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38 BREAKING THE ICE


Okay, we're gonna bring this column around to screenwriting in a second, promise, but first we're going to talk about flirting and dating and pairing off and stuff. That sounds like more fun, right? There's this marvelous exercise in the field of sociobiology I want to tell you about. It manages to mimic basic patterns of human courtship with just a few simple rules.

Here's what they did:

Twenty men and twenty women were put into a room. Each person was assigned a number from 1 to 20 -- but nobody knew what number they got. (Like the card game 'Indian poker,' where everyone raises a card at once and puts it on their forehead without looking at it.) So each person could see everyone else's number, but they had no idea about their own.

Then the participants were given a simple directive: pair up with the best number they could find: '1' was the most desirable, '2' was excellent... and '20,' well, that was the bottom of the barrel.

And they were given five minutes to do it.

What followed was a pattern similar to what goes on at every high school, college, singles bar, dance floor or meat-market style coed gym all across the country -- only much faster.

The folk with the highest ranking numbers (the ones, twos, threes) immediately started getting offers -- lots of offers. As clusters of attention, they fast became choosy, recognizing they must possess a valuable number and knew they could hold out for similar value.

The folk with the low-ranking numbers were pariahs, alone, avoided, running from person to person with no success. They quickly got the point. After being shunned by the fives and sixes of the world, they learned to give up on the glamour crowd, lower their expectations and go for double digits.

As time ran down, the pairing-off transpired in earnest. No one wanted to get caught alone, and better to take even a lowly eighteen or nineteen than end up with nothing.

At the final bell people had managed to connect with remarkable success, landing within one or two positions of their own rank. The point of the whole thing was to make the claim (through similarity of pattern) that humans matchmake in a similar manner. We judge each other to a very exacting degree, and imbue others with status through our behavior toward them, and self-assess according to feedback we're given.

Okay, here's where we bring it around to screenwriting.

People in Hollywood... they all think they've got big fat number ones stuck to their heads.

It's understandable. Just like in the experiment, Hollywood folk get crowded around all the time, beset with attention and offers and opportunities. It turns them picky, teaches them that they can afford to hold out and 'connect' with only the very best. Which means: they're looking for someone else sporting one of those big fat number ones.

And that would be -- you.

Now it's pretty important that you actually are a legitimate number one. I can't do much about that, but I can help you with this next part --

It's also important that you look like a number one. And that, in long roundabout fashion, brings us to the actual topic of the column, which is how to write a query letter.

First question: do you even need to write a query letter? I know writers who say they've gone their whole careers without once writing a query letter to anyone. Real results, they say, come from phone calls and personal contacts. Then you send out the script with a simple cover letter, and get on with your life.

I will say this: these folk do have a point. Writing a query letter is almost always an act of futility.

But I will also say: so what?

Breaking into the film business is not a problem that resolves itself through a single answer or path. It's a problem that succumbs only to a process, a series of efforts taken over time. And the bitch of it is, you never know which is the right strategy until it pays off.

So you do everything. Whether the odds are with you are not. You do everything.

The trick is to not get obsessive about it. You write your queries, send them off and forget about them. You're too busy writing, rewriting, reading scripts, studying, going to seminars, and watching movies. Don't let yourself get caught up in thinking, "It's been six weeks since I wrote that company, why haven't they answered?" Similarly, if a company or agency does respond with a request to look at your script, it isn't some sudden validation of your talent. Send 'em the script, and again, forget about it.

The odds are against you, yes. And that's why you do it -- because the odds are against you.

Second question: when do you send a query letter? How do you tell whether you're ready?

The answer is -- you're not.

I mean no disrespect by this. Sending out query letters too soon is something all writers seem doomed to do. Heck, even Ted and I sent out queries too soon, and we waited for over three years. Writers are an insecure lot; they crave validation, they crave feedback, they crave any shred of hope that will help sustain them in their madness. They're also an optimistic lot, and the combination causes query letters to rain onto Hollywood like ticker tape on V-Day.

