Barri Evins’ secret to solving the query letter conundrum: one sure-fire tool that can flip the script, ratchet up the heat, and turn the odds into your favor.
A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
We’ve dug into the nitty-gritty of getting a great query letter onto the page, how to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, and how to recognize an open door when you see it and turn a pass into a positive. I haven’t skirted the harsh reality of any query letter getting you anywhere ever.
Yes, it’s bleak. But there is one sure-fire tool at your disposal that can flip the entire query letter conundrum, ratchet up the heat, and flip the odds into your favor.
If you’re really ready to put in the time and do the work that is essential to succeeding here’s how:
The Killer Query Letter – Cold vs. Warm
The chances of your query letter – no matter how well written – leading to a sale are slim to microscopic. If I didn’t acknowledge that, I could probably be assured of some testy remarks in the comments. And rightly so. That’s a fact.
But are you going to give up, or are you willing to put in the work to find a way to get around this barrier? It is possible to flip the odds in your favor.
A trusted friend and advisor admonished me to underscore the difference between what he calls “the cold query letter versus the warm query.” Of course, I think this way when operating in the real world, but until my friend phrased it so vividly and succinctly, I hadn’t really taken it into consideration here. But the moment I heard it, I knew I had to reveal how this powerful concept could be the tipping point that you need to succeed.
The “cold query” is your letter going out blind and naked into the world. The chances of getting a response are worse than winning the lottery. Sometimes, once in blue moon, lightning will strike, the gods will smile down, the timing is impeccable, or Lady Luck will be on your side. Your choice of whatever reflects your beliefs. The one-in-a-million does happen. But those are pretty grim odds.
But the “warm query letter” is in an entirely different category.
The secret to harnessing the power of the warm query is this:
Be a relationship builder.
Successfully building relationships is the surefire path to create a warm query. The switch from cold to warm will astronomically ups the odds of your query letter successfully targeting the attention you're seeking.
This means actively meeting people, both in real life, such as at conferences and pitchfests, as well as online, now that social media provides the ultimate form of access.
Be professional. Be polite. Build the relationship with meaningful interaction over time. Take advantage of open doors. And for Pete’s sake – keep track of the industry contacts you acquire, whether it’s in a database, an app, or in Word. You need a searchable document. Know who you know, the specifics on how you know them, when you’ve been in contact, and how to contact them in the future.
That system is how I succeeded as a junior development executive, moved up to be a senior exec, and went on to run a production company for a prolific producer. I took notes on every call with an agent or manager, every meeting with them or their client, every piece of material they submitted to me. Over a period of about three years, I filled a 250-page word document. I never had to rely on my memory; I had specifics. This helped me convey that I was paying attention to the rep and to their clients, and that I was on top of my game. That helped me advance my career.
Once I moved up the ladder, I kept stretching, pushing myself to develop relationships that would make me even better at doing my job. I targeted meeting executives working for top actors and directors so I could use those relationships to package projects and push them uphill toward getting made – the ultimate goal of a producer.
After every great meeting, I asked my new business acquaintance who in the industry they thought was smart and had good taste who I should know. I then “cold called” that person, which heated up immediately with a sincere, authentic compliment via someone they already knew. And so on. Which is why I call this type of networking “swinging through the forest on vines.” One relationship leads to the next, helping you travel faster and more effectively over time. I met many great people this way, strengthening my industry chops along the way.
The always articulate Jeanne Bowerman, editor of ScriptMag, wrote an excellent piece from the writers’ perspective on how to get your screenplay read without asking. Without asking? Seems impossible, but take a moment to read how methodically and successfully Jeanne accomplished this by carefully crafting every way she presented herself in public to scream “professional writer.”
It’s not magic. It’s putting in hard work over time. Is it marketing yourself, as well as your material? Yes.
I’ve laid out the techniques for successful industry relationship building here.
Here are the Four Networking Fundamentals:
- Focus on what you can give, not just what you can get.
- Recognize an opportunity when it’s staring you in the face.
- Remember it’s not just about who you know, but about who you know knows.
- Maintain the momentum.
If somehow I haven’t yet convinced you of the power of relationships when you’re striving to build an industry career, watch me share my all time favorite success story here.
Time for a real life example. In 2016, I emailed a writer whose script had done very well in a contest, expressing interest in the project as a producer. I don’t do this often. I got a polite reply back that the script already had a producer attached. I responded with “I know that guy, and he’s great,” and wished them the best of luck in moving the project forward.
This week – a year and half later – I get an email from the same writer, informing me that they had a new script and offering up a logline. I’m not certain this story is exactly my personal cup of tea, but since I had read their work before, I am certain they had solid ideas and strong execution. I asked them to sign a release or have a representative send it. Both release and script are now in my inbox within 24 hours of the original query letter.
Why? Because this was a warm query.
The writer had a pre-existing relationship with me. They were sharp enough to keep track of people who had expressed interest in their work in the past. And to follow up with new material.
In less than 100 words their query letter accomplished a great deal:
- They tailored their query specifically to me. (Yes, this makes a difference. The generic query letter “insert professional’s name here” is painfully obvious and simply painful.)
