10 Rules of Query Letter Etiquette

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by Fin Wheeler

No agent? No manager? No choice but to send endless query letters to producers and agents who stopped accepting unsolicited scripts more than a decade ago, right? After all, you heard that this guy from film school knows this barista who knows this spa attendant whose spec got picked up that way. And if it can happen to them then there’s an even better chance for talented you.

I’ve never actually heard or read about a genuine spec sale that came about as the result of a query letter. Producers become successful because they are savvy, smart, incredibly hard-working, and astute. Would you hand over tens of millions of dollars to a no one from nowhere who has no track record just because they sent you a one page letter? Much as we screenwriters would like it, query letters aren’t magic.

But they aren’t completely futile either.

If you understand and respect the etiquette, sending query letters can improve your profile and garner interest in your work. They can be an effective component of an unconnected screenwriter’s long-term strategy to break in.

1. Keep It Concise

Good producers and agents never have enough time, and they’re constantly being pestered by wannabes with nothing of value to offer. On the other hand, they do all want to be the one to unearth the next big spec.

People hate to read when they have a million things vying for their time. A few might save a long email to read later, most will just delete or bury it. Everyone has time to read three well-constructed lines.

2. Focus on the Right Fit

When a company says they’re looking exclusively for Jason Bourne-type thrillers, don’t send them a Die Hard or something with a female protagonist.

Producers know what their investors and distributors want. They know what talent they can pitch to and what that talent is currently inclined towards. Don’t annoy/offend a producer by implying you know the industry better than they do.

3. Don’t Lie

Don’t misrepresent your project. The short documents (pitch, logline, paragraph synopsis, one page synopsis) should always be an accurate reflection of the feature screenplay’s content. It’s unethical to mislead. You need to build trust, not erode it.

4. Be Polite to Everyone

Assistants and interns work day in and day out with the decision-makers you respect and revere. Being unkind to them can only hurt your career.

5. Be Realistic

When a seven-year-old kid claims George Lucas and/or Steven Spielberg would buy their spec in a snap, if only they knew of his existence, it’s cute. If you’re an adult making the same claims, perhaps it’s time to rethink.

6. Think Outside the Box

Don’t just endlessly email the top agencies and studios. To make it as a professional screenwriter, you have to have a well-founded belief in your work and you have to work hard. Up-and-coming directors and producers are in the same boat.

Who is currently making a name for themselves at international film festivals? Music video is another arena where hardworking, on-the-rise producers and directors can be found.

[Read our review of Virtual Pitch Fest, a service for sending directed queries with guaranteed responses]

7. Be Patient

A producer or agent may not be in a position to offer you anything the first or second time you send an enquiry, but all the good producers have excellent memories.

Every six months, when you’re shopping your latest spec around town, take a sentence to mention one impressive new step you’ve achieved in your screenwriting career, then briefly pitch your new spec and you’ll get remembered as someone who is forging ahead on their own merit and as someone who doesn’t waste their time. You can’t buy that kind of reputation, it can only be earned.

8. Don’t Stalk Anyone

You’d think this point was obvious, but based on the stuff I hear, it bears repeating. If you violate the privacy of an agent or a producer it makes you toxic. Agents and producers put an amazing amount of time and energy into networking with actors, directors, and investors.

These groups of people value their privacy, if you direct message a producer you’ve never met, or track down the coffee shop an agent goes to every other Saturday morning, you’re proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you’ll burn all their contacts given half a chance.

Plus, the bad behavior of one aspiring screenwriter gives a bad name to all the other decent, hard-working screenwriters out there, so don’t do it.

9. Rehearse

Don’t send your first attempt at a query letter to the producer you most want to work with. Do a soft pitch to another producer, learn from it, and work up to the others higher on your list.

[Perfect your logline with detailed feedback from the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition]

10. Don’t Be Rude if You Don’t Hear Back

Important people are busy. You can’t expect them to acknowledge receipt of every email they get. Did you write a concise, accurate query letter? If so, you did your best, now get back to writing.

It takes an average of ten years to break in as a professional screenwriter. If you spend nine of those sitting back waiting for responses from agents and producers…

While a query letter isn’t likely to instantly make you rich and famous, composing them over the years will help you define who you are and why you write. For the screenwriter who lacks connections, query letters can be a perfect way to build a reputation.

So good luck and choose your words astutely.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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