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The old adage full of advice to writers who fret about writing a query letter:
Ask and ye shall receive. Well, maybe not every time.
But ask in the correct manner, and your chances of success start to soar, whether it be a request for funding, for a favourable equipment rental deal, or for interest in your screenplay.
The first rule of successful begging is to ascertain exactly what it is you require. Then it is necessary to quantify the need in simple straightforward sentences that are clear and yet entertaining to read.
If the first item on the agenda is film stock. Find out where there are advertising production companies and word your request as follows:
We are attempting to create the world’s first 35mm feature film (ninety minutes long) with a budget of absolutely zero. We wonder if you have any redundant film stock that you would allow us to utilize in exchange for a credit on the film.
Let us analyse this simple paragraph: Notice how often the key words such as ’35mm’ and ‘feature film’ are repeated, emphasizing the precise goal we were trying to achieve. Nobody would mistake our request for a donation to the local sports centre.
The choice of words is also important. For example, we asked to ‘utilize’ film stock. I discovered early on that I had a very negative response to the term ‘give us’. And if you think about it, once a roll of film stock is utilized, it is pretty much utilized.
The next task is to ascertain the identity of the target person in the company. Simply ring up the company and ask, for instance, for the person responsible for script development – if you are trying to sell a script. If you were seeking financing, you would ask for the person responsible for client’s discretionary income (within an accountancy firm). Of course, you could ask for the person responsible for redundant film stock, if you are blagging film stuff, and so on. Once you have this person’s name, you are nearly ready to go into battle.
The last piece of information you need to provide is a simple paragraph describing yourself. Try to do this in an interesting way, even if you have a boring day job – ‘I am a singing bus conductor who writes screenplays in my spare time.’
Film people are paranoid that they will miss the low-key individual that really has talent, and they also know that many successful filmmakers started as very shy individuals.
You now have a choice. You have to target names. Why not first try a cold call telephone pitch? Try to get the target on the telephone and persuade him with your charm that you are worth helping or worth meeting.
If it fails, or if a film company tells you that, as a screenwriter, they will only speak to you through an agent, you can then try the eight-line letter.
Often, the only way to present your script to a production company is through an agent or entertainment attorney known to the company. Here’s how you can get that elusive company to call you.
The secret is to compose a well-written letter, exactly eight lines long. Send it by post, or by fax, or e-mail to an actual human being at the production company. Target the person whom your research has shown to be the person responsible for deciding whether or not their company should purchase your screenplay, or whether someone from their company should meet with you for a one-on-one pitch meeting.
The reason that your letter must only be eight lines long is because you want that person to read it. When you write a letter you must understand that the person to whom you are writing is most likely to be extremely busy. An eight-line letter, which is a clear and concise, stands a far better chance of being read.
If the letter is ten lines long, or, heaven forbid, twenty lines long, your letter will require too much of that person’s time. And since the person does not know you, your letter will probably be consigned to the same paper shredder as your script was.
If you haplessly send a letter to a film company marked ‘To the person in charge of script acquisition’, your letter will also go straight into the rubbish bin. If you, as screenwriter, are too lazy to call and discover the appropriate person in the company to send a letter to, they are justified in assuming that you paid as little attention to your script. You, as a writer, will be attempting to approach the head of story development, sometimes called head of acquisitions. If you are writing to the local firm of accountants seeking an introduction to the most wealthy clients in their office block, then somehow you want to find out if that firm has a person employed who is responsible for client’s discretionary investments.
Elements of an Eight-Line Query Letter
When you are writing a query letter try to remember that it is the entertainment industry. And make note of these tips as you structure your letter.
1.A good visual style
The paper does not need to be expensive, but should be crisp and clean. Avoid the use of fancy colors. Plain white is difficult to beat.
You should design a logo or graphic image, along with the name of your company. The image should say, very simply, why you are hot, or why you are going places.
The Raindance logo says ‘film’, yet it shows the wear and tear similar to a piece of film that has gone through the projector or editing table over and over again.
Next, try to invent a company name for yourself, but don’t get silly with names like ’20th Century United Artists’. Rip-off names like these garner little respect, especially if an aged relative of yours answers the telephone when your target calls you!
And this brings me to a related point on professionalism: make sure that you have a reliable answering machine service. It is also advisable to get a second dedicated fax line. If you cannot get one, try to find a friend who has a fax machine that you can use. If you have a second dedicated fax line, you are one big step away from rank amateur first timer: ‘tel/fax number’ on your letter just doesn’t carry a sense of success to it.