You really should wait to send out letters until after you've studied and practiced for many years, are very familiar with the industry, and have a killer script completed, and a second one almost done.

I mention this just for the fun of it. I know you won't listen. Hey, we're only human, right?

Okay. Caveats aside. You've got a screenplay and you've identified a production company or agency that accepts query letters. You're gonna send one. So let me help you avoid some common mistakes.

To continue our matchmaking analogy... writing a query letter is a bit like going out on a first date. Forget about trying to impress, your first goal is to just get through it without screwing up, and ruining any chances you might have for a second date.

Out of a hundred or so query letters I grabbed from our slushpile to do this column, I'd say only around 10 passed this 'first date' test. The rest made one or more of the following... I don't want call them "mistakes" or "errors," although some of them are just that. Let's just say they have 'flaws'... perhaps not horrible, but enough to make me nix the prospects of that long term relationship.

So here we go -- call it our TOP 20 MOST COMMON MISTAKES IN WRITING A QUERY LETTER:


1. ODD PACKAGING

Transparent paper, handwritten pages with colored ink, drawings in a variety of media, four-color mock posters, we get it all. So many projects with weird packaging are bad, you just start to assume all projects with weird packaging are bad.

Here's where you get the real nutcase stuff. One guy cut out movie ads from his local paper, and circled the first or last name of anyone listed in the credits who had the same first or last name he did (he had a fairly common name). I guess his idea was that since other people with his name were successful, it proved that he would be successful, too. (Cue "Twilight Zone" theme.)
2. FAKE NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS

You wouldn't think that we'd get enough of these for it to make its own category, but we do. The tip-off is always that the writers make the same spelling errors in the fake news story that they do in their query letters. ("Twilight Zone" theme continues.)


3. GIFTS

So I go to my fax machine, and there's a hand-written faxed page that says, 'Go look outside.' I go outside to the patio, and there's a production company bag with a script in inside, and some gifts -- a T-shirt with the production company logo, coffee mugs, stuff like that. This was waaaaay too spooky for me, not a smart way to try to make a first impression.

Though I will admit the submission that arrived with a bottle of wine was nice (part of it was intended, I think, as a thank-you for the effort we put into this website). Still, gifts force a weird sense of responsibility on the receiver. Better to just let the material stand or fail on its own merits. (Okay, "Twilight Zone" theme ends.)
4. WILD CLAIMS

Many writers claim that their script is destined to become the biggest box office hit of all time. But when ten letters arrive all making the same claim, even someone as slow as me is going to figure out -- waaaaaaait a second. They can't ALL end up as the highest grossing film of all time. Someone had to be LYING. And if one person was lying, then maybe all of them...

Hey, I'm all for confidence, but c'mon. Eventual box office success is the product of many factors: budget, direction, ad campaign, casting, release date, etc. If your screenplay tells a solid and compelling story, great, just say that. Don't overstate your case.
5. 'THIS MEETS THAT'

Remember, this is still first date time, and sometimes just a pierced eyebrow or an annoying laugh is enough to put someone off. Like really odd 'this meets that' descriptions. Here's one we just got: "It's a buddy dramedy that explores the territory between IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and THE BIG CHILL."

Silly me, I didn't realize there was ' territory' between those two films. Try as I might, I couldn't wrap my brain around the idea. Now I'm not saying that you shouldn't do 'this meets that' descriptions -- but I guess my advice is, if it obscures rather than clarifies, don't do it.

Another example we just got: "It's CATCHER IN THE RYE meets TRAINSPOTTING." Problem is, I haven't seen TRAINSPOTTING. I've heard it's good, but maybe one should reference examples that are more widely known?

Finally: "It's MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE meets CLUELESS." Actually, that one sounds bizarre enough, it's almost tempting. Almost.
6. THE MYSTERIOUS 'ENTITLED' DISEASE

From a recent query:

"I have recently completed a screenplay entitled RADICAL UNDERGROUND, a comedy-drama with an original plot and entertaining characters. After reading the Wordplay web site and getting an impression of your sense of humors, I believe you may enjoy reading the script."

