This blog entry is broken down in 2 parts:
The FIRST part is an exclusive interview with Ashley Scott Meyers (screenwriter and blogger/podcaster at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has optioned and sold dozens of spec feature film screenplays, with many making it into production. You can find him on IMDb here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0583488).
The SECOND part is comprehensive breakdown/study on properly formatting and submitting your query letter/pitch via e-mail to Industry Professionals. This is especially important for writers submitting through leads published by www.screenwritingstaffing.com.
I would highly recommend reading BOTH if you are looking for ways to break into the business and/or market your screenplay.
Screenwriting Staffing: Breaking into the industry will be different for every writer. And I don’t think we should put any specific writer on a pedestal and mirror their journey step by step. But it is important to hear everyone’s story, and take something away for ourselves. With that being said, can you tell our readers how you broke into the industry?
Ashley Scott Meyers: I sold my first screenplay (Dish Dogs) by submitting a query letter to an ad in the back of the trades, either Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. I had a lot of luck submitting to these types of ads. This was in the late 1990’s. I don’t think anyone places these ads in the trades anymore. Now producers, agents, and managers use sites like Screenwriting Staffing and InkTip. I got several paid writing assignments, optioned numerous scripts, and sold several scripts using this exact method. If people are really curious to hear all the details of how I sold my first few screenplay, I talk about it in depth in episode 2 of the SYS Podcast.
Screenwriting Staffing: On multiple occasions you and I have spoke in-depth on the power of the query letter. There are many naysayers out there. But both you and I have found success by sending out the query letter. Why is there a particular negative stigma with query letters? If a query letter is done right, how will it be executed?
Ashley Scott Meyers I’m surprised anyone doubts the value of query letters. It boggles my mind. As for why people don’t like to send them, I’m honestly not sure. I have a couple of ideas, though. First, I think a lot of people feel strange about sending an email to someone they don’t know and they worry that it will annoy them. Anyone who knows anything about sales and marketing knows you have to get over this fear. In my experience in sending out hundreds of thousands of query letters, it’s very rare that someone writes back annoyed. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two occasions when someone was annoyed I emailed them. I can’t speak for other query blast services, but at SYS there is a link in every email that allows them to instantly unsubscribe from future emails. So if a producer or agent doesn’t want to get pitched by screenwriters they can easily click this link and they won’t hear from me or anyone who uses my service again. So at this point it’s safe to say that the people on my list want to get pitches.
There are two big mistakes when sending out query letters and the vast majority of the people who I meet who tell me that their query letter isn’t working, are committing both mistakes.
The first issue is that the log line and query letter are not well written. It has to be well written and entice people to respond to it (obviously). These producers and agents see tons of pitches so you’ve got to stand out with quality of your writing. I’ve written two specific posts which can help people with this: Writing A Screenplay Log Line; How to write a professional query letter for your screenplay.
The second issue is one of volume. I get emails from people who have sent out 10, 50 or even 100 query letters and when no one responds they think that means query letters don’t work. The more you send the better chance you have of finding someone who wants to read your screenplay. You’ve got to send literally thousands of query letters out to make this method work. 100 isn’t going to cut it. I currently have about 6000 contacts in my producers blast and I’m always building it and trying to grow it. If you expect to effectively use query letters you should be prepared to build a massive list. That’s the only way it’s going to work.
Screenwriting Staffing: Writers either send too much information in their query letter via e-mail or too little. I want to focus on the the ones who put too little. Most of them tell me they are not comfortable sending their “pitch” (a brief logline and synopsis, maybe even a treatment) to a stranger over e-mail, in fear their “idea” will be stolen. What would you say to people who have this fear?
Ashley Scott Meyers I would say those people are in the wrong business! Seriously, don’t be that guy.
Amature writers greatly overvalue their ideas. Great ideas are not what’s in short supply in Hollywood. What’s in short supply are great ideas executed in a well written screenplay. Agents and producers aren’t interested in stealing ideas.
