Screenwriting Representation: To Query or Not to Query?
For years, the path for many writers trying to find an agent, a manager, or even a producer to attach to their screenplay, was the trusted old query letter, a tried-and-true method used by countless writers to reach out to potentially interested parties, and kickstart their journey from emerging writers to professionals.
Query letters came to glory in the 90’s, when agents and managers in search of the next hot spec or the next exciting scribe became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of queries landing on their desks on a regular basis. At that time, many Query Desks started popping up – desks dedicated to sifting through query letters, requesting scripts, reading unsolicited screenplays as part of the ongoing search for the needle in a haystack. However, because those desks had no real Return On Investment (ROI), they were usually manned by interns and assistants, ones who either returned to school at the end of summer, or graduated to more important – and therefore more time consuming – roles within the company, making them unable to stay on top of incoming scripts requested off of queries with any consistency. As the competitive spec market waned into the new millennium, so did the dedicated query desks, though some managers and producers have continued to read query letters nonetheless.
So What’s The Reality?
Let’s start with the bad news first: When it comes to managers and producers finding new clients or new scripts, query letters are probably the lowest on the totem pole, and the screenplays that emerge through them – for most – will be the lowest priority for a read. That doesn’t mean that a screenplay requested through a query is never going to be read. It may get read. But the screenplays added to the pile by a referral, contest winning screenplays, and the screenplays of existing clients and projects, will always beat it to the top of the reading pile.
But there is also good news here, and it is this: This doesn’t mean that a writer should never consider writing a query letter. Sure, if you have friends who can give you a great referral and allow you to bypass the query altogether, you should absolutely go for it. After all, this is a relationship business, so referrals – by far! – go the longest way. But if you don’t have a ton of industry relationships in place, and have not earned yourself any favors from a powerful few eager to help you on your journey? A query letter – as well as online pitching – might be the only path that you have available.
When I interviewed Lit Manager and The Blood List founder Kailey Marsh for my book BREAKING IN, she told me: “For every ten queries I get I request maybe one, and I might read the script and I might not. And that’s totally my prerogative.”
Epicenter’s Jarrod Murray added: “If you’re writing a query and you don’t use my name or you spell my name wrong – if it’s a ‘To Whom it May Concern’ or you’re spelling my name with an ‘e’ instead of an ‘a’ – there’s less reason for me to respond. You’re sending it out to everyone – ‘Dear Sir.’ I’ve only signed on one person off a query letter who we don’t actually represent anymore. So chances for me to respond to a query letter are pretty low. I don’t want to dissuade people from doing it because it does work for some but during the day I’m dealing with these other 30+ people who need my attention. Chances are I’m probably not going to respond. Don’t take it personally; I just have to prioritize the day as much as possible. And don’t send query letters on weekends. That annoys me so much.”
Who Should You Query?
Notice that in an earlier paragraph I wrote that you should query producers and managers. From years of experience I can tell you that today (and regardless of whatever happened 20 years ago) it is near impossible to get an agent through a query letter. First of all, they are not reading them. Secondly, most agents are not in the business of talent discovery. Don’t believe me? Check out my previous blog post: BREAKING IN: REPRESENTATION – HOW TO GET AN AGENT.
Your best bet is to craft a super smart, targeted query, and send it to a manager or producer. Managers, unlike their representation counterparts, are very much in the business of finding diamonds in the rough, and for those who are still in a list-building mode, a brilliant query offering up a unique logline unlike anything they’ve read before that speaks to their sensibilities, might just spark interest. Producers (of the independent sort), too, may be open to queries, as they are often looking for a type of script or a type of project. While studio producers will rarely read material from a query, if at all, as the 90’s and early 2000’s taught us much from a flurry of both founded and unfounded IP theft lawsuits, independent producers may be a bit more open, as they are not under the edict of a studio. All that said, if a manager or a producer asks to read your screenplay, don’t be surprised if they ask you to sign a Release Agreement, which has become par for the course.
