Friday, December 09, 2005

Notes From Wilderness: Querying

This is probably the last, or maybe only, bit of information I have that's actually useful. I’ll cover various methods to get reads, not just queries. This will be a monstrously long post I’m afraid, but I thought it best to put it all together instead of breaking it up into multiple posts.

I've experimented with a few methods of trying to get material read by people who could possibly get it made so I thought I'd share my experiences. Let's start with the worst method:

Snail Mail Query Letters
As mentioned in the previous post – this technique can turn your 37 cent investment into $15 of work at the far end of the line. Recently I gave this a significant try, sent out about 200 query letters in envelopes. Fortunately, they have stamps you don’t need to lick. Unfortunately, the redi-strip envelopes jam in my printer so there was still plenty of licking involved.

Of those 200 queries I’ve received, let me see here… counting… counting… oh, that’s right, zero requests for a read. I have since received 4 requests for that same script via an eQuery service.

Admittedly, these were all blind queries, but they were addressed to specific people at the places. Since my data was a tad out of date a fair number came back as undeliverable. However, given the added effort and cost of this technique, it would have to be significantly better than other methods to be worthwhile.

InkTip’s Script Listing Service
For those unfamiliar with the service this is a website where you pay to list your screenplay for a period of six months and production companies can look at its short description and download the screenplay, if they desire. This activity is tracked and reported to you so you always know who has read your synopses and screenplays, and who has at least gotten a glance at your logline.

This hasn’t worked well for me. I’ve had three screenplays up for about six weeks. So far the loglines have been viewed a total of 66 times by 26 different companies—most of these companies have few or no production credits.

Of those viewings, 2 have gone on to look at the synopsis I posted, but none have actually looked at the screenplay. That may be due to subpar synopsizing or lackluster loglining, but I’ve had better success using other methods and this post is really just about sharing what methods have worked best for me at getting my stuff in front of people (and hopefully getting stuff happening after that).

My BIG caveat to the above: the screenplays I’ve posted there are not cheap to make – as in, not less than $1 million. Also, I’m forthcoming about this and mark the appropriate check-box in their listing form. Given that so many of the companies look like places that are starting up, and they can choose search criteria that would include cost, the relatively high cost might even be reducing the number of times my logline shows up.

The script I’m working on now should be very inexpensive to make and I definitely plan to post it on InkTip so I’ll come back in a few months with an update to say whether or not micro-budget seems to make much of a difference.

Lastly, fellow San Antonian, ScriptWeaver (warning! link may not be safe if your girlfriend or wife is looking over your shoulder), has enjoyed better success from InkTip (an assignment!!) and also from MovieBytes, a similar, but free service.

I haven’t entered many contests, largely because so many of them seem to look for high quality screenplays with in-depth characters and rich character arcs – and I write stories about new ways to kill people.

I do look for contests that have genre categories, such as the previously mentioned Screenwriting Expo contest (a quarterfinalist), and I went for the Project Green Light 3 contest (only made it past the “we’ve cut out the people who make us shudder at the tragic state of modern education” round), and I recently entered the Horror Screenplay Competition. I missed one of the other pure horror contests and kind of kick myself for that.

So far, these contests have neither resulted in direct reads, nor seemed to help get my screenplays read when I mentioned my stunning achievement of getting up there with 260-some other struggling screenwriters.

My personal feeling is that contests are one little piece of justice in the world. I write stuff that tends to do well with regular querying; but more dramatic or personal stories (or potato famine period dramas) do better in contests—which in turn might not get the movie made, but can bring the writer to the attention of the people who hire writers for other things.

In addition to their coverage service, they also offer something called a Writer’s Database. This is a listing of about a thousand different production companies, agencies, managers, and entertainment attorneys. These listings are kept fairly up to date and often include useful information for screenwriters such as: whether the company accepts material from new writers, how best to submit a query, what kind of material the company prefers (film genres are especially nice since a fair number of place don’t want horror at all and some seem to only want horror), and a decent percentage also list some of their credits—which is probably the best way to figure out whether your script is a good fit for them.

One particularly nice feature of this database is that a decent number of companies accept queries directly through the ScriptPIMP website. You fill out a form with your own information and information about the script, then just press a button on the company’s listing and off the query goes. I’ve only received one request from maybe 30 to 40 queries, but in the cold-query biz that’s a stellar percentage. Moreover, it was from a good place and, while they passed on the first one, I followed up with my new piece and got another request.

Some companies mention that they prefer to see queries come this way. I suspect this is because when you use this system you also agree to a ScriptPIMP standard release form and this gives the companies enough legal comfort that they’re willing to accept unsolicited query letters. And, frankly, I don’t blame them for seeking a little additional legal protection.

eQuery Services: Script Express
This service is sold by So You Wanna Sell A Script, and has been the primary service I’ve used. Not so much because I’ve done extensive market research and decided on it, but because it’s worked fairly well so far so I might as well stick with it.

What it does is take a query letter you’ve written then send it via email to a large list of production companies, agencies, and managers. The email uses your own return address, so if someone hits reply it goes directly to you.

