Tackling The Perfect Query Letter

Posted on March 6, 2012

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Although there are no rules to writing query letters, here are some general suggestions by Christopher Lockhart, Story Analyst from William Morris Endeavor Agency:

Do not be longwinded.  Keep your letter short and make your point quickly. The reader should fully comprehend your pitch with just a glance of the page. If the reader has to fight through countless words and paragraphs, you may lose him. Three paragraphs are enough.  More than one page is too much.

Avoid silly, self-effacing, or obsequious letters.  Be professional.  Often, authors of comedy scripts try to pen funny letters. Sadly, goofy letters are often passed around the mailroom for a late afternoon chuckle before landing in the recycling bin.

Keep all information in the query letter pertinent. Avoid superfluity. For instance, a writer will tell an agent that she is a “grandmother of 12,” or another will say, “I have an accounting degree.”  Only include what is absolutely necessary.  Agents do not care if a scribe has an MBA. However, it makes sense to say, “I have a BA in film from….” If the writer and agent share the same background, it could be helpful to drop the name of the school without being obvious.

When drafting the query include the script’s title, the logline (and possibly a hybrid description like: THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS meets OUTBREAK) and a brief statement about yourself – as it relates to screenwriting.  For example, include any reputable screenwriting contests you may have won. A query once stated that the writer came in 429th place in the Writer’s Digest contest. If the script did not win or was not a finalist, be vague about where the script placed.  Also, if it is not a recent win, leave out specific dates or inferences to dates. “This script won the D.W. Griffith Screenwriting Award, which he presented to me personally.”

Do not include scenes from your screenplay in a query letter.   Scenes, descriptions of your characters, action or actual dialogue can seem very unappealing when taken out of context.  Screenplays deserve to be read in their entirety – as a whole.

Avoid insignificant praise. Never include readers’ positive comments.  “My college film professor says it’s the best screenplay he’s read this semester.”  “The local mailman said my depiction of the United States Postal Service is accurate and riveting.”  “Mary Jones at Warner Brothers loves the script but says I must have an agent.”  If Mary Jones loves the script, she will do everything within her power to obtain the script. Mary Jones is politely blowing off the writer.  Occasionally, these quotes offer an unwitting sub-text that backfires on the screenwriter.  Also, avoid hyperbolic descriptions of the screenplay.  “It’s an action packed, thrill-a-minute character study with a romance that will break your heart.” Any kind of hype is unprofessional.  It is silly for a screenwriter to praise his own work.

Do not include supplemental material.  For instance: “With the hopes of enticing you to read my new screenplay, SHAME: A GIRL WITH AN STD, I have enclosed an eight-page booklet about syphilis.” The odds of the pamphlet being read are slim to none. Also, don’t send food or candy with a letter.

Do not make casting suggestions (unless you are targeting an actor’s representative). Do not suggest marketing concepts, and do not offer up taglines.

Proofread the letter.  One would believe writers have a strong command of their language.  However, query letters are often littered with misspelled words. This also includes grammar and syntax errors.

Letters should be sent to a specific person.  Be sure their name is spelled correctly. Refer to the “Hollywood Creative Directory,” the Internet, or call for the correct spelling.  In general, calling ahead is a good idea. Double check to make sure the executive is still employed with that company. The agent’s name may appear in the “Hollywood Agents and Managers Directory,” but turnover is fierce, and the agent at UTA today could be at CAA tomorrow.

Avoid writing the letter by hand.   Of course, an equal amount of care should be given to the envelope.

Avoid including “yes/no” self-addressed postcards - unless requested.

NEVER send the script along with the letter – unless requested.

When your script is solicited, do not ask that it be returned, and do not include a self-addressed stamped manila envelope for its return – unless requested.

Aspiring pros use the logline in query letters.  Query letters can be an effective way to catch the attention of someone at a production company or talent agency.  Contrary to popular myth, query letters are most often opened and read. It is true, however, that the majority of them land in the trash.  But this occurs simply because the concept presented does not entice the reader.  Even a well written logline can be discarded if the concept being pitched is not to the reader’s taste or the preferred genre (for example).  Only a handful of letters will catch the attention of a producer or agent. The bigger the production company and agency, the harder it will be.

The writer’s job is not to second guess who may and may not be receptive to a query letter.  This is counterproductive and undermines the process.  The writer should craft a brief but effective query letter to anyone he pleases.  A writer is in the wrong business if he must ask, “Should I send this letter to so-and-so?”  The worst possible outcome is that the letter is tossed in the trash.  Be persistent.  Keep sending out queries – even to companies that claim they do not accept unsolicited material. If an agent sees a great logline, he will solicit the script with the aid of a release form. Continue to send the query to the same place every three or four months until someone requests the script or, at the very least, until a rejection is received.  Look for employee turnover, which provides new life for a query once rejected by someone who has now moved on.

When writing a query letter, it is imperative that the logline be presented no later than the second paragraph, preferably the first.  A query can open with the logline.  The next paragraph can briefly go into the details of the story – only if deemed absolutely necessary.  A brief synopsis should be no longer than six sentences.  A good logline can be effective because it does not present too much information.  Too much information provides more reasons for an executive to not like the story.  A good logline offers just enough to create a desire without turning off the executive.  The third paragraph can provide some brief biographical information.  However, in most cases, it is the logline that will capture or lose the interest of the executive.

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