A note of caution: Managers, traditionally, don’t like to take out material that has previously been exposed in the professional space. Which means that if you query fifty productions company, and somehow manage to get read requests from twenty of those… the screenplay will have been logged, likely with a “pass” recommendation, at each one of those shops, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a manager to re-approach and get the screenplay the consideration they are hoping for. Of course, there have been exceptions to this rule. But because of this, you should always query (or pitch) managers first, and then turn to individual producers after your representation options have been exhausted.
Now, it’s not just about which profession to query, but also who in that profession to approach. If you query the likes of super-managers Alan Gasmer or, say, Aaron Kaplan, you are that much less likely to get any interest, as they are not in a list-building career stage, and in all likelihood are getting more material – and by extension writers – than they can handle through referrals. In order to get meaningful returns from your querying efforts, you want to query up-and-coming managers who don’t have their pick of the litter, and who understand that at their particular career stage, they will likely need to be taking more chances on writers less known who could become those star clients one day. Therefore, seek out managers who are single-operators, those managers who are reading for the big screenwriting contests or those who are campaigning to get their client’s screenplays on the prestige lists, such as The Black List, The Hit List, or The Blood List. While you will see some big managers land clients there as well, those consistent list efforts can more often be considered to be up a young manager’s ally.
How Should You Query?
While there are a number of query sending services still active in the space, the sort that blast a stock query letter to hundreds of recipients, what my clients found to be significantly more effective in this day and age boils down to three things: Targeting, research and specificity.
Be clear about who you are querying – use their name, and any other pertinent information that you can add elegantly about why it is your’re querying them. Know what they do, potentially who they rep or what projects they’ve been involved in. If you share a common history – grew up in the same city, went to the same school or know the same people, be sure to call those out. Query specifically and with purpose. If you’re querying the right people and not going far outside your punching weight, you should be able to generate some returns.
Tips for Writing and Sending a Killer Query
There are a number of ways to make a query letter stand out:
- Always lead with a headline: Why should the rep want to read you? Have you won any contests? Were a finalist in the TV writing fellowships? Gotten an 8 on The Black List website? Have a unique life story that seamlessly ties into the work? That information should be put front and center.
- If you’ve researched the manager and have specific reasons for reaching out to her, those should go in first.
- Write a killer logline. Unique, focused, concise.
- State your genre and format clearly: 1/2-hour comedy. Thriller feature. 1-hour drama.
- A logline should be just that: Log LINE. One to two sentences. No need for paragraphs. Or multiple ones. If you can’t explain it simply, it’s a problem.
- Don’t include multiple loglines for multiple project. This is about you sharing your latest and greatest work.
- Still have more pertinent information to add? Include another paragraph about yourself following the logline. Remember, a manager gets into business not with a script but with a writer.
- Don’t tell the reader you’re contacting them because you’re seeking representation. They know that.
- Don’t ask for notes on your script. Simply offer to send it. They will take it from there.
- Don’t query before your screenplay is ready. Be prepared to send it in as soon as someone asks for it.
- Don’t send query letters on the weekend or after hours.
- Send query letters during the work week, Tuesday through Thursday.
Untitled Entertainment’s Jennifer Au had these useful tips to add: “People forget when they write a query letter (or even when you’re writing a note to someone) that writing is a reflection of your writing, too. So if you’re a comedy writer, your query letter should be funny. Your query letter shouldn’t be filled with typos. That is a reflection of your work and your work ethic. Don’t send me a query letter addressed to someone else – that happens a lot. Take the time to put my name on it. It makes a difference. It’s more rare for someone to infuse a type of writing like that with their voice. It’s much harder. But it does stand out.”
Query letters might not be glamorous, and may not have the sort of impact that referrals have, but in closing, let me repeat what I mentioned earlier, when I started down this path: If you don’t have other options available to you for exposing your work, make the best of what you have. Write a killer query. Put in the time. Do the research. If you do enough of it, methodically and diligently, you are likely to garner some interest. Even if it’s just a little bit to start with, it’s more than what you previously had.