SWS Question #5: What should a writer avoid when writing a query letter?
CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART*: Avoid silly, self-effacing, or obsequious letters. Be professional. Often, authors of comedy scripts try to pen funny letters. In some cases, it is effective. However, if the letter does not garner a chuckle, this can kill the script. Allow the pitch itself to earn the laugh. Sadly, goofy letters are often passed around the mailroom for a late afternoon chuckle before landing in the recycling bin. Or even worse, they are commemorated on the “wall of shame.”
Keep all information in the query letter pertinent. Avoid superfluity. For instance, a writer will tell an agent that she is a “grandmother of 12,” or another will say, “I have an accounting degree.” Only include what is absolutely necessary. No one cares if a scribe has an MBA from Michigan State. However, it makes sense to say, “I have a BA in film from….”
Do not include scenes from your screenplay in a query letter. Scenes, descriptions of your characters, action or actual dialogue can seem very unappealing when taken out of context. Screenplays deserve to be read in their entirety – as a whole.
Avoid insignificant praise. Never include readers’ positive comments. “My college film professor says it’s the best screenplay he’s read this semester.” “The local mailman said my depiction of the United States Postal Service is accurate and riveting.” “Mary Jones at Warner Brothers loves the script but says I must have an agent.” If Mary Jones loves the script, she will do everything within her power to obtain the script. (Mary Jones is politely blowing off the writer.) Occasionally, these quotes offer an unwitting sub-text that backfires on the screenwriter. Also, avoid hyperbolic descriptions of the screenplay. “It’s an action packed, thrill-a-minute character study with a romance that will break your heart.” Any kind of hype is unprofessional. It is silly for a screenwriter to praise his own work. It goes without saying that the writer believes his “characters are riveting” and his story “important for our times.”
Be careful in boasting about contest placements. While it might seem like a big deal that your script came in 27th place in a screenwriting contest, it’s possible that few in Hollywood will care. I was once chatting with an agent who got an email during our conversation. It was a query from a writer who explained that his script came in third place in a big contest. The agent wrote back saying he would be more interested in getting the names of the first and second place winners. If you didn’t win the contest, find a smart way to couch or position the information.
Do not include supplemental material. For instance: “With the hopes of enticing you to read my new screenplay, SHAME: A GIRL WITH AN STD, I have enclosed an eight-page booklet about syphilis.” The odds of the pamphlet being read are slim to none. Also, don’t send food or candy with a letter. No one in their right mind will eat food sent to them by a complete stranger.
Do not make casting suggestions (unless you are targeting an actor’s representative), do not suggest marketing concepts, and do not offer up taglines. You can refer to an actor to communicate the type of protagonist. (“Think of someone like Tom Cruise.”)
Avoid the “Clearance Bin at Wal-Mart” query letter. That’s the query that provides loglines for all the scripts you’ve written. Those letters, in my opinion, always give off a bad vibe. You’ve written all those scripts and haven’t landed representation yet? And when all the loglines are bad (and they most often are bad), it’s a real career killer – before you even have a career. I once wrote back to someone, suggesting they avoid the “Clearance Bin” method. They responded with, “I’ve had a lot of success this way.” To which I responded, “Then why are you querying me?” My suggestion is query with your one strongest piece of material. And regardless of when you wrote it (like five years ago), tell everyone you just finished it. If they want to read more of your work, you can go through the clearance bin.
Proofread the letter. One would believe writers have a strong command of their language. However, query letters are often littered with misspelled words. This also includes grammar and syntax errors.
Letters should be sent to a specific person. Be sure their name is spelled correctly. Refer to the “Hollywood Creative Directory,” the Internet, or call for the correct spelling. In general, calling ahead is a good idea. Double check to make sure the executive is still employed with that company. The agent’s name may appear in the “Hollywood Agents and Managers Directory,” but turnover is fierce, and the agent at UTA today could be at CAA tomorrow.
It is not bad form to query more than one rep at a company at the same time. One may blow you off and the other might respond. If they both respond, they can work it out between them. That’s a happy problem for you.
Avoid writing the letter by hand. Of course, an equal amount of care should be given to the envelope.
Avoid including “yes/no” self-addressed postcards – unless requested.
NEVER send the script along with the letter – unless requested.
When your script is solicited, do not ask that it be returned, and do not include a self-addressed stamped manila envelope for its return – unless requested.
The same applies for e-mail queries. There are services that will write your e-mail query and blast it all over town. However, those queries are often too long and laborious and make it difficult to enable one to “see the movie.” Brevity is essential in a query letter. Those services might have an easier time getting your e-mail into every computer in town, but you should, at least, write the query.
Also, send the query to everybody. For instance, you might do some research and learn that a small prodco only makes horror movies. As a result, you decide not to send them a query for your comedy. But, unbeknownst to you, they have decided to look for material outside their trademark genre – a missed opportunity because you censored yourself. Let others determine what material is right for them. All they’ll do is say, “We don’t make those kinds of movies.”
Don’t expect anyone to respond to your letter. Follow-up in two week intervals. If after six months you don’t get a response, consider it a response. You should never sit at home waiting for a response. Send your letters, make those calls and, in the meantime, start writing the next script.
*Christopher Lockhart is a film executive, educator and producer. He is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s biggest talent agency, where he looks for projects for “A” list clients including Denzel Washington and Steve Martin. He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU and lectures around the country. His writing workshop “The Inside Pitch” was produced for television and earned him an LA Area Emmy nomination. He co-produced “The Collector” (2009) and its sequel (in post production) “The Collection” (2012). He wrote and produced the documentary “Most Valuable Players (2010),” which won the “Documentary Channel Audience Award” at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival and was acquired by Oprah Winfrey as part of the OWN Documentary Club for a fall 2011 premiere. He has been a guest judge for screenwriting contests like Big Break!, The Wisconsin Screenwriting Contest and the UCLA Showcase 2011. Christopher is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, The Writers Guild of America, West and the Producers Guild of America.