They’re interested in reading well written screenplays and building relationships with writers who can consistently produce them. You can’t steal that. If all you have is one great idea that someone can steal, you’re not a screenwriter and you are in the wrong business.
Screenwriting Staffing: I have written and spoke volumes on how to successfully market and promote your scripts and skills to industry pro’s. It doesn’t stop at a query letter. What advice/suggestions do you give writers when it comes to getting your screenplay “out there”?
Ashley Scott Meyers: I had an accounting professor in college who used to tell us before a test, “know everything.” I think that’s good advice here. Try everything. See what works for you and then push hard in that direction. Different methods will work for different people depending on their skills and personality. So you’ve got to find what methods suit you and then double down on them.
Screenwriting Staffing: I try to invest in screenwriting services that help promote and sell screenplays. 2 reasons: 1) I’m always asked by other writers for suggestions and opinions, and I want to give them a first-hand, honest analysis. 2) I’m a screenwriter myself, and if a screenwriting services has a proven track record for success, I’m game! With that said, I have NEVER tried an e-mail/fax blast service. I have found most writers are split on the idea. Through your SYS Select, you offer this service. Can you shed some light on the process and the success stories that have resulted from it?
Ashley Scott Meyers: As far as the process goes, you just sign up, post your log line and query letter in the SYS Forum, I give you notes to help you improve them, and then I send it out for you. It’s pretty simple. And again, my producers list is around 6000 contacts.
As far as successes go, there have been many that I know of and probably many that I don’t know about. I offer myself as one example of success from the SYS blast service. I have optioned over 10 scripts in the last 2 years, sold one script, and gotten one paid writing assignment all by using my own blast service. I interviewed screenwriter Jordan Imiola on my podcast and he talked about the success he had using my service. I have another podcast interview with a screenwriter from the East Coast, Jan Arado, scheduled to be released in a couple of weeks. She recently optioned something using my blast service. Richard Botto, the founder of Stage 32, used my blast service and optioned a screenplay from it. And I’ll continue to try and bring more people on the podcast to showcase their successes.
Screenwriting Staffing: I don’t know the exact number (you can fill me in) but you have had a plethora of screenwriters and industry pro’s on your podcast (including myself — twice). For those who aren’t familiar with the podcast, you predominantly bring working writers on, with reputable produced credits. What is the one recurring suggestion/adage you have found to be the MOST true for screenwriters (good and bad)?
Ashley Scott Meyers: One thing that stands out to me is that nearly everyone I’ve had on the podcast is a real hustler. They go out and make things happen. They don’t sit around and wait for their agent to call them. They keep writing. They keep marketing. They try new things to get their scripts and films out there. And this is even after they’ve had some success in the business. I meet too many wanna-be writers who write a script or two, post it on the Black List or InkTip and then wonder why their careers aren’t going nowhere.
Screenwriting Staffing: We both attended “film school” and studied some form of screenwriting. We both agreed that film school’s spend far too much time on “story” and not on the business side of the industry What sort of topics, other than “story”, would you like to see screenwriting seminars, classes, and workshops focus more attention on?
Ashley Scott Meyers: I think there is a big need for more practical business type classes in colleges. Colleges are pumping out film graduates but not really preparing them for the real world. I think they should offer a class in writing log lines. I think they should offer a class in writing query letters and pitching. And then a class that really explains how to set up pitch meetings and send out tens of thousands of query letters. Practical classes that really help filmmakers succeed are what’s needed. I think the issue is that colleges are typically taught by people who didn’t really succeed in the industry. So they don’t know how to market themselves. Anyone who knows how to effectively market their screenplays probably isn’t looking to teach a college class!
