A continuation of previous articles that include a sampling of questions sent to “The Script Mentor”, with our corresponding advice/suggestions. Some of these may be the burning questions you’ve had…but were afraid to ask!
Q. Where can I find good examples of query letters? I’ve never actually seen one. Any advice?
A. Like almost everything else in screenwriting, you’re going to get a thousand different answers from a thousand different people- each one telling you the other answers are wrong. The right answer is- any query letter format or style you use that gets a producer to request to read your script is a good query letter.
Beyond that, I can tell you that I teach and promote a particular style of query letter, one that was constructed based on the responses to a recent polling of hundreds of executives, producers, producer assistants, gatekeepers and anyone else whose responsibility is to read query letters.
The following is an example of the new style query that executives and others look for in the “perfect” query letter. It is designed to include all of the necessary information, provide a clear and concise structure, and help highlight what THEY are looking for. It is the format I use. You don’t have to use it; yours may be perfectly suitable.
STEP #1- Contact Information
City, State, Zip
Hm Tel #/ Cell #
You’ll want to center your contact info first. This is for two reasons:
1) Many people actually FORGET to include contact information altogether. This way, it’s there!
2) It’ll take up some room on the page and help prevent you from “over-writing”.
STEP #2- Query Letter Intro
“Dear (You’ll address them as they signed their email):
I am offering this (award-winning) screenplay, “TITLE”, for your review. “
(If you were referred to them, or are responding to their request, you’ll want to say that here).
“I was referred to you by actor Sean Penn, who related that you were interested in the perfect project to film in the Puerto Rican jungles…”
STEP #3- Logline
At this point, I like to include my perfectly constructed, 30-word-or-less logline.
STEP #4- The Body of the Query
“Hook #1: Write out the one of the three main hooks here
(Highlight your main “hook”- one element that separates your story from all others of this genre)
In the following sentence, explain the hook a little more without repeating yourself
(Your hook will be followed by one or two sentences that explain the hook in greater detail)
Hook #2: (Repeat above)
Hook #3 or Hook/Twist: (if you have a killer twist to your story)”
STEP #5- Closing Remarks
“If you like the concept, I would be happy to send you a PDF of the script.”
(Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “mash-up” lines like “Total Recall” meets “The Matrix” or, in mine, “The Transporter” meets “Driving Miss Daisy”. Some are real clever, but my first reaction is always “Oh, really? You’ve written the next ‘Driving Miss Daisy’? Get over yourself!”…but maybe that’s just me)
STEP #6- Writer’s Bio
WRITERS BIO: Write this BIO in the third person, similar to a press release. You’ll want to highlight any writing successes you may have had. I would leave out the “placements in contests”, unless they are finalists or winning scripts, and only in major or middle-tiered contests (4,000 entries or more). I would include any other significant writing you’ve done, any published articles in your field, or a brief mention of why you think you are more qualified to write on the subject that you’ve written about in the screenplay. You MUST be selective, as you don’t want to go more than three lines here.
STEP #7- Closing Signature/Contact Info
Home number/ Cell number
To demonstrate this format more clearly, the following is a sample of one of my recent query letters:
(Physical Address, City, State, Zip)
I was referred to you by (name), who informed me that you might be interested in reviewing contest-winning screenplays. As a result, I am forwarding my logline and synopsis for my award-winning action adventure/comedy “BANKING ON BETTY” for your perusal.
Logline: When an ex-con is arrested the day before his wedding, he is forced to drive a witness — the mob boss’ mother — cross country, dodging bullets, corrupt cops, and one very scorned lover.
HOOK #1: A third-strike felon is forced to drive a mob witness to court.
Jack Reese, a Hollywood stunt driver with a passion for fast, sexy — and “hot” — cars, has been popped for what could be his final strike. The F.B.I. does offer him a way out, however. All he has to do is drive a federal witness to court.
HOOK #2: The witness is an 80-yr. old buzzard of a gal with a saucy mouth to match.
Betty Rosenthal is no ordinary witness. As the one-time accountant for the mob, she’s being forced to testify against her “family”- and against her will. With her unique- but fading- photographic memory, Betty is the ONLY hope the government has to finally break the Fiorelli crime syndicate.
HOOK #3: Betty is a kind of mother only the Godfather could love…and he wants her DEAD!
What Jack doesn’t know that his “package”- the witness that can take down the biggest crime syndicate in the country- just happens to be the mother of the Godfather himself!
Together, Jack and Betty form the unlikeliest of road teams; they despise each other, but need each other to survive a pursuit that includes rogue cops, hired hit men, and one scorned lover. Along the way, Jack and Betty develop a bond of trust, but that bond is tested when they come face to face with the Godfather himself.
If you like the concept of the action/comedy “BANKING ON BETTY”, I’d be happy to send you the script.
WRITERS BIO: Geno Scala’s “BANKING ON BETTY” was the winner of the 2012 StoryPros Screenwriting Competition, runner-up in the highly regarded 2013 Scriptapalooza Competition, and a top finalist of the 2012 Script Pipeline Competition. It was also a semi-finalist in the Screenwriting Goldmine and Screenplay Festival competitions.
Mr. Scala currently writes television and feature film screenplays on assignment for several different production companies.
(Physical Address, City, State, Zip)
Q. Hi, Script Mentor! I will soon be completing my third screenplay. My thinking is that I need to get an agent to help me get noticed. I have been in contact with an agent out of the Seven Bridges Group and have had some moderate success there, but still no representation. Any suggestions?
A. Yes. Don’t waste your time trying to get an agent. You’re not there yet.
Agents are not interested in writers unless and until they start making serious money with their writing. If your screenplay is involved in a bidding war, an agent will step up, or if you start selling a number of scripts, someone will contact you. You’ll know when you’re at that stage; they’ll be calling you.
