Query Letters: Hoax or Not?
Stephanie Palmer and Jacob N. Stuart share their thoughts on the effectiveness of query letters for screenplays.
By Jacob N. Stuart.
Let’s say you plan to write a query letter to get a screenplay agent. Here’s my advice – don’t.
With these words, Stephanie Palmer began “The Great Query Letter Hoax“, a recent article about query letters, claiming that they do not work.
Stephanie Palmer is the author of Good in a Room and a former MGM film executive. She helps screenwriters to learn how to write screenplays, pitch their ideas effectively, and sell their projects. As a studio executive at MGM Pictures, she heard more than 3000 pitches, and hired over 100 writers. She’s been featured on the Today Show, in the LA Times, and on NPR.
An opinion piece by Jacob N. Stuart of Screenwriting Staffing follow his interview with Stephanie.
Part 1: Interview with Stephanie Palmer
So let’s start with the most obvious question – a question I’m sure you have already fielded. What if a screenwriter can’t live in Hollywood, or a place where “decision-makers” congregate? Is there an alternative (even if it’s not quite as effective) method to form a personal relationship/intro with a Hollywood Producer?
I understand that not everyone can move to LA. Yes, we all understand the potential benefits, but because of family obligations, financial constraints, visa issues, or other reasons, I know that relocating is not possible for many writers.
My first suggestion is to write a novel. Seriously. There are so many more channels to getting your work published or self-published, you have so much more creative control over the final product, the costs to market are so much lower, and you can create work that people around the world can benefit from and enjoy and you can live anywhere.
To form a personal relationship or get an introduction to a “Hollywood Producer,” I would start locally. Is there a film festival, state film office, writing conference or other event in your area? Can you volunteer? Attend? If you’re attending a presentation by someone you’d like to meet, write them a personal note before the event just stating that you admire what they’ve done and are really looking forward to hearing their presentation.
I have done this many times and frequently gotten invited to meet in person at the event. People have used this technique for events where I am speaking and I go out of my way to make sure we get a chance to talk in person because they took the time to send me a personal note.
You put “Hoax” and “Query Letter” in the same sentence. What about sites that require a screenwriter to form a query letter before submitting: Ink Tip, Virtual Pitchfest, The ISA? Not to mention Screenwriting Staffing, where nearly every producer requires the writer to submit a query letter (or some form of it) first, before even submitting the script. Are you suggesting that the writer not follow the producer’s wish by first sending a query letter, but rather call the producer personally, or even show up on their doorstep so they can achieve the “personal intro”?
Thanks for asking this and for giving me the chance the clarify as I have received emails from some of my readers asking similar questions.
Here’s a more detailed explanation.
Let’s say I am a beginning gardener. I enjoy being outside, learning about plants and flowers, and I’d love to grow a few vegetables in my backyard. I have taken a couple local classes, read some books, and I’m starting to experiment growing a few things. Now, I can keep doing this for the enjoyment of it and to have the satisfaction of eating the vegetables that I grow.
But, if I decided that I loved gardening so much that I wanted to pursue it as my profession, I would understand that I need to acquire some new skills. Though the information about soil amendments and watering schedules and garden planning is helpful, if I’m serious about becoming a farmer or a full-time landscape architect, the tools and techniques required to do it for a living are going to be different than the shovel and rake I have in my backyard.
This is kind of obvious, but I use this example because I think the world of hobbyist gardening vs. professional farming is much more clearly delineated than Hollywood screenwriting. The class I took in growing tomatoes in containers was helpful, interesting, and improved my gardening skills, but the teacher didn’t promise that this was the ticket to a full-time tomato farming career.
This is the hoax that is promised by some sites and “experts” — if you send out a query letter to producers (the hobbyist approach), you will be perceived as a professional and be able to connect with established producers, get your script purchased, get in the WGA, make a lot of money, and have a successful career. But that’s not the case – just like my backyard full of happy cherry tomatoes are not going to make me a living as a farmer.
