Keep it short.
That’s the short version of this post on query letters and loglines.
Keep it short.
Unfortunately, it’s going to take one long post to explain in detail why to keep it short. In fact, it’s going to be over 2,000 words—but there’s a lot to learn here. If you’re in college, you should get credit for reading this post. Especially since many film schools never touch on this practical aspect of knocking on doors. (It’s may be more valuable than a discussion on why
About three months ago I wrote a post called Marketing Your Script (Part 1) where I tossed out a several versions of loglines for my screenplay Shadows in the Dark asking readers to give their input.
The consciousness was along the lines of favoring this one:
SHADOWS IN THE DARK—A young, inexperienced police officer from small town Iowa must tap into his dark side to solve the first ever murder in the town’s history before the town turns on him and he loses his faith in himself—and before a killer gets away with a quadruple homicide.
I traded a couple emails with screenwriter Max Adams around that time as I really liked what she wrote about query letters in her book The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide.
Max was kind enough to critique my logline and said it needed to be shorter and stripped of all metaphor. She wrote, “Phrases like ‘tapping into the dark side’ are metaphors that don’t really tell anyone what the story is about.”
And in my query letter I had mentioned that this was my ninth script, but Max didn’t see that bit of information working in my favor. She wrote, “Don’t tell someone it’s your ninth script. The immediate snotty agent response to that is, ‘If you were any good, why didn’t one of the other eight sell?’ It’s Hollywood. It’s how they think. Don’t give them something to react off in that way.”
It doesn’t matter at this point that several people have read the script that I co-wrote with Scott Cawelti has gotten comments like, “Great script. I read it in one sitting because I wanted to know who killed that family.” Friends, family and other writers are great to read your script for encouragement.
But unless one of your friends on family members happen to have the last name of Spielberg, that encouragement probably won’t result in a sale.
And I received solid notes from several people that resulted in several more rewrites of the script.
Around this time I came across a blog post by Christopher Lockhart that was an eye opener. People often talk about writing a great script, he talked about “the right script.”
What makes a script a “right” script:
You may have executed the perfect script but if the concept isn’t something that grabs Hollywood executives, agents, or readers then your script will have a tough time even getting read.
Of course, there are plenty of great indie films that don’t have the most compelling loglines and still get made. If you write a script like “Winter’s Bone” don’t expect anyone in Hollywood too get excited.
And I’m sure more than one Hollywood executive said of its under $13 million worldwide total gross, “I knew that film wouldn’t make any money.” But in the indie world, “Winter’s Bone” beat the odds because it not only got made, but it got distributed. And made on a budget of $2 million, even after prints and advertising, it made a little money.
Getting indie films made is one big mountain to climb. Hollywood is similar, but different mountain.
So I sent Christopher Lockhart my query and asked him to critique it and he was kind enough to do so. Here’s the one page query that I sent Christopher, followed by his response in bold:
June 22, 2011
Mr. Christopher Lockhart
Dear Mr. Lockhart,
In 2008 after seeing “Juno” and discovering that screenwriter Diablo Cody went to college in Iowa I started a blog called “Screenwriting from Iowa.” Since then that blog has not only been listed as one of the top ten blogs for aspiring screenwriters, but was mentioned on TomCruise.com*, and became the first blog on screenwriting to win an Emmy.
Since graduating from film school in Los Angeles, various productions over the years have taken me to all 50 states and overseas as a video and TV producer/director. I’ve worked on everything from shooting a couple interviews for Steven Spielberg’s “Shoah Project,” field producing for ABC’s “The Doctors,” and writing & directing short films while collecting 20 awards along the way. (I even did two days of locations scouting in Iowa for Mandate Pictures.)
My newest script “Shadows in the Dark” is a crime drama. Years after an injury ended his college wrestling career, a 28-year-old finds himself far from his former glory. He’s Chief of Police, but in a one-cop town where not much happens. Until one fall night in 1975 when a family of four is murdered. Since that small Midwest town has never had a single murder in its 137-year history, everyone thinks it was an outsider passing through town.
But was it?
Chief Bartlett isn’t so sure and that doesn’t make him popular with some of the town folks. As he investigates, his inexperience is exposed and makes mistakes. But he learns that, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.,”—and that the right thing to do is not always the most popular choice—nor the safest. More people will die, but the truth will be discovered. From a perspective of a young cop rite of passage, it’s in the vein of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.
The story is inspired by true-life events that are still legendary in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
May I send you this script for your consideration?
Scott W. Smith
Your query letter:
This is just my opinion. Others will have different reactions.
I think it’s too long. Personally, I don’t want to know anything about you until I’ve read the logline. If the logline excites me, then I’ll want to read more about the mind behind this great idea.
If this came to me from someone I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t read much beyond the first few lines.
The Emmy detail is interesting, but I’m not sure if anybody other than me would care. I keep a semi-blog, so it has personal intrigue. (And I like to brag to myself that I could be the only screenwriting instructor nominated for an Emmy for teaching screenwriting. Suck on that, McKee!)
We get lots of e-mails a day. Hundreds. And those are business related. And then there’s the query letter. Hundreds of those too. Many companies will not accept unsolicited query letters to avoid liability issues. (I often get query letters that solicit whether or not the writer can send a query.) So, for many, unsolicited queries can be trouble or, at the very least, the lowest of priorities. (By the way, I would never put the word “query” in the subject line of a query letter. Just use the script title.)
