", "platform", and "public presence", so it's important to pay close attention to these terms:


Our virtual marketplace, blcklst.com, caters to the film, television, and theater industries, connecting writers from over 100 countries with industry members from around the globe. We offer writers of films, television, and plays the ability to create a free online profile within our ecosystem, providing both a public presence and an entry point to our creative community. As a writer-centric platform, we grant our members real-time tracking of views and downloads of their hosted material, enabling informed decisions about the cost of hosting their work.


So, they host scripts online, get reviews, those who grade highly get their scripts see by entertainment pros. Does this work, you ask?


ACCORDING TO WIKIPEDIA: Of the more than 1,000 screenplays The Black List has included since 2005, 440 have been produced as theatrical films,[6] including Argo,[7] American Hustle, Juno,[1] The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire,[8] Spotlight,[9] The Revenant, The Descendants, and Hell or High Water. The produced films have together grossed over $30 billion,[9] and been nominated for 241 Academy Awards and 205 Golden Globe Awards, winning 50[10] and 40 respectively. As of the 92nd Academy Awards, four of the last 10 Academy Awards for Best Picture went to scripts featured on a previous Black List.


I could stop here, but I'll continue on to 2 and 3.


2) While I haven't had the opportunity to work directly with Marty Katz myself, I have heard from several colleagues who have. According to his company's website as of April 26th, 2023, here is what he has to say:


MARTY KATZ PRODUCTIONS invites the following types of submissions:

  • Comedy: romantic comedy, intelligent, dark comedy

  • Intriguing thriller/mystery films

  • High concept films

  • Fresh adaptations of classic literature, in particular, adaptations that dynamically modernize and revitalize timeless stories

  • Summer tent-poles and/or franchise films

  • Stories inspired by true events

If you are interested in submitting material to Marty Katz Productions, a Script Query Letter must be sent to us via e-mail.


Stephanie worked for him back in 1997, when all queries were sent by snail mail instead of email. It's difficult to determine if Marty has produced any films based on query letters, but as of now in 2023, he is actively seeking scripts and requesting that they be submitted via email. While I cannot speak on behalf of him or his company, the fact that he is requesting query letters suggests that they may be effective.

It's worth noting that according to various sources, their impressive credits include Love Ranch, The Great Raid, The Four Feathers, Impostor, Reindeer Games, Mr. Wrong, Man of the House, Lost in America, and Titanic. This lends credibility to the idea that the industry's top players see value in the query letter.


3) I rest my case. But, let me sum it up for you. We've established two key points here, which answers #3

  1. Major networks and Oscar-nominated producers are indeed reading query letters. This means that these talented individuals are actively seeking out fresh ideas and new voices, giving aspiring screenwriters an opportunity to get their foot in the door.

  2. Online script hosting platforms have led to significant box office successes. This demonstrates the power of these platforms in connecting writers with influential industry professionals, and shows that they can be a viable path to getting your screenplay noticed.

So, with these two points in mind, it's clear that the traditional route of submitting query letters and utilizing online script hosting sites lead to major success in the world of film and television.


In today's world, a small percentage of major studios still rely on the traditional method of word-of-mouth to find new material. However, for the other 99% of producers, the internet has become the primary means for discovering fresh content and up-and-coming writers.


No matter where you're located, be it the epicenter of Hollywood or a remote corner of Bulgaria, query letters serve as the starting point for getting your work noticed.

The landscape for producers seeking new material has transformed significantly. You can either embrace this new reality or dismiss it, but the undeniable facts are hard to ignore.


Okay, so I'm really excited to share with you the science of the query letter and how to use it to launch your career. But as I bring this debate to a close, I want to express my deepest gratitude to Stephanie Palmer for her willingness to share her thoughts and insights on the "The Great Query Letter Hoax" article with me. Her perspective ignited a conversation that resonated deeply within the writing community (both good and bad), and her blog continues to be a source of inspiration for aspiring writers everywhere.


Stephanie's wisdom and experience have been recognized by major media outlets, including the Today Show on NBC, The Early Show on CBS, National Public Radio, Los Angeles Times, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter. Her impact is undeniable, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview her and share her perspective with you. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only one who has had the opportunity to interview her regarding her article, at least as far as online sources go.


I highly recommend reading the full interview, which is now published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine. Stephanie's insights are invaluable and will undoubtedly help you in your own writing journey.

--


In need of query letter assistance? We can help:


Need your query letter or screenplay translated? We can help: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenplay-translation


It takes ALL of us to build a strong, safe, and constructive SCREENWRITING community. So be sure to JOIN our popular LinkedIn & Facebook member-based

groups. Introduce yourself, share your story, and engage in friendly debate regarding industry-related topics! Be sure to also join our free membership: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/free-membership


If you are you an industry professional or buyer searching for your next screenwriter or screenplay, you can post here for free: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/industry-professionals


Search screenwriting jobs and screenplay requests on our job/script search board: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenwriting-jobs-script-searches


Learn about investing, gaining credits, or joining our team on DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA [www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo].


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.

For more on Jacob:


Follow Screenwriting Staffing:

--


Comments


bottom of page