The company name should be fresh and simple and, above all, shouldn’t sound pretentious. You can register a company and become a limited company, either by buying an off-the-shelf company (£100 to £125) or by setting one up yourself. The fee is a mere £20.00. The drawback of registering a limited company is that you have to keep the records and file annual tax returns. Failure to do this can get you in all sorts of problems with the authorities. If you anticipate that your trading is going to start on a more limited basis, then consider starting a proprietorship – a company under your own name. For example, Joe Bloggs trading as Hot Shots. You can get a bank account in the name of your company and type the company name on you letterhead.
If you are pursuing a company in America, put in these two words somewhere in your letterhead – Thatched and Royal. North Americans are very impressed with low-budget films like The Crying Game, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Full Monty, and Sliding Doors that have come out of the UK, and, in this fiercely competitive business, you must learn to take advantage of every situation.
2.The text of the query letter
In the first three lines describe yourself, and what you do as your day job, even if it is boring. It is here in the first few lines that you must grab the attention of the reader. It is also an opportunity to bend the realities of your life. You should exaggerate for effect when you are talking about yourself.
If, for instance, you are a butcher, then state ‘I am a butcher, recently made redundant by the BSE crisis, who writes scripts in my spare time’.
The point is to grab the reader’s attention. A film development executive will be just as intrigued with your ability to write a screenplay if you are a disgruntled housewife, as he would be if you were a stylish trendsetter.
3.Twenty-five words or less
Next, you should outline your screenplay in twenty-five words or less. Many new writers get this wrong, and you will find this to be the most difficult thing in the world to do. You must sell the story, not tell the story.
Try to imagine yourself as the proud owner of a chalet in the south of France. If you got a request for information about renting your chalet for the summer, what would you send? The blueprints and heating plans of the building, along with the surveyor’s report? Or would you send the most flattering photo you could take?
Sample Letter of Twenty-five Words or Less Query Letter
The twenty-five words should read as follows
My first [second, forty-third, etc.] feature script is the story about [here you describe your hero – young man, beautiful girl, depressed athlete] who [put in what they want most in the world] but [here you describe their worst nightmare, or allude to the opponent who will prevent them from getting their goal] and [tease us with the ending].
The last two lines are I would like to submit my screenplay to your company for consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Sign your name.
Remember that the sole task of this letter is to get this person to call you. And it is a lot cheaper than sending the entire script.
What Happens to Your Letter?
Let us look at what physically happens to your letter once it reaches the office of any kind of film production company in the world. Travel with your letter, leapfrog the receptionist, and sit on the other side of the table.
Whether it arrives by fax or post, the development executive’s assistant will place your letter in a tray along with the rest of the correspondence of the day. People in the film industry work notoriously long hours and, at the end of the day, there is an unwritten rule that all calls and letters must be responded to.
It is a long-standing joke in the film industry that calls are returned at the end of each day. They call late and try to get your answering machine. In that way they can say that they tried to get back to you, but hey! It wasn’t their fault you were out. As they are returning calls (many film people process in excess of a hundred calls per day), they start going through the mail with a Dictaphone so that they can record their written instructions to their assistant.
When they come to a fourteen-line letter it gets immediately placed into the nutbar category. They don’t have time to read it and, besides, their date is waiting at the bus stop, and it’s now 7:15 P.M., and they’re annoyed.
Next is your letter. It’s short and concise. If you write a good first few lines, and especially if you make them respond, wince or smile – you are seventy-five percent home. Then it’s down to those twenty-five words or less. How good are they? How original are they? It’s really up to you to figure that out. But I do know this: if you send your letter to the right company and it is well written, they will call you. And that is what it is all about.
I know the eight-line letter works. We always use this form of a letter when we want to set up a meeting for sponsorship, or to get a celebrity to attend one of our events at the film festival.
I met a former student of mine on the street a few months ago and she told me that the eight-line letter didn’t work at all. She showed me the letter, and it looked pretty good. In order to sell her screenplay, she needed to find a production company in the southeast part of the United States. She did her homework and discovered thirty-eight companies that were just the right size to produce her film. She told me that she had sent her eight-line letter to all of them, and but had received only four requests for her script.
I had always thought that a success rate of one in ten was pretty good! The day I met her she was returning from the post office where she had mailed her scripts to America. I haven’t seen her since, but I am certain that she was successful.
- Make your eight-line letter entertaining.
- If the letter isn’t working, rewrite it and make it better.
- Don’t expect every letter to work.
- Here is a good list of literary agents’ Twitter accounts