Sammy Montana has worked in different capacities in Hollywood... Read more. To get Sammy's free screenwriting advice subscribe to his YouTube channel. For his high quality and fast turnaround script consultation services contact him on Linkedin.
There are three big query letter mistakes almost every single screenwriter makes – hyping up your scripts, not researching your target company, and weak writing. It's ironic if you think about it that the writer who's trying to sell you on reading their project can't write a query letter. One thing I want to make clear is that as a current script consultant and writer myself I practice what I preach. In other words I have avoided these techniques, and I've gotten reads from some "big" people! In fact, only one of them I knew personally. The rest were cold queries. Now even though I could have been referred to some of those cold queries, I did not want to call in those favors yet. But that's a topic for another article.
Something happened recently that inspired me to write this article. I received a query letter that made one of these big mistakes. Almost every single writer that sends out query letters by email gives no thought to each word and sentence before they hit the send button. From my time working in development and my time managing, this has been constantly the case. In fact, I've been pleasantly surprised whenever I do get that great query letter. The sad part is some of them might actually have good scripts, but the query letters are absolutely terrible. Let me elaborate on these query letter mistakes.
Query Letter Mistake #1 - Hyping Up Your Scripts
Do not exaggerate the greatness of your screenplay. You wrote the script. It is your product that you're trying to sell me. If I believe you, that's like me believing a Salesman before trying out the product or reading reviews about the product. I'm talking about other people's reviews, of course. Of course you're going to tell me the script is great. Now because you're telling me the script is great it's sent my expectations through the roof. What if your script is good but you've pushed my expectations so high that I'm expecting a masterpiece? Now if you're telling me how your script is great but it's done in a joking manner, or it serves a purpose more than just trying to sell me on your script, then it may work in your favor. Hey, there is no straight line in life. There is no straight line in the industry either. What that means is there is no exact way to write queries. If something works, it works. But make sure if you hype it up, it's done in a way that you're not trying to sell me on your project.
The paradox is to sell without selling. Almost all the time, the person writing the query is trying to sell you on the project. So hyping it up almost never works. An example of hyping it up is saying that this is the next Braveheart. Or this is a great "character-driven drama." You're the writer not the producer trying to sell it. Since you're sending it to me, or want to send it to me, let me be the judge of its quality.
Also, one thing to keep in mind is that there's so much insecurity that is shown by the writer trying to "sell" you the project. You are coming from a place of scarcity when you try really hard in anything in life. Nobody wants to work with a desperate person. Desperate people make desperate choices. Desperate choices can be major mistakes. Would a producer or a manager or agent want to work with someone who can make costly or amateurish mistakes? I think you know the answer to that.
Again you need to learn to sell without selling. The best way to do that is to read as many pitching books about the industry as possible. Practice techniques from there. Use what works and throw away what doesn't. But be ready to fail. The more you fail the more it means you're actually trying. But you must adjust your technique when you fail, otherwise there's no point in failing. And that my friend is the ultimate failure! You can search on Amazon and The Writer's Store for books. Try the Audible app too.
Query Letter Mistake #2 - Not Researching Your Target Company
It's a mistake to not research any updates or changes to your target company. I received a query letter recently from a person who asked to send me a script about eight months ago. Then vanished without a trace. No script. No explanation. The problem is the person failed to check my updated bio that states my retirement from management. Now I consult on scripts and help writers formulate effective career plans. Had the writer done his homework, he would have known this. The other issue is that even if I was in management I would not read a script that you pitched me eight months ago. The industry goes in cycles and what's hot and what's not changes. So why would I read it now?
When a writer pitches a project, managers, agents, or producers are expecting the project to be ready and be sent to them within as short of a period as 48 hours. But definitely not eight months later. People lose interest. People forget why they requested the script in the first place. In other words, things happen. This should be common sense but unfortunately that is the mark of a very "green" writer.
Query Letter Mistake #3 - Weak Writing
What does weak writing look like? An example of weak writing is when a cover letter starts with the pitch immediately and then asks if they can send it. No "dear" so-and-so. Not even one sentence that says something interesting about the person's background. For example, it would be good to know that you are a lawyer when you're writing a story about a lawyer on the run from criminals. Something like that would make the writers stand out. If it's a comedy a little bit of humor that would translate well in writing would work. Again don't go overboard. One or two sentences is funny enough. You want the people to know you're funny but you could also be taken seriously.
Make sure the script you are submitting has done really well in one of the major competitions such as Sundance, Launch Pad feature competition, etc. If you don't have a script that has done well then make sure you have a different script optioned or sold to somebody else. Mention that briefly in the letter in order to show "value" when you're pitching the project you want them to read.
Yes, I know that you have to write a query letter or approach people in order to sell or option something in the first place. Unfortunately, what most people won't tell you is that they want "heat" on a project in advance. So having some sort of the heat on any past projects or current project, and mentioning it in the query letter, shows that you understand the business. It also shows that you can write because you know how to sell without really selling and being desperate in the query letter. In other words it shows that you're not a weak writer. Or at least that you are not likely to be a weak writer. One thing worth mentioning is that in the past when I have requested no heat scripts from query letters I regretted it every single time. So after a while I stopped requesting scripts from query letters unless they had heat. Heat could also be some sort of attachment to it that makes sense with the project. The attachment could be a director, talent or producer. Of course it goes without saying that having some money attached can also be helpful. Very frequently weak writing is a query letter riddled with typos. It should be common sense to most people that your letter should be professional. There should be zero typos.
One of the biggest pet peeves in a query letter is when the writer proceeds to tell you how their script is better than all the other scripts on the market. And then they try to explain to you why in detail. Guess what? I don't care. I may have even liked some of the movies you hated. I will definitely count that as a point against you. I will also question your taste. And if I'm questioning your taste, I'm questioning your writing. Of course, if we were having a friendly discussion over dinner, it's a whole different scenario. But this is a query letter where the rules are different than a friendly dinner discussion.
If you are reading this and think any of this is unfair then it is completely understandable. Just know that there are other businesses that may fit you better. This may not be the right business for you. Or you can use the unfairness of it as fuel for your fire and keep improving and developing as a writer and continue to learn and improve your marketing skills. In the end it comes down to how badly do you want this and what are you willing to do for it.
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