Links to Ashley’s SYS services: My free guide, “How to Sell Your Screenplay in 5 Weeks” http://www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide/; The SYS Podcast: http://www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts/; SYS Select (premium screenwriting services): http://www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/how-to-sell-your-screenplay/professional-screenwriting-tools/
Submitting to SCREENPLAY REQUESTS – Author: Jacob N. Stuart, Founder of Screenwriting Staffing; Produced Screenwriter: http://www.imdb.me/jacobnstuart
I have surveyed/vetted thousands of initial e-mail submissions (screenplay query letters) over a very short period of time. From my days fresh out of film school, working entry level at some indie studio, to screening incoming submissions for specific industry pro’s via Screenwriting Staffing.
My conclusion? Every screenwriter submits differently. And that’s the good news!
I am a huge advocate when it comes to directly e-mailing the industry pro with your query letter or pitch (if requested). Just like our screenplays are unique and distinctive, so should our e-mail submissions to industry pro’s This is our chance, as creative writers, to add some flare and pop, hoping to stick out (in a positive way) among a pool of other talented applicants. That’s why at Screenwriting Staffing we provide the e-mail address of the industry pro (no standard, limited submission forms) to each lead we send out.
The overall consensus? It works!
But how the writer SUBMITS can still be improved.
There is no one way to submit, but before breaking the rules, you MUST understand the fundamental, original rules. It should be noted that the submissions that stick out the most, the one’s where the producer requests the script right away, are usually the submissions that go back to the basics, keeping it simple, structured, and professional.
For educational purposes, I’m going to compose a standard “advert” you may find through Screenwriting Staffing (or a similar service) to reference.
John Producer, with Hollywood Production Company, is seeking a high-concept, contained HORROR screenplay, with a limited size cast. Script should be in the vain of “Saw” and “Insidious”. We prefer scripts that can be made for UNDER 1M. We will accept both WGA and NON WGA writers, but we will only review submissions from writers with produced credits.
Allow me to footnote this by saying if you don’t have a HORROR script you really have no business submitting to this lead.
OK – so while I’d suggest using the following guideline in EVERY e-mail submission, this guideline/template is meant for those who submit via Screenwriting Staffing.
- Address who the e-mail is for. At Screenwriting Staffing, the contact person’s full name is listed, so there is no excuse to use cliches like, “To Whom It May Concern”, or “Dear Producer”.
- Tell the industry pro where you found their advert. Folks, this is really important. With google and social media, it’s so easy to collect e-mail address. Producers, who are not even currently searching, are bombarded daily with unsolicited query letters. It’s in your advantage to tell the pro upfront where you found their script request, as they are expecting submissions via that platform and will immediately READ on.
- Establish the GENRE & TITLE. Don’t waste the pro’s time if your script doesn’t fit their needs. If they are seeking a HORROR script and your script is a HORROR, establish this early and they will continue reading. Always refer to your script by its title, not my “screenplay”.
- Think like a “producer” and separate yourself from the pack right out of the gate. This can be achieved very easily if you have what the pro is looking for. Boast about the fact your script can be shot on a low to moderate budget, and only features a few locations and characters.
- ACCOLADES. Has your script won or placed in a contest? Has your script been previously optioned? Is there financing or talent attached? If you can answer YES to any of these, use this in your favor in the initial intro.
(NOTE: I provided a lot of info under this category, but keep in mind your intro should be around 3 sentences, 4 MAX. Don’t lose them with too much detail. But make sure you establish right from the start you have something worth reading.)
- Your logline is arguably the most important weapon in your creative arsenal. Without one, no one will read your work. Keep your logline to ONE sentence, TWO at the very max. If you can’t pitch your script in UNDER 60 words, you may want to evaluate the premise of your story. (note: loglines are NOT taglines, make sure you are familiar with the difference).
For more info on LOGLINES, please refer to an older blog we published via The Backstory: Loglines: beat the competition & get your screenplay READ!
- Do not get bogged down with clutter and detail. Get to the point, fast. Try to keep your synopsis at ONE paragraph, TWO at the very max.
- Take us on the hero’s journey. Hit the major turning points, and convey VERY clearly what’s at stake if your hero doesn’t succeed.
