|Do's and Don'ts for Writers|
How to Write Query Letters & Log Lines
WHY DO AGENTS SEEM TO BE RELUCTANT TO TAKE ON NEW WRITERS?
No agent is interested in selling just one script for someone -- the money, no matter how much, simply isn't good enough. According to Christine Foster of Schapiro-Lichtman, it takes about one year to get a new writer read in the right places by the right people. During this time of establishment, the agent works very hard on your behalf with no monetary rewards. Too many agents have found that writers get frustrated and discouraged and jump ship to another agent -- who can then use that foundation to get farther. "They are very time-consuming," says Foster. "Let some tiny new agent do all that." It sounds heartless, but it is a business that they are running -- they have to make a profit to keep working for the clients they have and take on. Just like in any other business, they must choose "product" they think will sell. New agents also understand it is a business and, because they are new, are willing to build your career along with theirs. New writers may find new agents more willing to take a chance with them.
WHY DO AGENTS SEEM TO DISDAIN NEW WRITERS?
It's not disdain, it's cynicism born of experience. That's no comfort -- but it's knowledge that you can use to succeed. Experienced agents have found that a majority of writers try to market their scripts before they are ready. They don't know the craft, they aren't prepared and they don't have the knowledge they need to succeed. So, do your homework about the industry as well as the craft, network with industry personnel and make sure your scripts are on a par with produced scripts before beginning the race. False starts can disqualify you in this race just as in track and field events. There is a direct correlation between the amount of preparation and success. In showbiz as well as golf, holes-in-one are very rare.
ARE QUERY LETTERS EFFECTIVE?
Not particularly -- which is hard to admit as the writer of this column. One in a hundred work for Foster. Other agents would have different odds, but all of them would agree that the vast majority of letters are turned down. The best way to approach an agent is: 1) through a personal recommendation; 2) at a seminar or conference where they meet you face-to-face. But, if you're going to go the query letter route -- do it masterfully and it can and does work for many writers.
WHO READS MY LETTER?
In most cases, the agent doesn't read your letter, their assistants do. Occasionally, the agent may grab some letters off the stack and glance through them, so be sure to address your letter to the agent. In certain cases, a few letters are handed on to the agent for a decision -- so don't address your query to the assistant -- unless you have a personal recommendation to her or him >instead of the agent.
The assistants, though, are the ones you are dealing with at the first level so it's very important to be extremely polite and nice to them. Treat them as humans first -- not only because it's simple self-interest on your part, but because they deserve it. They have a very difficult job and it's refreshing to them to deal with thoughtful individuals. They are working insane hours -- sometimes more than 60 hrs a week for as little as $300 a week. They get all the dirty jobs: like rejecting writers -- and they are under a great deal of pressure. Acknowledging them as people with their own goals and dreams makes the job a bit easier. Jessica, a subagent at a smaller agency, appreciates it when someone she's talked to sends a note thanking her for her attention. Making a connection with the assistant makes for smart marketing -- and it's easier on your feelings as well. Courtesy begets courtesy in the entertainment industry as well in other fields -- even if it doesn't promise success.
Assistants also may be your ticket to success in the future. The turnover in the industry is extremely high -- assistants often are agents-in-training. That's right, they may be working as an assistant at ICM today and be a subagent at Endeavor tomorrow -- and they do remember the same bad letter and boring logline when they are assigned to read the mail. They also remember the writers they loved and the agent didn't. They may be willing to look at you >again with that in mind.
WHY DOES IT TAKE SO LONG TO GET A RESPONSE?
Agencies have different methods of handling the mail and scripts. In some agencies, the standard practice is to open the mail daily. In other agencies, the mail is only dealt with once a week -- or longer. I've heard about one agency where the agent, subagents and the assistants collect all the letters once a month and sit around a table reading them and as a group decide which scripts to ask for and which to reject. This is why you may not hear for a long time or you may hear immediately -- sometimes it's just a matter of how they deal with the mail and not a reflection on how they view your letter.
