Writing Movies That Get Made

Query Letters

...Once you know that civilians are interested in your pitch, it might be a good idea to see if motion picture industry people would be interested. I'm making the heretical suggestion that you might want to send out your query letters before you spend all that time writing your script rather than after.

A query letter is a letter or email you send to all the development executives in the Hollywood Creative Directory, or if you're trying to get an agent, to all the agents in the Hollywood Representation Directory. It is a one-page letter that explains what your screenplay is about and asks if they'd like to read it. As a development executive, I read thousands of query letters. (In those days, they were all on paper. These days, mostly email.) If you don't know people in show business, a query letter is the natural way to get your script to people who can do something with it. No one wants to read a screenplay unless there's a chance she could do something with it, so if someone reads your query and asks you to send him your screenplay, she thinks you have a hook.

Now this is a step you may not want to take just yet if you're anxious that people will steal your idea. You may want to wait until you have a plot outline that you can copyright at the Library of Congress (see Chapter 9). But frankly, I don't think much stealing goes on in show business, except the kind of Stealing I'm recommending you do. I'm going to make the movie for millions of dollars of other people's money; out of that budget, your script is likely not more than a hundred thousand bucks, and the money isn't even mine. Why would I steal your script and get myself into a lawsuit? I can probably option your script for a few thousand bucks. But if I want to steal your idea, I have to hire a writer to make a script out of it, and he's going to cost fifty grand, and he's probably going to come back with something different than what I asked for. Why wouldn't I just ask to read your script, option it, and then get it rewritten if I think it needs fixing? I might still have to hire another writer, but writers charge less for rewrites than for fresh scripts.

Okay, here's the idea. When I read a query letter, I don't actually know that the writer has written the screenplay already. I send back the stamped, self-addressed card, or respond to the email, and forget about it until the screenplay shows up. That's because even the tiniest, credit-challenged company listed in the Hollywood Creative Directory gets ten or twenty queries a day. You have to read fifty of these letters to find one that sounds even vaguely promising.

As a development executive, you might think I'd be peeved if people used me for free market research, but actually, I wish they would. Then I'd be more likely to find a screenplay that I could do something with.

If you send out two hundred query letters and get back two responses, you may not want to waste your time writing the script. If you get back ten, you might want to write the script. If you get twenty, stop sleeping and write the damn screenplay already.

One side benefit of writing your query first, by the way, is that you may realize that you're focusing on the wrong aspects of your screenplay.

Suppose your hook is, say, "A marine biologist falls in love with a mysterious girl who turns out to be a mermaid." Suppose in writing your story, you find yourself concentrating on the adventures of the mermaid. If you took a look at your query, you might realize you were getting off track. Or, if your gut tells you you're on the right track, you could rewrite your hook ("A mermaid falls in love with a marine biologist.") and see if people are still as interested.

This is not to say, of course, that you should reduce your screenplay to the simplicity of a query letter. You need richness and depth. You need surprises and twists and turns. I am only saying that if your concept doesn't query well, then either:

  1. you're not getting through to people how wonderful your idea is, and you need to rewrite your query, or
  2. people don't think it's that wonderful an idea, and you need a better idea.

Either way, you can now fix the problem before you write the screenplay, rather than after.

How To Write a Good Query Letter

A good query letter says in one paragraph what the story's hook is, and asks if I'd like to read it. That's all it needs to do! The story sells itself, or it doesn't.

I spend about three seconds reading the average query letter. If it doesn't grab me by the third sentence, I'm on to the next one. Sorry, folks, I know that sounds philistine, but I've found through years of reading query letters and scripts that if a writer can't grab me in three sentences, the script is not going to be something I can get made into a movie. Even if the idea is good, if you can't write a clear one-page letter that draws me into your story, I assume your 115-page script won't draw me in, either.

If I am interested, of course, I read the rest of the letter, and think about it, and ponder whether the idea sounds like a good movie to me.

Your hook should always introduce the central problem or mystery of the script, and the central character who's going to deal with it.

Here is a good query letter:

"Dear Mr. Epstein:

I have just finished polishing MYTHIC, a thriller about a dragon that attacks an isolated Alaska oil rig community; the drilling has roused it from ancient sleep. Without help from the mainland, the island's fire chief must stop it before he destroys the town.

Please let me know if you'd like to read the script. I would be happy to sign a release form if you have one, or I can have my agent send you the script.

Thank you.

Yours very truly..."

See how short it is? But if there's any chance I might be interested in producing a contemporary dragon movie, I'm going to ask to read the script.

(In reality, Mythic, a superb script by Ehren Kruger, came to me through his gifted agent Valarie Phillips, not from a query letter. We optioned it, and I believe my old company still has it optioned. Ehren has gone on to write big studio pictures, but none as close to my heart as this one. Make this picture, guys, I'm dying to see the movie!)

Here's another good letter, only slightly longer.

Dear Mr. Epstein:

Michael Eisner suggested I contact you about my new screenplay, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. It's a bittersweet drama about a Jewish man in 1943 Italy who tries to hide the horrors of the Nazi occupation from his young son by pretending it's all a big game. Although the historical events are sorrowful, the story is uplifting and even comedic.

My grandfather survived the Holocaust himself, and I wanted to bring to life some of the almost unbelievable stories he told me.

If you are interested in taking a look at the screenplay, please let me know. An SASE is enclosed for your reply. Thank you for your consideration.

Very truly yours..."

(A SASE is a Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope. If you're sending in your query by email, ignore this sentence.)

The above is a made-up query letter for the hit film Life is Beautiful. I have no idea if anyone ever wrote a query letter for the film. Since the writer-director was also a comedy star in Italy, probably not.

If someone in show business recommended that you write, mention that first. If you or (especially) your screenplay won an award, mention that. Awards and recommendations are the two strongest things you can put in a query letter. They mean that someone other than you thinks this is a good screenplay.

If you have some direct personal experience that touches on the screenplay, or you've done in-depth research, it's worth mentioning.

By the way your hook in a sentence or two is often called a logline. Think of it as the sentence that would describe it in TV Guide.

Some don'ts:

It's all about the story. No fancy paper, fancy formatting, colored type, or a picture of you; it just looks amateurish. You're not selling yourself as a graphic designer, you're selling yourself as a wordsmith. I'll take a letter neatly typed on a manual typewriter as seriously as I'll take one from a computer.

I don't think you should offer to send a synopsis. That's just encouraging them to ask for the synopsis instead of the script, which creates one more step where they can say no. They may ask for a synopsis. In that case, don't send them a synopsis, which tells them everything that happens, send them a pitch. A synopsis is a working document that details the plot. A pitch is a selling document that sketches the story out for them. See chapter 2 for how to write a pitch.

By the way, don't follow up a query letter with a call or another letter or email. It is a complete waste of time. If they wanted to read your script, they would have let you know, y'know?

(Note: I also critique query letters for a fee.)

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