I am focused on helping writers who want to make screenwriting their full-time profession. They need to know the tools, strategies, and tactics used to become professional writers and have a lasting career.
Just as I will keep gardening, I think everyone who wants to write should write. It’s when the commitment is made to pursue writing professionally that we need to approach it in a different way.
To continue my analogy, when I signed up for the Master Gardener’s program, one of the first lessons was, “Only observe your land (don’t try to grow anything) for the first year.” I nearly laughed out loud when I heard it, but that was the lesson. Not to do anything for the first year but observe; note the light, the shade, the seasons. I mean, asparagus takes three years to come to fruition. To grow it properly, you’ve got to plant it in the right place, and apparently that takes a year to figure out. And what if you want to plant an apple tree? It’s a long time between planting the seedling and eating the apple.
A lot of things are like that.
Many new writers want the “I don’t want to be a writer, I just want to sell my one script quick and make a lot of money approach” and that just doesn’t exist. For those who are committed, who know it will be work, who want to build relationships with the right people in the right way, I have written lots of articles and created a course that shares what has worked for my clients who have broken in, sold projects, and established lasting careers.
If I were serious and committed to being a farmer or landscape architect, I would want someone who had experience to tell me what strategies I should use to succeed and evidence that those strategies worked. That’s my goal with goodinaroom.com – to provide that higher level of practical information.
If a query letter is done correctly, it will include the following: short intro, short logline, plot synopsis and bio. One page max. Don’t you think, if anything, the query letter is good practice for screenwriters? Being able to tell your story in 60 words (or even 30) is a good skill to have, right?
Yes, writing a query letter is good practice. It can be a starting place for creating a verbal pitch, but beware, often written pitches that work on the page can feel formal and stilted when said out loud.
Do e-blasters give a bad name to the whole query letter method? (purchase IMDb Pro, troll every contact page, and send a standard query letter to firstname.lastname@example.org … even if they AREN’T seeking submissions at this time.)
Someone wrote to you: “I have listed my script on a bunch of the biggest listing and query services and even though it shows that people clicked, I didn’t get any inquiries. This is getting really expensive!” Are we to blame the actual screenwriting services that create a platform for screenwriters to post queries where Hollywood Producers can search for their next project? OR, is it fair to blame the screenwriter’s online pitch (logline, synopsis, etc) as the real reason behind the lack of success?
I hope my previous answers have covered these questions, but yes, absolutely, the quality of the concept and the query letter matter a great deal in any context. No, I would never use a blast service for any reason, nor would I recommend sending an unsolicited query to an email you found on IMDbPro.
Here’s why. Query services are bulk mail. Bulk mail does work a very small percentage of the time. For example, car dealerships often use bulk mail because if they send out 10,000 postcards and one person buys a car, it makes financial sense. But there are way more potential buyers for cars than there are potential buyers for screenplays.
Your screenplay is much more like an extremely rare luxury vehicle, like a Porsche 911R. There are a small number of people who can afford this kind of high-end car. The number is even smaller for producers who would be interested in buying your script – because they aren’t just thinking about the script purchase, they’re thinking about the total cost to make and market the movie. Most of the time that number is well north of $1M (the average cost of a studio film is north of $100M). You don’t use a bulk mail approach to find one of a very small number of buyers for an extremely expensive item.
The kind of screenplay purchases that get a writer into the Writer’s Guild, that make it possible for them to be professional writers, these projects are purchased for a lot of money and by specific buyers who only want to deal with writers who come with referrals.
$150K is a common deal for a screenwriter and regardless of the implied total cost to make and market the movie, a buyer isn’t going to spend $150K on an unknown writer who contacted them from a query.