Also, I have not heard of an agency where answering the mail is anyone's only duty. The "squeaky wheel" syndrome kicks in -- assistants take care of what is most urgent or makes the biggest fuss. Query letters are silent slips of paper that can simply be dealt with later when there is time. Contrary to how you may think, they don't enjoy rejecting people, so it's not a task they leap to do. Sure, they may find the next ID4, but they know they will find a thousand ISHTAR's on the way that they will have to say no to and it's not their favorite part of the job.
A third reason you don't hear back is that you have forgotten to include an SASE -- some agencies won't respond without one. If it's been more than a month and you haven't heard about a query -- call and ask about it.
WHY IS A PERSONAL RECOMMENDATION SO IMPORTANT?
Because it means that someone whose judgement they trust has read your script, may know a bit about you, and feels that reading it is not going to be a waste of the agent's time. It also means you know enough about the industry to get the script to someone with some clout.
DO CONTEST PLACEMENTS HELP?
Yes -- if they are reputable contests. Small contests or ones with a bad reputation do not impress an agent. "The problem is, there's a lot of awards where I wonder whose been judging," says Foster. The big ones: Nicholl, Chesterfield, Austin and Disney are a mark in your favor -- but all of the agents have read "bad" scripts from those contests so it's not a sinecure. The contests out of UCLA and USC are highly regarded as well.
SHOULD I TELL THEM HOW MANY SCRIPTS I'VE WRITTEN OR THAT I'VE SENT IT TO PRODCOS?
The agents I interviewed had different views on this: Foster wants to know that you have several scripts written and ready to go. Jessica and Marta don't want to know that in the query letter. In fact, Jessica says that she is turned off by writers who say "I have fifteen scripts."
"To me, it says that they haven't tried to market their scripts -- which shows they aren't serious -- or it says they aren't very good," she said.
Jessica is impressed if you've gotten it to legitimate prodcos and had a good read there. But many agents feel that you've compromised their ability to sell the script. So -- it's your call. Literally. When you call to verify the address and agent's name, ask the assistant what their preferences are.
DOES GRADUATING FROM FILM SCHOOL OR SCREENWRITING PROGRAMS HELP?
Yes and no -- depending on what program. AFI, USC, UCLA, Steven Stark's program were all mentioned as good credentials if the writer has them. The program's reputation counts a great deal. A little-known program will carry little weight. "There's no question that we're partial to schools that have delivered successful people to this industry," says Foster.
However, every agent has their own fondness for a particular school or program. Foster's assistant went to Loyola-Marymont -- and so she tends to give a little extra credit to people who went there. But in another agency, it could be a moot point. The answer is to find out as much as possible about the individual agent and agency before querying. Or, choose to attend a program that everyone agrees is of high-quality.
WHAT CAN I DO TO INCREASE MY ODDS?
Be creative. "There's a way into Hollywood for every writer trying to get in: you have to find your way," says Academy Award nominee, Patrick Shane Duncan. "Be as creative marketing your script as you are in writing it." He should know: he snuck onto the Warner Bros. lot with a briefcase full of scripts and went door-to-door asking even secretaries (his term, not mine) to read it. And it worked -- for him. It may not ever work again. "If someone has the fire in the belly to get to me out of the usual way, then they're usually a better writer," says Foster.
AVOID MAKING A FOOL OUT OF YOURSELF
Don't make grandiose statements or brag. Jessica tells of one writer who wrote something like, "This script will sell for no less than one million, if you think you're up to doing that, then I'll let you have a look at it." Statements like these or that declare that it's the best script they will ever see and compare themselves favorably with Joe Eszterhas, Shane Black, etc., don't achieve what you hope they will. Agents basically think you're clueless when you write like this. Which is too bad for you -- because the script really may be the best thing they've ever read and worth a million bucks. Don't brag about yourself -- instead take a professional tone and, if you have recognized industry references, let them do the hyping for you.
BE LETTER PERFECT
Use the same care writing, polishing and perfecting your query as you do for your script. The query determines how good a writer they think you are. Don't cheat your script.
The best way, however, to increase your odds is to develop a marketing plan, the subject of the next column.