Writing Successful Query Letters
A great query letter is your key to unlocking an executive's door. Take your time and be as thoughtful about your query as you were when writing your screenplay. Industry professionals view query letters as a reflection of the writer's screenplay and writing skills, so the assumption will be if the query letter is poor, then the script will be, too.
A query letter serves three main purposes: (1) it opens the door to establishing a relationship with an executive; (2) it requests permission to legally submit your screenplay and; (3) it creates a paper trail, which provides a written record of everywhere it has been submitted in the event there is a dispute over theft of ideas.
Query letters must have punch to entice the agent, producer, production company, and/or studio executive--all of whom read countless queries daily--to want to read your screenplay now. Your enthusiasm and passion about your project must shine through in your query.
Query Letter Content
A query letter should be a succinct one-page letter that includes a one-sentence logline, one-paragraph script synopsis, one paragraph about your background, and one paragraph inviting the addressee to read your script. Make every word count!
Do not write a form letter; your query must be specific to each individual and tailored to the agent or executive's company. Most industry professionals prefer a standard, no-frills business letter. They often feel that writers spend too much time on unnecessary details, such as designing a logo for their script, and not enough time on content. It's the content that's going to win them over in the end!
Film executives tend to differ as to whether or not writers should compare their scripts to successful films in their queries. Some executives want to see that you've written a unique project that has never been seen before, while others like to see how your project will fit into their marketing scheme. Trust your instincts. If you decide to reference other films, make sure the film was a box-office success!
Addressing Your Query
Many writers make the mistake of addressing their queries to the president of a studio or even "To Whom It May Concern." This will demonstrate to the industry professional that you're not savvy and your query will mostly likely be thrown out.
Keep in mind that there is a revolving door of agents and executives--who's here today might not be next month. Research the addressee's current business contact information or call the company to whom you are submitting your query, to find out the appropriate person, and verify the correct spelling of his or her name, and title.
Do not use the industry professional's first name unless you know him or her very well.
A logline is a written pitch that is one-sentence long. Loglines must succinctly and accurately convey what the core of your story is about, using your story arc as your guide. The first step is to ask yourself: "What is my script about?" and then answer the question. Keep in mind that a logline is not a tagline, as seen in a movie trailer or movie advertisement.
Loglines should be written in the present tense. Follow your protagonist's journey, and his or her major goal and conflict/obstacle. (Keep in mind that your protagonist must be one with whom the reader can identify.) Define who your protagonist is by including, for example, his or her profession. Indicate how your characters are distinct by using strong adjectives to describe them.
Do not use characters' names unless your script centers on a historical figure. Do not write a run-on sentence. Phrases such as "It's a story about" or "We follow the journey of " are too wordy and unnecessary.
Using the present tense, synopsize your script in approximately five succinct sentences, following your protagonist's journey. Indicate what's at stake for your protagonist and the major conflicts encountered along the way of achieving his or her goal. Show the reader how your story is different and unique, and what sets it apart.
Your story concept must be clearly executed. Stick to only the important story points. Do not include too much plot description or get bogged down in character details.
Don't reveal your script's ending--your goal is to entice the reader to request your script.
In one paragraph, provide information about who you are and any film- or writing-related background. Be honest--do not misrepresent or exaggerate your background. If you have won or placed as a finalist in a reputable screenplay contest, definitely include this information.
If you do not have any film- or writing-related experience you may want to briefly state, for example, your profession, the college you attended, or what inspired you to write your screenplay as it specifically relates to your subject matter. You might spark interest by including the aforementioned suggestions. For example, the person reading your query may have gone to the same college and this may help to establish a personal connection. However, keep in mind that few industry professionals are truly interested in your personal background and may be turned off to read this. But there are exceptions--when I suggested to some of my students and Su-City Pictures clients who didn't have any film- or writing credits, to briefly include information about their personal backgrounds, some did receive requests to read their scripts.
Query Letter Dos
- Be original. Your query must stand out in the crowd.
- Be brief and to the point. This is a business letter; don't be chatty.
- Use short paragraphs.
- Be sure to indicate the genre of your script.
- Accurately represent your project and who you are!
- Your query letter should emphasize how your script will meet the executive's needs, not vice versa.
- Impress the executive with your writing craft.
- Provide your contact information. If you're going to be moving, then mention when your new contact information will be in effect.
Query Letter Don'ts
- No typos. No grammatical errors. No incorrect punctuation. No smudges.
- Don't handwrite your letter.
- Don't repeat your logline in your synopsis.
- Don't flatter the addressee too much.
- Don't sell yourself short.
- Don't beg or ask for permission to send your script.
- Don't include casting or box-office projections.
- Don't be obnoxiously funny or too cute to attract attention.
- Don't state your theme(s). If you do your job well, this will be evident.
- Don't say that your script is great; your logline and synopsis should say it all.
- Don't include your ideas on how your script should be marketed.
- Don't include your script's budget.
Query Letter Template
You do not have to strictly adhere to the template below; you can be inventive. For example, you can open with information about the protagonist in boldface type for emphasis:
Meet Eva Gomez. Recent widow. Successful lawyer. Unsuccessful mother. Desperate for justice.
Or you can open with attention-grabbing questions that address your script's themes, such as:
What do you hate more? Injustice? Death? Your mother? All of the above?
Address of company
Dear Mr. or Ms. Executive: (use a colon, not comma)
Begin with a friendly greeting and/or attention-grabbing line about your script. Continue with a sentence such as: "I have just completed (title of screenplay) that I would like to submit to you for your consideration." (Choose an opening that best suits your script and reflects who you are as a writer.) If appropriate, include information about why your project may be the right match for their company.
Synopsize your script in approximately five sentences. State the genre (here or in your opening paragraph), who the main characters are, using their actual names, what their major goal and obstacles are, and how they plan to overcome it. Don't give away the ending.
Give a brief one-paragraph bio stressing your screenwriting or film background. For example: "My credits include: (awards received and the name of the film or script)" If you don't have any film or writing-related credits, you may want to add something unique about yourself that makes you attractive to the executive.
Closing paragraph. Two to three simple sentences will do. For example: "Thank you very much for your consideration. (If mailing your query, include: "Enclosed you will find a self-addressed, stamped envelope for your reply.") I look forward to hearing from you soon."
When Your Query is Complete
Follow the companies' query submission guidelines. Some companies prefer an emailed or faxed query, while others request a postal query because they may want to use the self-addressed, stamped envelope to respond and/or enclose a release form if they are interested in reading your script.
If you are submitting a hard copy of your query, use standard white 20 lb. bond paper and a standard #10-business envelope. (Do not use fancy fonts.) Fold your letter in thirds with the addressee's name, title, and address, facing up. If an enclosure has been requested, fold the two pages as one. Your self-addressed, stamped envelope should be folded in thirds.
Be sure to have someone proofread your query!
Get feedback from someone whose opinion you respect and trust. Ask them if the query was enticing enough for them to want to read your script.
Before mailing your query letter, double-check that your envelope is addressed to the same person as your query. Keep a copy of your query for your files. Make a list of all your submissions, and include the submission date, addressee's name, his or her title, and the company's name.
Now that your query letter is completed--treat yourself to a movie!
This article contains excerpts from Susan Kouguell's book The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin's Griffin)