To bookend my gardening analogy, I may decide that I just want someone/anyone to appreciate and acknowledge my gardening talent. So I might compete in my neighborhood gardening contest and if I am selected, I am happy about that, and maybe I win a small prize. But I don’t think that I’m going to be able to use this honor to be featured as a garden designer in Elle Decor magazine or to make a living as a professional farmer or landscape architect. The scale, the people, the competition is at a completely different level and therefore so are the strategies and tactics needed to succeed.
You wrote: “Your social graces, your personality, your ability to express yourself in person are all important aspects of becoming a working screenwriter.” Now, off the record, I completely agree with this statement. But to play devil’s advocate, I would say most writers prefer a recluse and hermit life (especially novelists). So what advice would you give a screenwriter who doesn’t have a personality like an actor when it comes to networking and making the initial intro?
First, while it is helpful when a writer is outgoing and funny, it is not required. There are many highly successful writers who are strong introverts, who hate public speaking, and feel anxious before meetings. But they learn to present their ideas clearly and concisely. They don’t have be a standup comic or put on a big show, but they do have to learn how to tell a story — something most writers naturally know how to do.
That said, I know many writers who have benefited from taking an improv comedy class, public speaking class, or participating in Toastmasters.
Another strategy is to write a good novel (or a good book), get it published, and when the novel has some proven success, you will have a much easier time networking and getting in the room. For example, one of my clients is in his 60s, wrote a non-fiction book as part of his academic career, and I helped him get a deal with Amblin (Spielberg’s prodco) to option the book. But he had to leverage his connections, and he had to meet with people in person. No queries. And I don’t mean no queries needed, I mean that we avoided queries so he would be seen as a more serious writer who didn’t need to query, even though this was his first sale to Hollywood.
Your perspective comes from someone who used to be a decision-maker at MGM – so any advice you give about how to pitch or write a query letter automatically demands and deserves our attention. But wouldn’t you say that there are too many screenwriters on the internet giving advice on “how to write a query letter”? At the end of the day, the query letter is intended for the producer, so only their opinion matters, right? So if you were doing a script search via the internet, wouldn’t you request a query letter first? And if not, what would you ask for? If so, what would you want to see in the query letter?
There are lots of people selling all manner of questionable services and products on the internet, so I’m not bothered. I recommend being skeptical of any product or service you are considering purchasing from the internet. Can you easily find the owner/creator of the site? Do they provide contact information? Are they a real person with a track record of some kind? Is there a clear refund policy? Do they have testimonials from real people who give their full names?
But to your question, as a producer, I would never do a script search via the internet. I’m not saying that there aren’t any good scripts online or any unknown writers. I know there are. But again, it’s about percentage choices. As a producer, I only have so much time.
If I wanted to produce a movie, I would do the same thing I am recommending – leverage my network to generate meetings with writers in person. I wouldn’t do the hard work to raise $100K – $5M, put myself on the hook with investors, and risk my reputation on a script from a person who wrote me a query. I want to meet that writer, get to know him or her, see if we can really work together closely for the time it will take to make something great.
In some of your past blogs you have given readers insight and advice on what to say in a pitch meeting (or be expected to answer). Like, “what’s the budget on this project”, “who would you cast”, “how long have you been working on this project”. If a screenwriter can’t physically meet the producer to pitch, should the screenwriter use those tools (and others) in the query letter (initial intro) when submitting?
No. Only prepare answers to these questions for when you are meeting, but don’t volunteer this information in a query letter.
This is a general question, but I think your insight is worth considering: why was the query letter originally created, and was there a time the query letter worked for screenwriters with zero contacts in Hollywood?
I’m not a historian, but the query letter has had a long history in the novel world, and as I’ve said, query letters can work for novels but not screenplays.
While I don’t know the history of the query letter in Hollywood, I can state that I first read query letters as an intern at Marty Katz Productions in 1997 and there hasn’t been a time in my experience between 1997-2015 where they have worked.
Hollywood is a competitive business and it’s a relationship business. It’s not fair but that’s how it is. Use a strategy that’s been proven to work, develop your relationships, and leverage them. That’s how you become a full-time, successful, professional writer.
