Writing the Perfect Query Letter for Your Scripts

By December 8, 2015Blog, Featured

Ah, the query letter. A novice screenwriter’s first line of contact with the powers that be. Many approach writing them with trepidation and insecurity, thinking that if they write too little, too much, or the wrong things, it could mean the very end of their screenwriting hopes and dreams before they even really have a chance to get started — that’s the mindset of a writer at least.

However, it’s not as complicated as screenwriters make it out to be.

Below are some pointers and directives for writing the perfect query letter. These are proven methods from the perspective of a screenwriter seeing success as a result of the implementation and from the perspective of an assistant, intern, or powers that be receiving them.

We’ll then take all of those directives and showcase examples to prove how simple it can be to write effective query letters.

1. No Snail Mail

First and foremost, don’t send paper query letters through the mail. Generally speaking, they will often be ignored and thrown away.

In this day and age, for query letters, email is the primary form of communication, and the content should be within the body of an email, not as an attached document. Email is easy to discard, easy to file, easy to access, and easy to reply to. We live in a digital world, and it’s time to accept that if you haven’t already.

And yes, you’d be surprised how many of the powers that be answer their own emails.

2. Send Them to the Right People

You have to do your homework. You have to be an excellent researcher. The worst thing that you can do is blanket send your query to all of the major production, management, and agency companies. That will do you no good.

Sign up to IMDBPro, look up movies that fall under the same genre and scope, and approach those production companies and the representation that represents those writers.

Read the trades (The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline) to familiarize yourself with the movers and shakers in the film and television industry. You’ll often learn a lot about who is buying and developing what.

3. Address Them to Individuals, Not “To Whom It May Concern”

One of the most common mistakes screenwriters make is using the same query content and starting with To Whom It May Concern. It’s impersonal and shows a lack of effort on your part.

That said, when you do address a particular person, make sure you spell their name correctly.

Hollywood is also fairly informal. Use “John” rather than “Mr. Doe.” While this can be handled on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the stature of the individual you’re addressing, experience has shown that using first names blends in better with their daily interactions

4. It’s Not About You, It’s About Your Script

Avoid going into depth about yourself. It’s awkward to read and awkward to respond to.

Everyone in Hollywood loves movies. Most have wanted to work in movies since they were kids. Most have struggled to break through the Hollywood walls. This isn’t news to anyone. Thus it’s a waste of space.

Hollywood is a fast-paced environment and all-too-often the powers that be don’t have time for those trying to pull their heartstrings.

Beyond that, if you have film or television industry credits or work history, by all means, make mention of them briefly, but anything beyond that just isn’t necessary.

Lastly, if you don’t live in the Los Angeles area, make no mention of that initially. If you go on and on about how you’re living in the Midwest (or anywhere else) and long to work in the film industry one day as a screenwriter, you’ll likely shoot yourself in the foot from the get-go. The powers that be, and their underlings, are looking for a reason to say no due to the many submissions they get. Don’t give them that opportunity or excuse. Let them fall for your concept first.

5. Be Informal, But Not TOO Informal

You want to blend into their normal daily correspondence as much as possible. There’s nothing worse than a wooden message with overly articulated sentences and unnecessary vocabulary enhancement. Those types of emails stand out like a sore thumb and they reek of desperation. Keep it simple.

While many screenwriters make the mistake of being too formal, others take informal to an uncomfortable extreme.

“What’s up my brother?”

“’Sup John?”

“I’m just trying to make it happen, man. Help me out?”

Don’t be that informal.

“Hi” and “Hello” are good openers. “Hey” can be played with on a case-by-case basis.

You basically want to approach them in a casual business sense, as one would in a day job correspondence within an office environment.

That said…

6. Don’t Tell Jokes

When some screenwriters grasp the fact that you don’t want to sound too wooden and boring, they sometimes feel that humor is the answer, thus they waste 2-3 sentences telling a funny anecdote. Avoid that at all costs.

7. Get to the Point

Open with a brief sentence introducing yourself and why you are contacting them. Tell them that you hope the day or week is going well. Then go directly into your logline.

8. The Logline is Everything

Concept is everything in Hollywood. Your logline is your selling point. In the end, that is all that will matter to the powers that be when they read that email query. ScreenCraft has covered this well in How to Write Effective Loglines. You can also find loglines for any existing movies on IMDB.

It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in. These loglines need to give a clear and concise view of what your project is and what the appeal may be.

A quirky family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus. (Little Miss Sunshine)

A group of seven former college friends gather for a weekend reunion at a South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends. (The Big Chill)

A man creates a strange system to help him remember things so he can hunt for the murderer of his wife without his short-term memory loss being an obstacle. (Memento)

A thief who steals corporate secrets through use of the dream-sharing technology is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a CEO. (Inception)

When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter. (The Exorcist)

A fast track lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish after the lawyer turns his son down for the last time. (Liar Liar)

Write some amazing loglines that get to the core of the concept and engage the reader.

9. It’s Jurassic World Meets Star Wars

Follow your logline with a comparison of two or more films. This places your concept into a certain context that the powers that be can understand quickly.

Be sure to use successful examples, mind you. You can’t sell the genre and tone of your script well with It’s Showgirls Meets Battlefield Earth. You need to use solid examples of successful or critically heralded films, and you need to be sure that you’re being fully honest and humble as well. It would be tough to live up to It’s Citizen Kane meets Casablanca.