Now, I don't know what it is about the word 'entitled' that puts me off. I know it's not really improper or anything... but I hate it. Simply say your script is 'called' something, or say that it's 'titled' something or just say it's 'something.' The word 'entitled' has a formal quality that rings odd to me in the context of a query letter... like the screenwriter took his script to the mountaintop, and there the writer was bestowed with a vision and the script was 'entitled' with a name...

And ever since I became aware of this peeve, I've noticed it's kind of a bellwether for me -- if the query letter uses the word 'entitled,' it almost always turns out that the submission as a whole is not very impressive.
7. THE MYSTERIOUS CAPITALIZATION DISEASE

There's something about writing query letters that compels otherwise sensible writers to randomly capitalize words. Example:

"My writing partner, Andy Worth, and I believe SAFETY ZONE is an Action-Adventure that will keep a Mainstream audience entertained for two hours."

I can almost see Capitalizing 'action-adventure,' because it is a Genre, but what possible justification could there be in Capitalizing the word 'mainstream'? Anyway, you get the Idea. Don't do it.


8. TOO MUCH/TOO LITTLE

You can go to the Writer's Guild of America site and find some advice on the topic of query letters, and even a sample letter. But the example cited is overly plain and unadorned. It's basically: "Here's my screenplay. Let me know if you're interested. Thanks for your consideration."

That's a missed opportunity. Query letters are scrutinized for writing ability -- and if the writer has to play it that safe, it makes me wonder, what are they hiding? In other words, you can raise red flags by telling too little as well as too much.

One recent query sent to us offered this as a log line:

"A compelling mystery full of twists and turns with a shocking surprise."

That was all. There's too little there to judge critically, true. But clearly way too little to intrigue, either.

On the other end of the scale are query letters that are too long. Some include long biographies (and ramblings) of their authors; others provide many-page treatments of their film ideas, rather than the preferred synopsis.

Here's the rule of thumb: one page for your query letter, 3-8 lines to describe your film idea. Can you get someone's interest with just two lines, or even one? Maybe. And sometimes, would a separate three-paragraph description be successful? Sure. But generally speaking, 3-8 lines is the norm, and that should be enough.


9. TOO MANY STORY IDEAS

Here's the rule: one letter, one story idea.

Writers think they can increase their odds by offering variety, but it doesn't work that way. (One gentleman sent us a list of 30 film ideas, asking us to pick out the best one. All he succeeded in doing was convince us he didn't have a very clear idea for what makes a good story.)

The message you want to send is that you've got the next great thing. And that it must be seen. Immediately. Hard to believe you've got two 'next great things.'

One thing that Hollywood respects is passion. You can be convincingly passionate about one idea. If your passion is used to try to sell several ideas, it starts to feel like the passion is more about selling the product than the product itself.

Also: let's say you send out five story ideas to a production company, and they actually like one of them. Great, right? Sure, but that means they also don't like four others. Again -- the image you have to cultivate from the start is that you're the expert. You're the person who has the answers; you're the goose who lays the golden eggs; you're the great undiscovered talent whose laundry list is a five act masterpiece. Go with your best idea, and if they like it, you keep that myth alive. Go with your best idea and a list of bad ones, and you've fractured the myth.


10. THE RECIPE QUERY

This is just an annoying cliche.

"Start with a little (romance/humor/mystery). Throw in a little (betrayal/lust/suspicion)... then stir in some (puppies/aliens/whatever). Bake thoroughly, and you've got (a critical masterpiece/ cinema magic/the biggest grossing film of all time/etc.)."

Please. Don't pitch your film like it's a recipe. Hey, screenwriting may be formulaic, but you don't have to emphasize the fact.


11. LACK OF RIGHTS

This is more of a strategy mistake than anything else, but it reveals itself in query letters. Writers will sometimes write in to say, "I'd love to do an adaptation of the old "steve Canyon" comic strip; can you tell me if the rights are available?"