- They politely reminded me of our contact in the past to refresh my memory. (Important and nicely done. The chances I’ll recall a writer’s name from two years ago are slim, but I never forget a story. And I’ve kept records of everything I’ve ever read since I began my career.)
- They provided a succinct, well-written logline, with an intriguing hook. (Solid proof that they can write, and it piqued my curiosity.)
- They added that the script had received kudos in a prestigious contest. (Translates to: Other people think they can write. Always regarded as a positive in the industry.)
- And the most important factor – I was already a big fan of their writing. (This is what makes the query letter hot.)
The perfect example of the power of the warm query.
Would I have responded the same way to this same email had it been a cold query letter?
Probably not. Okay, definitely not.
Ironically, that example happened after I wrote both columns on query letters, when I only had the “cold versus hot query letter” as a column sub-header/placeholder, and no time to write more. Then this landed in my inbox and hit on every point I’ve belabored upon about how to do a query letter right.
Killer Query Letter Success – Heat It Up!
Writing is a full time job. Chances are you already have a full time job to keep the lights on. And I've just spent two articles convincing you that marketing is virtually a full-time job all on its own. But without networking, most of your efforts at marketing your work will get you nowhere.
How many hats must a writer wear?
Networking is an all the time job. It might not be what you think you signed up for when you decided to become a writer, but it is the reality.
You can’t just turn networking on when you think you need it and expect it to have an impact. Always be networking.
It might not come naturally to you. It might feel awkward, but it’s essential. Approach it as seriously as you do your writing. Put in the time and the effort. Build the skills. Start with low stakes, such as a networking event with other writers to get your feet wet. Most folks are delighted to have someone engage them in conversation at a networking event. Approach everyone as if they might be the most interesting person imaginable and, chances are, you will find out that they are. Live by the Four Networking Fundamentals until they come naturally.
If the idea of networking still makes your stomach churn, here’s a tried and true technique for breaking the ice:
If you admired their interview, article, panel, or project, let them know. The more detailed you are, the better. The vague compliment has nowhere near the power of the specific compliment. We human beings can’t help but being pleased that someone thinks we are talented, smart, or cool – worth knowing. Wow, you see us for the special individual that we really are.
Feels good just thinking about it, right? But don’t be faking it.
If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. If you are sincere with your specific compliment, I guarantee that it will make you stand out from the others in this often superficial and phony business and garner a positive reaction. Trust me when I say this. I know this to be true from a great deal of experience on both sides of the equation.
Remember networking is no piece of cake for almost everyone, but those who are successful come to find the pleasure in building relationships. And the pay off is immense. It can truly heat up your career.
Killer Query Letter Action Plan In Action
- You have a polished project ready for the marketplace.
- You’ve got a great query letter that does its job of making pros want to read your material.
- You’re armed with the tools to turn the “probable pass” into a positive.
- Your query letter is warm, not cold, because you’re a fulltime relationship builder.
- Now you are aiming for the most distant, challenging target imaginable, but you armed with the tools to bring it within arm’s reach.
Still skeptical that this plan works? Let's go back to our real-life example and I'll break it down with some inside insights:
The warm query received a response from me in 10 days. (That's a very brisk turnaround!)
It was a pass for me as a producer. (As I had predicted based on the logline. It's my job to know my taste as a producer. And to only get on board a project that I am passionate about.)
However, I set a meeting with the writer, as I am a big fan of their work. (When it comes to writing, I'm no "Mikey," meaning I don't like everything. So to be this excited about someone's writing is very significant.)
It was great to meet face-to-face. They were personable, smart, and open to feedback. (Yes, we're looking for writers who will be good to work with.)
We discussed the project I'd read that initially attracted me, as well as the more recent script. (I'm eager for them to succeed, so I pointed out their specific strengths and how well they were playing to them in these two pieces. Just offering up a little perspective and insight.)
We talked about where they stand currently with with getting representation, in case I can help. At the moment, this is pending. (If I did hook them up with a manager, and I admit that I have someone in mind, it would be what I call a win-win-win. To me, that's the ultimate networking goal – everyone gets something great out of the relationship.)
Of course, I wanted to know what they are currently working on, the inevitable, "What's next?" (This is a big part of the producer's goal in a meeting with new a new writer whose work we feel strongly about. We want to get that next spec script. Tracking it give us a leg up. You must be able to answer this question in every meeting. Must. It shows you are prolific and keeps us paying attention to your progress. And yes, they had a solid short pitch ready to go.)
We agreed that they would like to run new ideas past me for input before they choose what to write next. (We're working out the mechanics of how they will communicate with me in the future. They were smart enough to ask if I wanted to hear a pitch or read a logline. Be smart and ask how your new contact would like you to communicate with them.)
I urged them to stay focused on stories that showcase their strengths. (Here's my checklist to help you evaluate your own idea.)
What a great example that networking is a two-way street. We're actively building a relationship for the future that can benefit both writer and producer.
That’s the power of the warm query letter in action!
Here's hoping your querying takes you places!
Get more tips from Barri Evins with her on-demand webinar
Loglines, Queries & Synopses:
How to Take Your Script from Being Ignored to Getting Noticed!