10. Confidence NOT Arrogance

Yes, the powers that be want confident writers that they can trust to write great material. What they don’t want is arrogance. There is a difference.

“Your company needs a script like this.”

“This is the next Best Picture.”

“This script has Oscar-worthy roles.”

“Hollywood needs a script like this.”

“There’s a lot of big people in Hollywood interested in this so you should jump on it quick.”

These are all terrible one-liners that everyone in the film and television industry has read and quickly discarded. Don’t be the next to write them because it will mean instant rejection.

11. Email Subject Heading

This is probably one of the most important elements, believe it or not, because that’s the first thing the powers that be will see. Thus, what you don’t want to do is have the email scream amateur.

“Looking to sell my script.”

“Script for consideration.”

“Looking for a producer for my script.”

“Representation.”

Those, and many other examples, all scream amateur.

Again, the trick is to blend into their regular correspondence as much as possible. Subject headings that have worked include:

“Johnny Screenwriter” – Just putting your name in the heading forces a click because it could be one of their contacts referencing someone.

Jaws spec” – Using the title of the script, accompanied by an industry term, is also something that forces a click. One could argue that you should use script instead of spec, so as to not scare them away, but you can try both and see what has more success.

“Hey Steven” – It’s informal and could be anyone that they know or they’ve come across in the past. One could argue that this is too informal, but it’s worked.

12. Utilize Any and All Contacts, No Matter How Many Times Removed

If you have a connection with them, utilize it. Those are the people you should be going to first. If they know someone you know, that’s your opener right there. If you met them at an event or gathering, start with that. If they are an alumni from your college, “Go Badgers.” If they are from your home town or state, play that up. Who do you know that is working in the business? Who do you know that knows someone that is working in the business? It doesn’t matter how many times removed you are because it’s an opening that you can use to connect with them. It doesn’t always work, but it betters your odds.

13. Thank Them and Then Leave Them Alone

Get out as quickly as you got in and then thank them for their time.

If the logline intrigues them and the concept is something that they are looking for, they’ll get back to you. If not, move on.

14. Don’t Sit by the Computer Waiting

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how great your concept is or how great your query may be. The worst thing you can do is obsess and wait by the computer clicking refresh over and over waiting for a response to come in.

You have no control over what they want or don’t want. You’re powerless in that respect so how silly would it be to waste your time, energy, and emotions on waiting for a response?

Keep grinding on and keep sending those queries out. If you have great concepts, great loglines, and take it to the right people, someone will bite.

15. Be Prepared for Success

Be careful what you wish for, right? All too often, screenwriters are taken by surprise with a reply from the powers that be. Now you have the chance of a lifetime, but perhaps your script isn’t ready? Maybe it’s not correctly saved to PDF format, and your software is out-of-date? Perhaps the script is full of typos and grammatical errors and you haven’t had a chance to proofread it yet?

You need to be prepared for success because it will often come when you least expect it.

Your script needs to be ready. You shouldn’t be marketing anything that isn’t the best you could possibly make it. And if you really want to be prepared, don’t send out any queries until you have at least three solid scripts because if they like the script you’ve sent, the first question is always, “What else do you have?” If the answer is nothing, then to them you’re not worth the money and risk.

So What Does a Perfect Query Letter Look Like?

Well, as is always the case in Hollywood, there’s no one road to success. These directives will allow you to better the odds of success, but in the end, it all comes down to being at the right place, at the right time, with the right person that needs or wants what you have.

That said, here’s how simple a query letter could be written, with different variations.

Example #1

Hi Steven,

Hope the week is going well. I’ve got a pulse-pounding suspense thriller called Jaws that I think would be great for Amblin.  

When a great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, marine scientist, and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.

It’s The Thing From Another World meets Moby Dick.

Would love to have you take a look. Thanks much and let me know.

Best,

Johnny Screenwriter

Example #2

Hi Steven,

Hope the week is going well. Johnny Screenwriter here. Your driver George and I are old high school friends. He recommended I contact you for my spec script, Jaws.

When a great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, marine scientist, and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.

It’s The Thing From Another World meets Moby Dick.

Would love to have you take a look. Thanks much and let me know.

Best,

Johnny 

Example #3

Hi Steven,

Hope the week is going well. I’m a former studio reader for Sony and used to work under John Calley, whom I’m sure you remember.

I’ve got a pulse-pounding suspense thriller that I think would be great for Amblin.

Jaws 

When a great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, marine scientist, and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.

It’s The Thing From Another World meets Moby Dick.

Would love to have you take a look. Thanks much and let me know.

Best,

Johnny Screenwriter

Note: We’re being tongue-in-cheek with using Steven Spielberg as an example. Don’t try to contact him or anyone of his stature through email. It won’t happen.


Use these examples and the directives mentioned above to take the weight off of your shoulders and realize that query letters don’t have to be a source of trepidation and insecurity.

In the end, it’s the concept that will matter. If you have a strong premise portrayed by an engaging logline, and if you market it to the right people, that’s all you need in the end. The rest is out of your control.

Sure, the better option for marketing your script is making your own contacts in Hollywood and networking the best you can, but that’s obviously easier said than done.

These directives have worked — many times — and you can create your own variations of the above examples. But in the end, just keep it simple. Do your research, feel free to take some shots in the dark, and just keep getting your concepts out there. Your odds of success increase with each and every query you send.


Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies


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