Even if you don't own the rights to a property, at the very least, it's up to you to determine whether the rights are available. There is no magic to finding and acquiring rights -- it's exactly as difficult for us as it is for you. If the writer isn't willing to do some legwork, how good a job will they do on a script?
12. LISTING FAILURES

Here's a tip: don't include a copy of a rejection letter from another production company with your query. The phrase, "It's well-written, but not for us" is not a ringing endorsement. And don't go into detail on how your last agent only made three phone calls on your behalf in the last two years. You might earn sympathy points, but no one's gonna read a script out of pity.


13. ANIMATION IDEAS

We get variations of this quite often:

"I love your website. I've read every column, and they're terrific. I've just completed an animation spec that I think you'll love..."

Of course, screenwriters who actually do read Wordplay know that we think animation specs are a waste of time. Yes, the business is changing, and perhaps there's a light visible beneath the closed door. But it ain't open yet.


14. FIRST PERSON IN CHARACTER

"Hello! My name is Mindy. I've been blind since birth, but that's not going to stop me from finding out who killed my loving husband. With the help of Rofl, my trusty golden retriever... "

Writing your letter from the point of view of one of your screenplay's characters shows spunk. As Lou Grant said on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show"... "I hate spunk."
15. MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS/IMPERSONAL SUBMISSIONS

The last line of a recent query letter --

"If you are offended by multiple submissions, please excuse me. Because I sent this query to everybody and their brother."

There's nothing at all wrong with sending out multiple submissions. It's accepted, it's presumed, it's necessary. But there's no value in advertising the fact.

Of all the submissions we get, the blind-fax submissions receive the least attention. It's hard to get excited about something that's addressed 'to whom it may concern' and is getting spewed out all over town. We like to keep the illusion that we're being provided a unique opportunity to discover something. Even if it's not true.

When writing a query letter to a production company or agency, try to get someone's name. It might even work to make a call first, and ask, "Who in the company takes care of submissions?"


16. TYPOS

They happen. They shouldn't. They're the query equivalent of dandruff on a first date. Read your letter out loud, read it backwards and upside down, read it over once more just before you slip it into the envelope. Have someone else read it. I guarantee you, the twentieth time you read it, you'll discover some big fat mistake sitting right there in the first line.


17. CLICHE DESCRIPTIONS

"The comic misadventures of... unspeakable appetites... a web of deceit... not what it seems... ancient and terrifying evil..."

A general rule: if it sounds like the lurid narration of a 1950s horror film trailer, forget it. Many queries fall into the trap of promoting the story instead of conveying the story. You tell us what happens; we'll decide if it's exciting, humorous, riveting, thrilling, or whatever.
18. NO RELEASE FORM/NO SASE

They're a pain. They're a hassle. You have to include them.

For the record, I'm against those little cards that writers sometimes include, pre-stamped, to be check-marked and with a space for comments. To me, it presupposes failure. If you send a self-addressed stamped envelope, then there's always the chance we could be using it to write back a glowing letter. But the only reason to use those little cards is for a rejection.

Plus, there's usually two choices on the card: "I love it, send it," and "Sorry, not for us." But my feelings on a query rarely fall into those categories. I'm forced to either write out a comment, or checkmark something that's not exactly true. I'd rather send back our own response, even if it's a form letter; it's gonna be more accurate to our feelings.


19. POOR CONTENT... AND GOOD CONTENT

When it comes down to it, no amount of top-notch presentation can hide a weak idea. The build-up can actually heighten the disappointment -- like a long wait in line for a ride that is quickly over. And nothing can kill a query letter faster than a really terrible title.

To be fair, I have to include here the fact that many query letters don't work through no fault of the writers -- they don't have bad content, they might actually have good content. A query can fail because:

a. it is misinterpreted. b. the production company has something similar. c. the production company is too busy to take on another project. d. the production company isn't interested in that kind of movie, no matter how good it is. e. a similar film just went into development.

