Manager Tips for Writing a Killer Query Letter
Query letters have long been a path for new, relatively un-industry-connected writers to approach literary managers in the hopes that the rep on the receiving end will request their screenplay or pilot from the logline presented in said query letter (which today is really an email), respond to the writing, and offer to represent them. In the 90’s, at the height of the spec market and a time before social media and online pitch offerings, query letters were seen by many as the most popular way to go if you didn’t have any pre-existing industry connections.
As the years have gone by, business models changed, as did the method of doing said business. The debate about the effectiveness of query letters has continued to this today. While there is no argument that queries are not the first place that managers look when seeking or considering new writers today (referrals are the most effective way to get your screenplay or pilot in front of a prospective manager, while the big screenwriting competitions, online pitch opportunities and The Black List website also continue to provide managers with a pool of available, vetted scribes and content), the reality is that an effective query can still pack a punch, especially in times like these, when managers, in light of the current writer’s strike, might find themselves with a bit more time on their hands.
So… why am I telling you this?
This past weekend, I had the good fortune of welcoming my good friend, top lit manager Jeff Portnoy, to my STRAIGHT TALK event series, where we touched upon, amongst other things, query letters. Jeff is a highly regarded manager at Bellevue Productions who was previously featured in Variety’s Hollywood New Leaders. Over the years, a slew of my writers have signed with Jeff through various avenues (including queries!), so I’ve had the privilege of a front-row seat to his management style, which has made me a HUGE fan. Jeff is a dedicated, hard working, never-resting manager who always does what he says and delivers on his word, and is a tremendous champion for his writers, be they established, working writers or newly represented scribes. True to form, Jeff was generous with his time and input, and shared his tips for cutting through the noise and having your query letter stand out.
While these days Jeff finds new clients mostly by referrals from agents and producers (as well as the likes of me), he and other Bellevue managers continue to read query letters, and have signed new clients from query letters as recently as this year (2023).
So what does Jeff look for?
Note that while Jeff spoke to all the things below, most of the elaborations are entirely mine…
Is your query letter addressed to the manager, or is it a BCC situation, one stock query going out to many managers? That is the first thing the manager will see, so having the email addressed to them and only them will go a long way towards getting them to read on. Make sure to address your query to the individual manager. And always always double check the spelling.
Why are you reaching out to this specific manager? Do they represent someone whose work you respect? Did they say something on a podcast or on Twitter that resonated with you? Make sure that there’s clarity on why you’re reaching out to them specifically, beyond finding their name on a list.
Lastly, this: You are a writer, and your query letter, straight forward though it might be, is your first opportunity to present yourself as a writer. While you never want to over-complicate or over-write anything just to show off your writing prowess, this is your first opportunity to display some subtle word-smithing skills.
The concept that powers the logline for the screenplay or pilot you are looking to share is going to be the star of your query letter. Representatives are looking for exciting, fresh new concepts, the sort of they can get friends on the producing and executive side excited about (in non-strike times, of course). For more on why your screenplay or pilot concept is so important, check out Making Your Screenplay Shine: Concept vs. Execution, which includes insights from Jeff’s Bellevue colleague, manager Zack Zucker.
Tell the person you’re submitting the query to a little bit about yourself. After all, the rep takes the writer on for representation, not just the screenplay or pilot, so your query is where they begin to get to know you. Whether you have an interesting hobby (amateur lock picking?), bring relevant lived-experience to the screenplay you’re querying about (trained Muay Thai in Thailand for a year, which is now the world in which your pilot is set), went to a prestigious film school or studied something interesting that now informs and impacts your writing, you want to give the rep you’re querying a taste of what you bring to the page.
- Accolades and referrals
Are you in a writer’s group with one of the managers other clients? Do you and the manager have some friends in common? Or else, has the screenplay or pilot you’re submitting gotten an 8 on The Black List, made you a fellow or finalist for one of the prestigious labs or fellowships, or done well in one of the big screenwriting competitions? Be sure to include that information in order to help cut through the noise and give the manager one more reason to read you.
For more on managers, agents and representation, check out these blogposts:
- The Good News Blog Post: Representation
- 3 Steps to Getting Repped
- What to Expect… Getting Representation
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