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The Art of Query

NOTE: The following was written by Philippa Burgess while she was a literary manager at Mason/Burgess/Lifschultz, so any reference to what her company does is in reference to her previous time as a lit manager.

Now that you've got your material together, you are ready to take on that next important step of getting it into the right hands. Thus begins the query process. As a manager, we receive thousands of queries, review them all, and only request a handful out of every hundred. It is my sincere hope that this provides you with valuable information to distinguish yourself in that all-important next step of getting the right people to want to consider your script.

Managers are usually the most responsive to queries from new writers. From the industry's point of view, we are the front line to scout, develop, and nurture new talent and material. Agents also accept queries, but they have a larger client base and are typically more deal oriented, so they are usually looking for material that is ready to sell. Some producers, especially those who do not have deals with the studios, usually accept queries and may consider un-represented material; however the more established studio producers typically do not. You can either start with an e-mail query, hard copy letter or fax; or a general e-mail inquiry to see what the submission policy is or if they are currently considering new material. I recommend e-mail queries. You can just send your query directly to agents and managers with your genre and logline for their consideration. A general query is the more conservative way to go about it, although I would only do this with e-mail. I would recommend this approach more in the case of producers where their acceptance of submissions is often restricted to material sent by a representative.

If you don't get an initial response to your e-mail, you may want to send a letter instead (don't mention that they ignored your e-mail), but take it as an opportunity to try an altered pitch on yourself or your material. The standard letter query has mostly been replaced by e-mail, so don't forget to include an e-mail address with your contact information in a hard copy letter for the fastest response. In almost all cases do not expect to hear back from them about a query unless they are requesting the material. Just put it out there and let it go. It may take them up to a couple weeks to review your query, but if you do not hear back from them by then, you can assume they have reviewed it and are not interested. Move on to querying new companies or eventually move on to your next idea. Keep in mind that they are either not interested in your idea, or may not be interested in considering ideas from new writers, either just for now or ever. And whatever you do, do not send multiple query letters or follow up on the status of a query.

Some e-mails queries are formatted as letters and can be addressed to an individual, to the company, to the literary department, or as 'Dear Agent', 'Manager' or 'Producer'; while other inquiries are just the script facts alone, and in that case there is no need to use a salutation at all. Any of these forms are acceptable, but it doesn't hurt to have a personal approach as long as you are sure that you have the correct information for whomever you are addressing. All too often I get referred to as Mr. or Agent, and it is forgivable but not favorable. It is also worth mentioning that although e-mail is somewhat more informal than a regular letter, typos, misspellings and bad grammar are never acceptable from someone who wants to be taken seriously as a writer.

As a very short intro, or as an aside after you present your one or two ideas, and only if it is noteworthy, you can mention any screenwriting awards, top rankings in prestigious writing competitions, your experience or relationship to the industry, any relevant film education or personal expertise on the topic. With e-mail, your entire query is all best received in the body of the text and not as an attachment, and NEVER send the script as an attachment in a query. Just keep in mind with any query letters, less is usually more and it is ultimately about the idea. Your query letter is serving as an invitation for them to consider your material. This is not a resume for a job interview or your life story. Your only request is to see if they are interested in your idea; that they let you know and you will send it to them for their consideration.

As a representative, what we are primarily looking for in a query is a script that looks like it has the potential to sell in the 'spec market'. The spec market is a unique buying situation where representatives blast a script to studio buyers and it gets sold in a competitive bid. If you want more information on what is selling on the spec market or what a logline looks like, I recommend the Done Deal website, which tracks all the literary material being bought by the studios in any given month.

The scripts that sell as specs tend to be very basic-genre driven. As someone once told me that means the ideas "sit in a chair," as opposed to "falling between chairs." A basic-genre has a particular structure and certain story beats that it needs to hit. The genres that typically have the most commercial appeal are, on the light side, comedy, which can be broad comedy for a wider audience (Liar, Liar or Bringing Down the House) or teen oriented (American Pie), romantic-comedy (Sweet Home Alabama or The Wedding Planner), action-comedy (Lethal Weapon or True Lies); and -- on the dark side, action (Fast and the Furious), thriller (The Sixth Sense), and horror (The Ring). Each of these genres elicits a certain emotion from the audience unlike the terms 'period', 'sports', 'musical', 'family', or 'sci-fi,' which can be married to these basic genres.

Right up front we want to know the genre of the script because that's the first thing that grabs our attention. Then we read the logline, which IS the one or two 'sell' sentences that capture the story and hopefully, our interest. The logline not only tells us the gist of the story, but it also gives us just enough so that we are intrigued to want to know more. The elusive high-concept usually fits squarely in a basic-genre and is something that has an interesting twist. We want to hear those great new ideas that work within the tried-and-true genre formula. These are the kind of projects that studios are looking for from new writers (and they write the checks).

We personally don't like to consider dramas unless they are industry referrals or they have received some recognition for exceptional writing. The reason that we shy away from dramas is that they tend to be difficult to sell without a high profile actor or director attachment. If you are pitching a drama don't necessarily mention any actors in particular, but feel free to say if there is a strong or attractive role for a male or female star. This can be useful if perhaps that industry professional has certain actor relationships and is looking to find a script that would have a great role for them. If they think they can get a star involved it exponentially expands the project's marketing potential.

I want to emphasize that there are a lot of scripts that you can write that will find their way to the right people eventually, but they may not be what you need right now to use as the tool to get that initial attention you need to get started. Your arc as a writer is to transition from outsider to insider, and the more access and credibility you have within the system the easier it is to facilitate certain types of projects, especially dramas, independent films, or something you would like to helm as a director. Also consider that most of the movies you are seeing are ideas that have been internally developed by studio producers, based on their own idea, an article, a book adaptation, a re-make or a sequel. New writers' ideas are held to a higher standard than a lot of what is getting made by the insiders.

I would suggest that you only include your best one or two scripts for consideration. These should not only be your most commercial and compelling ideas, but also great examples of your writing. For as much as I talk about commerciality it is equally important that your scripts have creative passion and craftsmanship. Whatever you do, don't tell us you've written 15, or even several, because we'll assume they are all mediocre. Just send us the best as it only takes one great script to interest us. Then we might just ask you, 'what else do you have?' and that's when you can tell us.

On a final note, you should not see these manager, agent, and producer entities as separate from each other, but all inextricably linked. Remember that everyone is always on the lookout for the next great thing so use the interest from one to get the attention of the others. The query gets you knocking at the door and I don't doubt it is with no less anticipation as that of picking up a first date. Going with that analogy, remember you want to make that great first impression, and if all goes well, you are on your way to the second date.

Written by: Philippa Burgess, previously literary manager at Mason/Burgess/Lifschultz
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