In many cases, a company will never let you know the reason why they passed -- and it might not be because they thought the work was bad.
20. QUESTIONABLE WRITING

All right, here it is. This one is last, in the place of honor. Perhaps the most common reason a query letter doesn't work is because the writing in the letter is of poor quality. A good query letter has a tone, a style -- I'll even go so far as to say, a 'voice.' It demonstrates that the writer is in command of their craft. A bad one...

Well, following are some excerpts that demonstrate the opposite: questionable writing ability. These are not examples of the worst writing we've received (not by far). They are, for the most part, insidiously okay. Not bad enough, perhaps, for the writers to catch that they did something wrong. But just off enough to absolutely undermine their efforts.

I'm not going to point out what I think is wrong with these. I leave that to you. If you don't see anything amiss, I advise you to look again, look a little closer --

"I am an American screenwriter and having just returned from overseas, I am currently seeking potential interest in my work (as a member of the Arizona Screenwriters Guild, I am somewhat familiar with your company's Web site)."

"I've had two scripts optioned and one nightmare agent and, as you already know, doing this from Miami is difficult at best. It's tough if you have an office on Sunset, let alone as a Florida news anchor."

"Writing my little hands off since college, I've had a long and varied career following my comedic muse where ever it took me."

"This is the concept behind my recently completed motion picture screenplay..."

"I have recently completed another screenplay for a feature film and I am actively pursuing all avenues for submission. I was informed through various sources that you are highly reputable in accepting new material from writers."

("I develop his brothers Raymond and Gene to a lesser extent, mainly so I can kill 'em off for plot points.")

"Written well before the recent 'Merlin' miniseries appeared on NBC (and featuring highly differentiated plot/characters), it's a seriocomic adventure based on the solid storytelling of ancient magical legends."

"I attach herewith a synopsis of my spec screenplay 'Rush to Judgment', together with the necessary Submission Release Form, as downloaded from the Wordplay website."

"And so there we are. We now have a fantastic script, available to the first Company who shares this story's unique vision for the screen. If you would be interested in a reading, please contact us."

Some folk might take issue with me here, that I'm being way too harsh, way too picky. I don't think so. Here's why.

It's all about subtext.

When I open a query letter, hey, let's face it, I already pretty much know the contents. It will be some variation of, "Hi, I'm a writer, would you please take a look at my project?"

So why open the letter if I already know what's inside? Well -- to judge the film idea, of course. Always looking for that next great filmic concept. And yes, that's crucial. That's part of it. But there's more to it than that. Going back to our matchmaking analogy, that's like going out on a date just looking to get laid. A great film idea is like great sex -- but we want more than that, don't we?

Beyond the great idea, we're looking for something else when we read a query. We're searching for something that isn't in the lines. (If it were there, it would be wrong.)

It's between the lines.

Again, call it tone, call it voice, call it heart, call it a professional approach. In a way, the lowly query letter does its job quite well. Because it often reveals the true nature of the person writing it. And, I'm afraid to say, the subtext of most letters -- including the excerpts above -- is:

"I'm not ready for a screenwriting job just yet, you can safely ignore me for now, I'm not in command of my writing yet, please don't answer, it would be a waste of your time."

Whereas the subtext we most hope to find -- beyond that great film idea in the text, of course -- is:

"Here I am. I'm serious. I'm capable. I'm talented. I know the business, and I'm ready to do this job."

So how in the world does a query letter manage to convey all that? To be warm, easygoing, straightforward, professional, funny, present the image of a person that we'd like to meet and work with, all while staying on topic, and be short, yet compelling?

Well, that's that other thing we were looking for in a query letter:

Great writing.

So. It's easy enough to criticize how it's done wrong. I also want to give an example of how it's done right. So here we're going to present three actual query letters we've received. A terrible one. One that's very average. And finally, one that actually worked -- that got us to send out a request to read the script. Let's call them the UGLY, the BAD, and the GOOD.
THE UGLY: THE BELFAST CONNECTION [see orig. column for link]

This one we received by fax. Since it's my fax paper they're chewing through, and it came unsolicited, I don't feel bad about reprinting it here.

