Query letters were all the rage in Hollywood in the '80s and '90s. But not so much now.
I recently had a coffee with a young writer trying to break into the business. She told me she was spending a lot of time and money figuring out which managers and agents accepted query letters so she could let them know about her fantastic new screenplay.
Upon hearing this, I spit my coffee out and began a rant. Then I settled and now I am writing to you. I think these are complete wastes of time. The only thing you should be writing are screenplays. And even then, if you're worried about getting an agent, you need to understand a query is the exact worst way to find one.
So let's talk real quick about these letters, why they suck, and what you can do about it.
Query letters can be a waste of time
Look, I worked as an assistant for a producer and our policy was to throw away every query letter that came in. Legally, we never wanted to read the letters or open any email attachment because if we ever produced a movie even remotely close to the logline sent to us we might get sued.
So we deleted and tossed all of them.
As far as agents, no real agent likes them or wants to get them.
Just look at what Peter Dodd of UTA said about the subject on the Scriptnotes podcast: In Episode: 264, John August and Craig Mazin chatted briefly about query letters. Here's an excerpt from the podcast transcript:
John: OK. So they start, they say like, “Hey, I read something that’s really great. You’ll want to read her.” And what is the next step for you? So if they said you should read her, are you reaching out to Christina? Are they sending you the script? What’s happening?
Peter: 90% of the time they’ll include the material. They’ll say, “Hey, I just read a great sample for this project. You should check this out. I don’t think this writer is represented.” Or they’ll say, “Hey, I read a great sample. You should check this out. I think this person is unhappy with their agent, or unhappy with their manager. This could be an opportunity.”
John: Great. So, what’s interesting is none of what you’re saying is about a query letter. Like a writer has not written to you saying like, “Hey, I’m looking for an agent.” Does that ever — are any of your clients based on a query letter, like they reached out to you?
John: Not a one?
John: All right.
Peter: Never happens.
When asked by August if he had ever met someone at a conference who offered him a business card or pitched him a script, Peter responded: "No. People have tried, but no. None of the actual clients that I work with now have come in that way."
Craig: This is why John and I spend a lot of our time frustrated, because there is — I’m sure you know this — there is a large cottage industry designed to take money from people, and in exchange give them the secrets to getting an agent, and getting representation... And there’s this obsession over query letters. It’s absurd. It is the most bizarre Fellini-esque circus of nonsense you’ve ever seen.
Peter: And it’s complete highway robbery, because that’s not the way that agents look at or think about material.
Query letters and managers
We already covered the differences between a manager and an agent, but a small difference is that SOME managers MIGHT read a query. All the managers I talked to before writing this article said they're not interested in them, but might glance at them in passing.
And if the logline hooks them, then they might open the email attachment to see if the writer has a voice.
But most said they just trash them.
The reason is, query letters have ZERO proof you're a good writer. And in the modern era, we have lots of ways to prove you can write. Your script could place in the Nicholl, score high on the Black List, or be passed onto the manager by someone who works in the industry.
In fact, every single rep I talked to said they get 90% of their clients from referrals.
That means you have a friend who knows the rep, who passed your information along as well as your work.
That is the BEST and sometimes ONLY way to get representation.
What if I don't live in Los Angeles?
Scott Myers tackles this question on his blog, Go Into The Story. He surmises that query letters still work for managers, but I just don't know anyone in Los Angeles who had any success with that. But maybe people outside of Los Angeles have had success with them.
Scott cites his 2014 interview with Prisoners screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski as one instance of queries working for a writer with a manager.
Aaron Guzikowski: “I had written one [spec script] and basically sent a query letter to three management companies in LA that I randomly pulled out of the Hollywood Creative Directory and one of those responded. The guy is Adam Kolbrenner who is my manager today.”
While this is a great instance, to me it reflects an exception to a rule.
If you don't live in Los Angeles and don't know anyone here, my advice to you is to write as much as you can. Get professional feedback from places like The Black List and submit to contests as a litmus test. And then, if you feel confident, move here and get a job where you can make contacts.
I know this is a huge leap, but I have no idea how else things can work for you.
This town is about convenience and connections. You need to be here to meet the right people to get reps. Or you need to use one of these online services that, while being expensive, might be able to bridge the gap and get your screenplay in front of the right people.
But doesn't it sound better to live and work in Los Angeles instead of praying and hoping for the best from far away?
What do you think?
I honestly would love to hear from anyone who has queried successfully. And I'm not talking about signing with someone in the minor leagues. I want to know if you signed at any of the big agencies or management companies, or if these queries led to more work and allow you to work as a full-time writer now.
I hate to go negative, but I hate the idea of you wasting your time.
At the end of the day, the most important currency is a great screenplay.
It's awful thinking about no one reading that script, but that's why we have to take chances and use more logical ways than spraying it out there.
So get writing.
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