What should you include in a query letter? How should you approach a meeting with a potential manager? What makes a strong logline?
We asked all these questions and more when we spoke with producer and literary manager John Zaozirny of Bellevue Productions.
Zaozirny oversees the company's feature slate and the management team. His clients have features set up at major studios, are staffed on popular television projects, and frequently have work featured on the Black List. Zaozirny hails from Canada and attended New York University.
In a couple of recent Twitter threads, Zaozirny wrote about the various ways he finds and signs his clients. We wanted to know more about how he approaches his work in the industry, and he was kind enough to speak to No Film School via phone. We cover some of the basics, like how managers and agents differ, what to put in a query letter, and how you should approach a logline. It's all valuable knowledge that any aspiring screenwriter should have.
On to the advice!
What's the difference between a manager and an agent?
When you think about getting representation, that essentially means you're finding someone to promote and sell you and find you jobs. Agents might work somewhere like CAA or WME, while managers might be at places like Bellevue, 3 Arts, or Circle of Confusion.
Zaozirny sometimes hears that people think these two forms of representation are "the same exact thing," but that isn't the case.
Agents are concerned with making deals quickly. Managers work toward more long-term goals over the course of your career and are willing to develop your work. Agents cannot produce, but managers can.
"I would say the biggest difference [is] agents tend to be generally focused on selling things," Zaozirny said. "And so, as a result, they're looking for clients who are at a level of polish or experience that up-and-coming clients aren't necessarily at."
Because of this, you might find a manager before you find an agent.
Zaozirny and Bellevue are mainly focused on finding new, up-and-coming voices. They can continue to work despite the ongoing WGA-ATA packaging standoff (which prevents big agencies from repping WGA writers, but doesn't affect managers).
Agents, he said, don't usually take on clients who aren't already "established." Managers are more "hands-on" to help polish your work.
"There are obviously exceptions. There are no hard and fast rules about anything," he said. "But more often than not, the manager is the person who's willing to take the time and work with an up-and-coming writer, and help them get their material great, help them get their first job. And then the agent is more often interested once the train is moving, essentially."
What does he want from a script?
Managers, agents, and readers are picking up dozens of scripts every week, and yours needs to stand out. But how?
For Zaozirny, the first element that hooks him is dialogue.
"Because that's the easiest thing to look at," he said. "And if the dialogue doesn't grab me, if it doesn't feel interesting if it doesn't feel authentic? My least favorite dialogue is what I call, 'open the door, shut the door' kind of dialogue."
"Filler" lines that might be common in everyday, real conversations ("Hi, how are you? Fine, thank you") are not always compelling on the page of a screenplay and can usually be cut.
"Screenwriting is about the appearance of normalcy, but not actual normalcy," he said.
Zaozirny also wants a unique, fun voice in a script. Are the characters interesting? Is the story fresh and enjoyable? Does it move well and read seamlessly?
"If I had to be honest, I'd say the first 30 to 45 pages in a screenplay are the most important pages," he said.
If you can get a reader to page 45, and they like it, then your chances are pretty good, he said. Even if you flub the third act, the strength of the preceding material can save you.
Zaozirny said he doesn't necessarily agree with the idea that a screenplay is simply "a blueprint for a movie."
"Well, no, it's not, actually," he said. "It's not a blueprint for a movie. It is a document that needs to sell. And eventually, if you're lucky, it becomes a blueprint for a movie. What it first is, is a sales document."
He points to the Coen brothers' scripts, which tend to be spare on detail because the brothers already know how they will direct them and which visuals they will include. They aren't writing scripts that they have to sell, but up-and-coming writers are.
So you can maybe break a few screenwriting rules if that will help you convey your unique voice and your fresh take.
What should you put in a query letter?
Zaozirny and other managers are more open to unsolicited queries than agents or production companies. He might respond to some queries that intrigue him, although not many. He said he gets about 30 a day, and he might respond to two or three per week.
"Don't send me a query letter asking if I accept query letters, and if so, how should they look?" he said.
He also said you should be direct and focused in your query letter. Don't include several paragraphs about who you are. Although if there's something about your life experience that relates to your project, Zaozirny invites you to mention it briefly.