- Don’t REVEAL your ending.
- Producer’s love when a writer incorporates elements/factors from their advert into their synopsis. So don’t be afraid to tailor your synopsis for the producer.
(NOTE: A synopsis is NOT a treatment, be sure to know the difference.)
- Bio’s DO matter, and too often writers neglect them. They shouldn’t be used to sell your story, your logline/synopsis should have already done that. Your bio is meant to add extra incentive to reading your story.
- What should be included in a bio? Produced work. The advert above actually requests that the writer has PRODUCED work. This is where you briefly talk about it. What else should be listed? Awards, education, work-for-hire jobs, previous industry employment. Whatever it takes to show the producer you aren’t “new” to the game.
- What if you don’t have any credits or experience? Well, first, you shouldn’t be applying to this specific lead, as the lead states “produced” writers ONLY. But for the sake of argument let’s say the producer accepts ALL levels of writers. Tell the producer why you are well-versed in the subject matter you are pitching. Did you play some college basketball back in the day and your script happens to focus on college hoops? Tell them! Are you a retired cop and your story follows the life of two cops in the inner city? Tell them!
(NOTE: Just like the INTRO, this needs to be UNDER 4 sentences, preferably 3. Remember, you are not applying for a screenwriting job; you are only trying to get a “READ” from a producer.)
- Quickly let them know you would be happy to send the full-length HORROR script (TITLE) if they are interested in a read.
- Be sure to provide them with the following: Full name, phone #, working e-mail address, and any relevant links… like a personal page or IMDb (don’t go overboard).
Practice writing your “query letter” in a word or google doc first. Your query letter should not be more than a page; if you can keep it at half a page, you already have a leg up.
QUESTIONS I HAVE FIELDED OVER THE YEARS… & THE ANSWERS:
Q: Should I start off with a catchy JOKE? A: NO. You are pitching a horror script, not a comedy. And even if you were pitching a comedy, the humor, if done correctly, will be found in your “concept”.
Q: Should I use special FONTS to stand out? A: NO. Make your story stand out by your themes and characters, not by BOLD lettering and UNDERLINING.
Q: If I know someone the producer knows, is it acceptable to mention this? A: YES. Finding that first or second degree of separation is key to success in this industry. But make sure the connection is solid and accurate.
Q: When do I follow up on my query letter? A: NEVER. It’s a query letter. They are not reaching out to you, you are reaching out to them. If they want to read your screenplay, they will contact you. Not getting a response means “NO”.
Q: How many LOGLINES should I submit at once? A: Just ONE, TWO at the very most (and that’s only if it’s the same genre, or the producer says they are open to ANY genre). Submitting 30 or even 40 loglines at once (I’ve actually seen up to 50 before) is a sure way to find your query in the junk folder.
Q: Should I compare my script to other commercially successful scripts? A: YES & NO. If a producer is seeking a 1 location, contained romcom, don’t say your script is similar to TITANIC. But if the producer is looking for a 1 location comedy, it may be safe to mention your script is in the vain of “Clerks”, for instance. I don’t typically use this selling/marketing device in my own personal queries, but I know people who do — and it sometimes works.
Q: Should I list my WGA registration #? A: No. It makes you look paranoid and amateurish. This typically is done by younger writers or those VERY new to the game.
Q: Should I tell them if I don’t sell my screenplay that I won’t be able to pay rent next month? A: NO. If you are living that close to poverty (which most writers are) find another form of income in the meantime. DON’T EVER SOUND DESPERATE.
Q: Should I tell them my script is EXACTLY what they are searching for? A: How can you gauge from of a few sentences what they are searching for? They may not even know exactly what they are searching for. Stick to being a writer, not a psychic 🙂
Be sure to read Screenwriting Staffing’s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart, and Former MGM Executive, Stephanie Palmer, friendly debate on QUERY LETTERS via Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
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This blog was published by www.screenwritingstaffing.com.