You can see it's all hard sell, all claims, precious little content. Note the screaming fonts, the rhetorical questions. It's an anonymous mailing, lacking any personal touch, loud yet bland... well, heck, you can count the mistakes yourself. This type of thing has no chance of doing a writer any good at all.
THE BAD: R.E.M. [see orig. column for link]

Now, I'm only calling this letter bad in the sense that for me, it didn't succeed in doing its job. In truth this is quite an average letter -- very representative of the bulk of letters we receive.

And let me extend my sincere thanks to screenwriter John Swafford and his partner, JoAnne Seay, for agreeing to let us re-post this letter here -- knowing there would be criticism of it. It's a little like agreeing to be the 'before' photo in a weight loss ad.

But I do think it needs some fixes. Let's go through the lines I find questionable:

"Therefore, we'd like to send it for your evaluation of Commercial Potential."

The word 'Therefore' I find to be a bit formal. And there's some capitalization weirdness going on. And it lands as a little stodgy to ask for an 'evaluation of commercial potential.' A few warning flags here, but not too bad.

"Later, he wakes from sleepwalking to find himself standing over the dead body of GLORIA PRICE, his ex-wife and charged with her murder."

On first read, it seems like Gloria is both an ex-wife and charged with something. It's a small thing, but I shouldn't be reading a query letter and get the impulse to copy edit.

"Can Psychiatrist DOCTOR LAUREL CANYON help Don regain his memory....before he's tried and executed for murder?"

Gimme a break on the character name. And what's with the four dots leading up to the word 'before'? Seems a little sloppy. And the tone of the line -- the rhetorical question -- lands as a bit paperback-novel lurid to me.

"She takes the radical action of "breaking him out of jail" in order to find out whether Don is actually guilty, and if so: Is he responsible?"

I'm not certain why the phrase "breaking him out of jail" is in quotes. It seems to imply that she doesn't really break him out of jail, or breaks him out of the semblance of a jail, or maybe sneaks him out of jail for a day in the park. In any case, it doesn't strike me as a controlled bit of writing. I'm most apt to blame my confusion on their writing ability.

Finally, the letter concludes with the promise that the script will "keep audiences wondering what will happen next" which is not an entirely positive image. I'm allowed to picture an audience in confusion ('What the hell's going on here?') It might have been a better choice to say some version of, "Keep audiences asking what's coming next?"

Overall, the letter did convey the story, situations, tone and characters. But none of those elements stand out, and some writing choices I find questionable. It's a pass.


THE GOOD: SUN DOGS [see orig. column for link]

And finally, here's a query letter that actually worked for us. Click on the above to read through it. And it's worth doing an analysis, line-by-line:

"I have very much enjoyed reading your Follywood columns and would like to take you up on your kind offer to help promote a great script."

This is a good start. A clear declaration of intent. It's been personalized a bit -- the writer has read the Wordplay articles from back in the old days on America Online.

"Sun Dogs is the true story of an American singer who survived the Bataan Death March, was forced into slave labor in Japan, and finally walked to freedom through the smoldering ruins of Nagasaki."

More clear, descriptive writing. The goods here are right up front. The title is pretty decent. It's intriguing that the story is about an American singer -- maybe there's an opportunity for music in the film, which is always a plus. The Bataan Death March is a compelling setting. And it sounds like he's come up with a unique point of view character for the entire Pacific war. All this using just a few words.

"The script is based on Bernard FitzPatrick's book The Hike into the Sun (McFarland & Co., 1993) as well as extensive interviews with Mr. FitzPatrick, witnesses to the Death March, the co-pilot of the plane that dropped the Nagasaki bomb, and others."

Oh, it's based on a book. That's another plus. (And the book title sounds good, too, but I also see why it was changed.) We learn the writer has spoken with the author -- that shows some real passion. And the co-pilot of the plane who dropped the bomb? Wow.

"All rights have been obtained."

Music to our ears. Another indication that this guy is serious, another indication of his passion.

