Unfortunately, screenwriting query letters can do serious damage to your career.
Luckily, there is a MUCH better way to break in as a screenwriter.
Screenwriting Query Letters – Overview
Let’s talk about when screenwriting query letters work, when they don’t, and what to do instead.
Overall, the argument in favor of the screenwriting query letter goes like this:
- It has worked for me and/or
- It has worked for writers I know.
Fair enough. But the question is this:
What does it mean for screenplay query letters to “work”?
When Do Screenwriting Query Letters “Work”?
The fact is that screenplay query letters can:
- Generate a response from a low-level producer
- Eventually result in making a small sale or small option
Screenwriting query letters can help you make a small amount of money.
However, there’s a serious problem with this kind of success.
Querying Holds You Back
If you only learn one thing from this post, learn this:
Writers who use screenwriting query letters typically don’t become full-time screenwriters.
WARNING: What I’m about to say is not fair – but it does represent my best understanding of how Hollywood works. Please keep in mind that I am trying to help you become a successful professional screenwriter.
Screenwriting Query Letters = Your Material Isn’t Good Enough
To decision-makers, screenwriting query letters are a red flag.
Top agents, managers, directors, producers, and stars believe that writers who write great material get noticed, and people who have been noticed can get meetings. Therefore, to decision-makers, screenwriting query letters are used only by rookies who haven’t written something good enough (yet).
Again, as I said, this is not fair.
But when you send screenwriting query letters, it means your material isn’t top quality.
Screenwriting Query Letters = You Don’t “Get It”
To decision-makers, screenwriting query letters mean that you don’t understand Hollywood.
This is because Hollywood is a relationship business and screenwriting is a collaborative art.
As a screenwriter, you have to be able to:
- Develop relationships with people inside the business.
- Generate meetings with decision-makers.
- Handle yourself in those high-stakes meetings.
- Collaborate with directors, stars, and producers.
Being able to generate a real meeting demonstrates that you “get it.”
If you can’t get a meeting, you’re probably not ready for the Big Leagues.
Screenwriting Query Letters = No Agent
The kind of sales that result from query letters are small.
These deals are too small for writers to support themselves writing full-time.
These deals are also too small to attract the interest of an agent.
In broad strokes, without an agent:
- You don’t get the opportunity for multiple sales.
- You don’t get to receive paid assignments.
- You can’t make a living as a full-time screenwriter.
Because you don’t have an agent, you have to keep writing queries.
Screenwriting Query Letters Beget Screenwriting Query Letters
Writing screenplay query letters is a way to keep writing query letters and have a part-time screenwriting career.
For some people, that’s great. Not everyone wants to quit their job and write full-time.
But if you want to be a full-time, professional screenwriter, writing queries hurts your chances to being seen as a top professional who can write big movies.
This brings me to a question I was asked by a number of people.
What About Websites That Require A Screenplay Query Letter Such As: Ink Tip, Virtual Pitchfest, International Screenwriters Association, or Screenwriting Staffing?
I’m familiar with these sites and each has success stories.
But rarely are these the kind of success stories that I’d like for you to have.
My concern is that screenplay query letters are represented as a way to help writers break into the Big Leagues, and in my experience, that’s not true.
The kind of deals that make it possible for you to be a full-time professional writer are:
- Purchased for a lot of money
- By a small number of buyers
- Who only want to deal with writers who can get meetings via referral
$150K is a common entry-level deal for a screenwriter, and producers are unlikely to spend $150K on an unknown writer who contacted them from a query.
Screenplay Query Letters Are Bulk Mail
Bulk mail does work a very small percentage of the time.
For example, car dealerships often use bulk mail because if they send out 10,000 postcards and one person buys a car, it makes financial sense.
But there are way more potential buyers for cars than there are potential buyers for screenplays.
Your Screenplay Is Like A Rare Porsche
Your screenplay is like an extremely rare luxury vehicle, like a Porsche 911R.
There are a small number of people who can afford this kind of high-end car.
The number is even smaller for producers who would be interested in buying your script.
There may be ~25-50 producers who actually get movies made who are a good fit for your project.
You don’t use a bulk mail approach when there are few buyers for an extremely expensive item.