Part 2: Opinion Piece by Jacob N. Stuart
First, I want to thank Stephanie Palmer for participating in this friendly interview/debate; she really got me rethinking some things!
OK – So, I read Stephanie Palmer’s blogs on a daily basis. I can’t think of one blog she ever wrote that I disagreed with. But when I read her blog about Query Letters, I had a few hiccups. I slept on it, and reread the blog again in the morning. As expected, I received dozens of e-mails from writers wanting to know my thoughts on her bold statement. Anyone who’s a member at Screenwriting Staffing knows that many of our industry pros request a query letter (or some form of it) before reading the actual script. So when fielding questions, my answer was short: “Stephanie knows best!” (and I wasn’t being sarcastic). I mean seriously, who am I to debate her wisdom and experience?
But… after speaking to a couple close people in my network, being a little more candid with my thoughts on her blog, I was encouraged to reach out to her.
So here is where we see eye to eye
There are two fundamental skills required to be a professional screenwriter: You have to write a bunch of awesome stuff (you know that). You have to get your awesome stuff to the right people (you also know this).
Screenwriting is a collaborative medium. This makes it different from writing a novel.
Hollywood is an unfair business where personal referrals and recommendations are the currency of the realm.
If you want to meet the people who can help you, try: Being an assistant. Volunteering at a film festival, film office, production company. Working on short films and independent films. Producing your own work (e.g. blogging, podcasting, writing articles). Winning screenwriting contests.
Where we disagree
Query letters are weak introductions.
Hollywood producers with purchasing power are not reading your query letter.
Hollywood producers are reading query letters. How do I know? Because I speak to them on a daily basis. Just log onto the Job Board of Screenwriting Staffing and you will find a plethora of companies, producers, and film-makers seeking screenplays. Are they necessarily asking for a standard query letter? No, not all the time. But they are seeking a logline, synopsis, and info on the writer.
Is MGM climbing at my door, begging to post a lead on our site, wanting query letters from our writers? No, absolutely not. But the business has changed. It changes every day. There is a huge populous all over the world with the power to make a film. They have equipment, crew, specific locations, and a budget to work within. No longer are the Big 6 the only ones filming movies. These indie producers are just like you and me. Yes, they have a network, but not a network like the huge studios in Hollywood do. So they go to sites like Screenwriting Staffing, where they can post a specific request, and have qualified writers message them. But just like any working producer, they don’t have the time to read 1,000 screenplays a week. So they request a query letter to get the ball-rolling.
Will the query letter sell your script? No way! Could it lead to a read, or even a meeting? Yes. It happens all the time.
But just like I told Stephanie in our private correspondence, the way query letters are being done today are completely ineffective.
For example, here are 5 common mistakes I see:
Poster art attached to the query letter.
A writer begging for someone to read their script.
A complete breakdown on who should star in the film.
Intros that start with awful jokes or life stories.
Loglines that are 100+ words.
I always tell screenwriters to tailor their query letter to the producer. If you can’t meet the producer first hand, but they have posted a screenplay request online… write a query letter that fits them directly.
Stephanie Palmer is 100% right when she suggests personal relationships trumps bulk query letters.
But the industry has changed. And producers exploit the power of the internet and use resources that directly connect them to screenwriters (now that film-making has taken a giant step outside of the gates of Hollywood – it’s now worldwide). So I urge you to not be frightened by the statement “query letters are a hoax”. It’s important you understand the context in which it was written (& Stephanie Palmer did an excellent job elaborating). Query letters have their purpose, but only if they are use correctly. But like Stephanie said, “Hollywood is about relationships”. So don’t get trapped like so many screenwriters do, hiding behind the computer, sending out blind e-mails to producers. Get out there, start mingling, and get involved in the film community in your city.
This article first appeared in ‘The Backstory’ at Screenwriting Staffing.