"Screenplays are about being brief and concise and being very smart and particular about the image and word you're displaying," he said. "If you can't figure that out in a query letter, it doesn't really bode well for the screenplay you're emailing me about."
Also, make sure to include some level of personalization in the letter, even if you are sending out a dozen at the same time. Address the person by name, and if you can, be specific about why you are writing to them. Does the person produce projects similar to yours? Say that.
State what you're sending, provide the logline, and if you can, give some comps. That means you name a couple of films similar to your project. ("It's Blade Runner meets Moon," Zaozirny suggested as a hypothetical.)
"Don't send me more than one logline," Zaozirny said. "To me that indicates that you don't know what your best foot to put forward is."
Zaozirny mentioned in his Twitter thread that he discovers many potential clients through the Black List. He gets a weekly email of high-rated scripts, and if a logline intrigues him, he'll check the script out.
The logline is obviously very important. How do you create a strong one?
"Can I see the movie in one or two sentences?" Zaozirny said. "That's it, really. Does it feel unique?"
Don't give vague, generic plot details or locations. Try to nail down in a few words what is most interesting and exciting about your work.
He also points out that for a logline to work, your script concept has to be solid first.
"If you have a logline, your screenplay's already written," he said. "So really, the logline should be decided before you even write the screenplay. If the logline's not compelling before you write the screenplay, it's not going to be compelling after you write the screenplay."
What does he want in a client?
So you have your material and your logline, and you're ready to start looking for a manager. Different reps will want different things. Zaozirny said he looks for three key elements in a potential client that are pretty universal.
First, you must develop your raw talent as a writer.
"The talent's the thing that gets you in the door," he said. "I decided to read your screenplay because it had an interesting idea, and then you executed that idea in an interesting way."
The second thing he's seeking is drive. He wants to work with someone who sees writing as a long-term career, not just a hobby.
"To succeed in screenwriting is a constant battle," he said. "You could sell one screenplay for a lot of money and then not sell another one for years. Are you going to keep working?"
So you need to approach screenwriting with the intent to build a body of work over a long period.
"The third thing I would say is attitude or collaborative nature," he said.
If you get put in a room with a show's writing staff or a director or a studio executive, you need to be open to other people's ideas.
"The best scenario is I put them in a room with a client, and they say, 'I gotta find a way to work with that person,'" he said.
We've heard it many times during our interviews with filmmakers and executives. You can't have an ego or be someone who is unpleasant to work with. You don't want to be labeled as "difficult," and instead should be willing to have flexibility in order to serve your project. There are usually ways to compromise, Zaozirny said, and keep everyone happy.
How do you prepare for your first meeting?
You never want to go into a meeting with potential reps cold and unprepared. Zaozirny said you should do your research for every meeting and know the work of the people you're meeting.
Zaozirny said he was once conducting a job interview with someone and mentioned a potential horror movie idea. The person responded tepidly, not knowing that the idea was a script Zaozirny had already sold. Needless to say, that person did not get the job.
"[It's the] same thing I would tell anyone who's meeting with anyone about anything," he said. "Do your research. It's so easy to do on the Internet now."
Be prepared to discuss projects that you like. Zaozirny said he wants to know about your interests and the tone of stories you like.
"One of my go-to questions is, 'Tell me a movie or a few movies [from] the last ten years that have gotten made that you feel like you could've written, or you wish you had written,'" he said.
Zaozirny also said you should have something on deck, because he might ask what you're working on. He wants to know what you have planned for your career. If you don't have any ideas, that doesn't look good.
What about what not to do?
Zaozirny said you shouldn't be argumentative, and you shouldn't refuse his notes. He said it all goes back to being collaborative.
"Screenwriting, if you do a modicum of research, is done in collaboration with actors, directors, producers, studio executives," he said.
So get excited about the potential to work on amazing creative teams, and have a good attitude about it!
What's next? Check out more education on representation!
Take a look at our enormous guide to representation for writers and directors. Then be sure to keep our checklist for how to get an agent bookmarked. And here's some additional information on the differences between agents and managers.