“My whole problem with query letters is that they’re kind of self-selecting. The people that answer query letters are precisely the people that you don’t want answering your query letter.” –Craig Mazin, Identity Thief, The Hangover
Hollywood Producers With Purchasing Power Are Not Reading Your Query
Here are excerpts from just a few of the emails I have received in the last six months:
- “I have listed my script on a bunch of the biggest listing and query services and even though it shows that people clicked, I didn’t get any inquiries. This is getting really expensive!”
- “I have tried every email and fax blast service to post loglines or send query letters. I find that most of the time they are discarded.”
- “I have contacted 148 producers with my query letter. Two people said they would read it. I haven’t heard back.”
- “I researched and sent out 600 query letters and got a manager, but the manager works out of a strip mall in the Valley and doesn’t seem to have any connections to be able to get my script read.”
- “I have taken three different classes in writing query letters. I am really good at it. But I have been sending them out for the last decade, I’m sure I’ve sent at least 1000, but I just can’t get seem to sell one of my scripts. What am I doing wrong?”
Beginning Vs. Full-Time Screenwriters
Let’s say I am a beginning gardener (which, in fact, I am).
I have taken a couple classes, read some books, and I’m growing a few things.
But, if I decided that I loved gardening so much that I wanted to pursue it as my profession, I would understand that I need to acquire some new skills.
Gardening Is Not The Same As Farming
If I’m serious about becoming a professional farmer or a full-time landscape architect, the mindset, tools, and techniques required to do it for a living are going to be different.
This is kind of obvious, but I use this example because I think the world of hobbyist gardening vs. professional farming is much more clearly delineated than Hollywood screenwriting.
A class I took in growing tomatoes in containers improved my gardening skills, but the teacher didn’t promise that this was the ticket to a full-time career as a farmer or landscape architect.
This is the hoax — that if you send out a screenwriting query letter to producers, you will be perceived as a legit professional and be able to connect with established producers, get your script purchased, get in the WGA, and make a lot of money.
But that’s not the case – just like my container of happy cherry tomatoes are not going to make me a living as a farmer.
Professional Results Require New Strategies
When I signed up for the Master Gardener’s program, one of the first lessons was,
“Only observe your land – and don’t try to grow anything – for the first year.”
I nearly laughed out loud.
But that was the lesson. Not to do anything for the first year except observe; note the light, the shade, the seasons.
After all, asparagus takes three years to come to fruition. To grow it properly, you’ve got to plant it in the right place, and apparently that takes a year to figure out.
And what if you want to plant an apple tree? It’s a long time between planting the seedling and eating the apple.
The difference between hobbyist gardening and full-time professional farming is stark.
Screenwriting is like that, too.
Screenwriting Query Letters Do Work .00001% Of The Time
In rare instances, a query letter will get the attention of a legitimate decision-maker.
But this is a very low-percentage event.
Actors have been discovered waiting in line at Starbucks. That doesn’t mean aspiring thespians should get coffee over and over again all day long.
But suppose you were an aspiring actor, and you went online to find out how to get cast in bigger and better roles, and a bunch of “experts” were saying things like:
“The secret to launching your acting career is simple – COFFEE. Do you know how many actors have been discovered at Starbucks? For a small fee you can have my personal list of the best coffee shops to get noticed and the right coffee drinks to order….”
So, what can you do?
What’s Better Than Query Letters?
Make connections in person.
In other words, you have to build your network of relationships.
There are no shortcuts to writing something great and there are no shortcuts to getting your work into the right hands.
The fact is that “the business” is not fair.
Hollywood is an unfair business where personal referrals and recommendations are the currency of the realm.
Therefore, the strategies to get your scripts read, noticed, purchased, and produced are based primarily on developing personal relationships.
Here’s screenwriter John August:
“Where it really comes down to is a push versus pull. And query letters are a way of like pushing your script out into the world and saying like, “Hey, please look at this thing.”
And maybe that’s effective sometimes, but everyone I know who’s gotten agents or gotten managers it’s been a pull situation where that agent or manager has asked to read something because someone else has said, ‘This is really good,’ or they found this through a competition, they somehow came up across this writer, this idea, and they wanted to read it. And most the people I know who’ve gotten representation recently, it’s been that situation.
–John August (Big Fish, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory)
When you build your network instead of sending screenwriting query letters, you can succeed.
You meet other people who are building their networks.
You build relationships with people who are as talented and as driven as you are.
And then, when you write something great, the right doors can open quickly.