In the meantime, you need to build your own buzz so people know what you’ve done or accomplished. Three scripts is a start, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully, they’re all in the same genre, and you can start becoming the “go-to” writer for that genre. You’ll need to start getting job assignments. I started with a $200 script job a few years ago, and today, I’m writing an episodic TV drama for big money. Not bragging; just telling you that it’s completely possible.
Beyond that, you’ll want to look for a literary manager. They will work on getting your career going, and they are the conduit to agents, as that’s what THEY do. You’ll want to find one that is small, boutique, perhaps starting their own agency looking for active writers wanting to take the next step in their careers…
…and that sounds like YOU!
Q. My friend paid $10,000 to this company New Show Studios. I googled them and saw so many bad reviews of people being ripped off. I cringed and told him, and he believes his script was in front of a production company now. Do you have any information on them?
A. I could have seen these guys coming from a mile away. This is a great example of what a few pics with celebrities, a hired Daytime TV actor, and a shiny new website can represent.
The first red flag was the claim that “Pittsburgh was the New Hollywood”!
Really? Since when?
Next, the CEO’s claim to fame was the “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” video. He and SFM (the parent company) are distributors- good to have once you’ve made the film, but they have nothing to do with production or evaluation of scripts as far as I can tell.
In my opinion, what your friend has done was pay $10K for about $1K worth of work, including printed materials and a “how to” DVD. I suspect they may ask for more money down the line, but for your friend, it may be too late.
Some companies prey on the desperation of those of us willing to do just about anything to get famous, and it makes me very sad. After dealing with crooks and victims for years in fraud, both as a police detective, and later as a private investigator, there is no end to this sadness. These companies spring up, take what they can, then disappear.
Let’s see how it plays out. Maybe I’m 100% wrong, and this friend will have a movie made and it’ll be distributed by the thousands as a straight-to-DVD. Based on what I’m seeing, even in my most desperate of days, I never would have done it, personally. The salesmen over the phone are very, very good, and even I can be very gullible at times. As a rule, no one should ever have to pay to have your script considered or produced, unless you are investing in the project as a producer. The idea of a production finding potential in your screenplay is that they are willing to invest in the production.
Q. What do you mean by the “look” of a professional spec screenplay? Are you talking specific formatting issues (like the size of the action blocks, etc.), or the overall flow, or something else?
A. There are some easy fixes to your screenplay. I’m simply addressing issues that have been noticed by others, but they weren’t as willing to point these problems out to you.
The Query Letter: Yes, books and blogs all suggest certain ways of writing these things, but if I told you that a recent poll asked for input from thousands of producers, producer assistants, professional script readers, gatekeepers and those on the front lines of the industry, and a preferred query letter format was devised, would you believe it? If you did, would you use it?
Well, that poll WAS conducted a few years back, and today, only a handful of writers know it, have learned it, and currently use it. It is a major piece of what we teach at The Script Mentor. The new form is designed to highlight the points that these people are looking for in a query letter. They want to know what separates YOUR story from every other story in the genre ever written or that is currently being shopped around. We do this by highlighting the “hooks”- preferably three of them. The “hook” is that single element that makes you screenplay different.
If it’s like the three little pigs and the big, bad wolf, and the wolf gets his house blown down by the pigs – THAT would be your hook.
In 1975, if you wrote a horror story that took place at a beach during the 4th of July weekend where a killer was terrorizing a town by killing the inhabitants, it might be one of twenty such pictures. If you made the killer a shark, and the person chosen to save the town is a sheriff- whose deathly afraid of the ocean- you’ve got yourself two great hooks (no pun intended), and an instant classic in “Jaws”. So, you’ll need a query letter that highlights at least three major hooks of your story.
The Logline: I read about 1 in a 100 that is even close to decent; most are laughably horrible. This is the single most poorly-written facet of the screenwriter’s marketing plan, and it can arguably be considered the most important.
So, why do people struggle with it?
I don’t think they fully comprehend the “rules” for creating a logline and the purpose for using it. At The Script Mentor, I developed and copyrighted an easy formula to assure the writer of getting a good logline every time out, in a matter of seconds.
Overall Spec Screenplay Appearance: To your final question- when I talk about appearance, I do mean “first impression”- the flip-through of the first ten pages. I immediately noticed that:
- The parentheticals were wrong:
- The master scene headings and sub-headings were incorrect;
- The lack of real descriptions;
- Sound effects as dialogue:
- The over-capitalization of words;
- The incorrect action tense (noted by excessive “-ing” ending verbs);
- Extraneous words/ heavy word weight (you averaged 200 words per page in Act I; 188 words in Act II; 230 words in Act III. The target number of words is 150-180 per page, on average, throughout).
So, that was MY first impression.
You’re a good writer; much better than most. It’s these little things that separate the really, really GOOD writers from everyone else. It is my belief- one that is borne out every day in this industry- that you can have a truly great concept and twist in a story, but no one may ever know it.
Because if the writing violates most, or all, of the spec screenwriting protocols, no producer worth his salt will read beyond the first ten pages, or even the first three.
Conversely, a spec screenwriter can write a perfectly formatted screenplay; it’s very lean, moves quickly, has the right balance of action and descriptive text- but the overall concept might be played out some. I’d bet it will still garner the attention you seek from producers and contest judges, etc. These writers are most likely going to get writing assignments and possibly staff writing jobs, if that’s their calling. Eventually, a writer like this will hit on a very original concept, or come up with a twist on an old concept, and get it optioned and/or sold, perhaps even produced.
You want to be THAT writer.