"This is not my first stab at writing. A previous screenplay -- OK but not great -- is currently under option by The Kaufman Company, Citadel Entertainment (HBO) and another screenplay was a finalist in the Writer's Film Project run by the Chesterfield Film Company."

A nice bit of humility here, with the 'OK but not great' line. Subtext: "I'm a nice guy. I'm not a nutcase." That subtext needs to be there, and he's found a good way to do it.

"In addition, my short stories have won the American Fiction contest and the Hemingway Short Story contest, and have been published in magazines such as New Letters, Clockwatch Review, Field & Stream, and Playboy (the March 94 issue with Shannen Doherty on the cover)."

More impressive information -- and the reference to the Playboy cover is a welcome bit of humor. Hard to put humor in a query letter, but I think he's pulled it off here. (Okay, it's not hilarious or anything, but it does bring a smile the way he wrote it). It's a nice visual touch. It's good writing.

"Sun Dogs is by far the best thing I have ever written. I would like to get it made -- and made as well as possible."

This is a nice way to show confidence. Not a claim that the script is the best script in the world, just the best thing he's ever done. The writer gets more points here for good, clear, confident concise writing.

"In this spirit, I am searching for an agent to represent it. Any help you can give me would be very much appreciated."

A nice send off -- he's just someone who has a great idea and wants some help, any help, in bringing the idea to life.

Overall, there's a no-nonsense professional feel to this letter -- back to that 'voice' thing -- that not only conveys information, but shows that the writer can write. And start to finish, I found no red flags, no warning blips... in other words, I'm left with no easy excuses to ignore the request. So we contacted the author, and indeed were rewarded with an excellent, professional, compelling script.

Any small misstep, anything that creates even the tiniest hint of suspicion, and you'll be writhing in pepper-sprayed pain.

All right, as we wind down, a few caveats:

-- Please don't get the impression we're looking for more query letters. Our slightly open door has been blocked by a snowdrift of mail. We're months behind on answering some letters. We're not a big production company, we don't have the staff to deal with submissions, and we're full-up with projects. The official lines is, "We are not seeking submissions." This doesn't mean we won't look at them, but we can only do so on our own terms.

-- Despite how it might seem, I don't enjoy being critical. I understand that when people write to submit their ideas, their efforts are genuine, and that's a thing worthy of respect. These letters represent people's hopes. I might bash the letters, but never the hope behind them.

Okay.


To wrap up things up, let's go back to our dating/query letter analogy.

Picture Hollywood as a crowded singles bar.

Beautiful people sip and chat.

Jazz music weaves through the smoke.

Everybody seems to know everyone, and no one will give you the time of day.

Suddenly, there she is --

Your industry contact. Stunningly beautiful, permanently backlit, smiling with a kind of inner amusement, a smartly-dressed professional woman unwinding a bit before a big appellate court argument in the morning. And she's got great hair. (Okay, so we're working from a kinda guy point of view, here, stay with me.)

She's desirable and sexy and unapproachable. Still, a large group of handsome 'number ones' crowd around her, circling with hope. Somehow, someway, you've got to get her attention.

Sounds tough, right?

And that's what it's like to try to make a contact in Hollywood, right?

Not yet.

Because in truth, your Hollywood contact is too busy to sit around in some singles bar looking pretty. Like all truly great women, she's got better things to do.

So let's give her a boyfriend -- meaning she's involved, not interested, not looking to meet anyone ('busy with other projects'). And let's have her outside hurrying to her car, dragging her briefcase and juggling folders, on her way to that court ('a film in production').

She's late.

Oh, and it's a dark alley.

And you're unshaven, wild-eyed, and look basically like an ax-murderer.

Okay. Now we're getting there.

And did I mention that in the alley with you are about a thousand other scary-looking folk, one or two of whom are, in fact, carrying big sharp axes?

Somehow you've got to step forward under these circumstances and wrangle a date. You know every movement you make, every word you say will be scrutinized. Any small misstep, anything that creates even the tiniest hint of suspicion, and you'll be writhing in pepper-sprayed pain.

And that, I maintain, is how people in the film business read query letters.

Dress accordingly.


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