No one has time to read through a query. Keep it fast and simple. Evelyn Wood should be your muse. We’re on a search and destroy mission. If I can’t pinpoint the logline amongst all the writing, I’m out of there.
You letter has way too much to say. Don’t sell yourself. Allow the concept to sell itself. When the logline is buried alive in the letter, I figure it may not be all that strong. If I had an awesome concept, I’d put it in the fucking letterhead – not bury in all that black.
So what of your pitch?
I think it’s too long. And, boiled down to it’s most fundamental state, it’s the story of a cop who has to solve a murder.
The hook is that it’s the first murder in the town’s 137 year history. I’m not sure if that’s all that much of a hook. Or if it’s enough of a hook. I kind of like it. But it’s not likely to bowl people over.
Remember, a “hook” is what takes an ordinary story and gives it that spark of originality. That dash of taking the familiar and making it unique. Hollywood likes unique – but familiar. A hook is built into the concept. It’s not a twist. The idea of a hook is to hook the reader into the story. So it’s found earlier in the script. A twist is an unexpected plot turn. For instance, in THE SIXTH SENSE, the hook is the boy sees dead people. The twist is Bruce Willis is dead.
If you going to offer up an archetypal story (and what isn’t archetypal) then you need a strong hook to compete in the marketplace.
I’ve read tens of thousands of scripts. How many scripts have I read that sound like the one you’re pitching? Thousands. There isn’t anything that allows me to say, “That’s a good spin on a tried-and-true formula.”
Referencing THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SEVEN is a noble effort, but there isn’t anything in what you’ve pitched that allows me to agree. So I blow it off as hyperbole.
In your pitch, you make the fatal mistake of offering up a book cover synopsis. In other words, you deliver it with mystery, explaining some things but leaving more to one’s imagination.. I don’t want fucking mystique. I want to know the story.
So if you’re going to offer up more than just the logline – tell me the story. I don’t need the theme – which you sort of deliver here. (Don’t tell people what your script is “really” about. Let them decide for themselves. It’s a personal journey. Telling them what they’re suppose to derive from it makes it your journey. If a reader cannot personalize the experience, the script fails.)
The pitch is vague in telling me what the cop is up against. He’s investigating this terrible crime. He suspects the criminal is a townie and not an outsider. And…then what? Your pitch goes off base at that point with theme instead of telling me the actual drama. You lose focus. For instance, when he suspects it’s a townie, how does that impact the investigation? What does that mean for him? Is the town trying to cover it up? Protect the real culprit and allow an outside to take the fall?
I should understand this from the pitch.
But you evade the important stuff that I have to know and offer up inconsequential stuff. A good pitch should intrigue – not frustrate.
Give me the story points that make me want to read this script. Give me the conflict. Give me the drama.
GIVE ME THE MOVIE!
So from your pitch, this is what I come away with:
This is based on a true story.
A young police chief, in a small Iowa town, struggles to solve a multiple murder – the only homicides in the town’s 137 year history – but when he suspects the culprit is one of their own and not an outsider…
What should follow after the ellipsis is the heart of the movie, and it’s what you don’t pitch me.
It’s a fatal mistake. As a result, I think most wouldn’t be able to have a clear vision of the movie and would simply hit the DELETE button. It would definitely be a pass from me.
P.S. By the way, it would be wise to leave out the 1970’s time period, since it makes your script a period piece. It doesn’t seem to be a crucial detail in the understanding of your story.
Why turn off a potential reader? (Period pieces are a tougher sell, so they can be less enticing.)
Think of pitching like house selling. In terms of the marketplace, you want to show off the pitch’s assets and minimize the elements that could turn off reps, producers and execs. At this point, the goal is to get them to read the script. If you don’t succeed at that, they’ll never know that you’re a brilliant writer.
Now keep in mind that WME is the largest agency in the world and is said to represent the top 2% of a relatively small Hollywood talent pool. They’re looking for big ideas, that will attract big dollars. If you were a Hollywood agent getting 10% and Ryan Renyolds was your client would you rather he appear in Buried ($3 million budget) or The Green Lantern ($200 million budget)?
Ultimately, having a query letter strikeout is not the end of the world. It’s a little like the time when I was 18-years-old and went to an open tryout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Key word there is “open.”) You’re just kinda glad to be on the field getting a shot. I’ll keep working in the logline (and the script), and keep pursuing other Hollywood options and indie routes. (And from now on I’m a big fan of nailing your logline and pitch before writing the script.)
Notes like Max’s and Christopher’s either tear you down or build you up. In my case, it recharges me and I’ll step up back to the plate soon. I’ll post round three of my query that will not only be better for this advice—but it will be a heck of a lot shorter.
Many thanks for Max and Christopher for being gracious enough for taking the time to respond. Max heads up the Academy of Film Writing and blogs at See Max Run. Christopher’s blog is The Inside Pitch and is featured on the DVD The Inside Pitch, Selling a Script in Hollywood. One post of Christopher’s posts that is related to all of this is Think “Hollywood.”
Related posts: Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
Getting Your Script Read (Tip #51)
Marketing Your Script (Part 3) —Features query Max Adams used for her script Excess Baggage.
Query from Iowa, By Mark Strauss
Scott W. Smith
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