It is, of course, spamming. But everyone on the list receives these messages on a daily basis and can easily opt out, so I’m fairly confident that the people who receive it do so because, at least occasionally, they like to go trolling through the eQueries to see if there’s any possibles.

I’ve used the service five times and have gotten between 10 and 15 read requests the last four times. My first query scored fewer hits, but it did get one from Fox Searchlight, so even the big companies apparently take a look every now and then.

Again, many of the companies that have responded to me have been fairly small, but often with a few credits at least or a decent client list for the managers or agents. I will note that the most requests I got was for a teen comedy—and that one also got requests from larger places on average.

This is also the service through which I got in contact with the company that optioned THE SOUND. So, to defend these kinds of services to any potential producers that happen by here—not only can they help writers, but production companies can also find projects that interest them, if someone’s willing to wade through all the email.

Like the ScriptPIMP service above, I think there’s a sort of release form you go through when you use the service, so this might be another reason why companies are more willing to respond to these sorts of queries than they are to regular letters.

eQuery Services: eQuery Online
I just recently used this one for the script that I also tried the abysmal failure of the snail mail experiment on. Their website has a number of handy tips so is worth checking out for that reason.

All these services do pretty much the same thing—mass mail your query, likely to many of the same people. Both these companies also limit the number of queries they send per day, to avoid overloading the recipients. This usually makes for a short wait before they actually send your query out. I’ll talk here about the differences.

Instead of putting together your own query, this place has you fill out a form and include just a logline—albeit a somewhat more detailed one. Normally I include a shortish logline and a one paragraph micro-synopsis in my queries, but I hadn’t the vaguest idea how to do a synopsis for the last one so I thought it’d be a good time to give eQuery Online a try.

They were nice enough to give me some comments on how to improve my logline before sending it out—then, when they did so, they put together their own version of the query. This included mentioning the recipient by name in the body of the text to give it the illusion of personalization. This might work better than my “don’t have a Dear XXXX line at all” technique.

I then got five requests, some from decent sized companies. But also one from one of the producers of The Sound! Normally, these services include a place where you can tell them what companies not to email. I list there all the places where I’m able to contact someone I’ve corresponded with in the past—but apparently they messed up that part this time.

Unfortunately, here is also where the problems started showing up. Unlike Script Express, this service has the recipient respond to an email address they set up. eQuery Online then goes to that email account and forwards any emails to your regular email address—then you can go ahead and respond to the original recipient (and work out for yourself what you’re going to do about updating them about your real email address).

From the header information on the emails I received, it looks like the query was sent out Nov 30, and the four fresh responses were sent that day. However, I didn’t receive the forwarded messages until early Dec 4. So either they use an auto-forwarder that’s rather fritzy, or they have some person do it by hand and they were busy.

Also, after having received 4 fresh requests the first day, I’ve received no requests since then, not even “thanks, but not interested responses”. Having a little experience with queries, I’ve noticed a pattern in the responses that jibes with other patterns in nature. Normally I get about half my total number of requests on the first day, then a few over the course of the following week, and a smaller trickle after that—the same nice little geometric pattern that you also see in weekend box office tallies of major films. So, the absence of any following responses of any sort make me suspicious of this dead-drop email account plus forwarding system.

I followed up with some questions about the delay, lack of “no thanks” notes, and getting nothing from the following days, and whoever was at the other end only answered one of my three questions. I followed up with another email asking the other two questions and this time got a response that only answered one of those. Perhaps they have a one question per email rule that I somehow missed…

Now, I didn’t have high expectations for this particular query; four total responses would not surprise me. It did have the contest placement, but it’s an expensive film and that would likely be clear from the query, thus ruling out a bunch of companies right out the gate.

However, the lack of transparency in their process is really frustrating. Why the mysterious delay in receiving my replies? Why can’t I access the mystery account directly? I almost always get as many “no thanks” notes as I do requests, but none this time. And the customer service after the query needs some more time in development.

Previous Contacts
People who’ve read your stuff and responded well previously (even if they passed) are the most likely to request a read. Moreover, they’re more likely to give you some notes if they pass.

Final Note
Those are the methods I’ve tried. Others can tell you about cold-calling or making personal contacts. I do suspect that one side advantage of the pathetic query letter is that the people who do request a read are at least in the market for a script in your genre. You know they’re not reading it just because they like you.


Konrad West said...

"I haven’t entered many contests, largely because so many of them seem to look for high quality screenplays with in-depth characters and rich character arcs – and I write stories about new ways to kill people."


Grubber said...

Great post Steve, thanks for that, appreciate your honesty and experiences.

ScriptWeaver said...


Did I get you in trouble with the wifey? Sorry! Just visit me after hours. I don't mind.

I used "E-query" a couple of years ago and I seem to recall the same problems. I had to email them to get my responses and they would respond with, "What?! You didn't get them?! What's going on?!" Yeah - I think I got 3 - 4 requests as well.

"So You Wanna Sell A Script?" is definitely the better of the two.

I know it's been said over and over again, but if you're gonna enter only one contest, enter Nicholl's. The requests are still trickling in, and I was only a Quarter Finalist!

This past Summer, I sent about 200 cold query emails to agents, managers, and producers. Most of them I received the "We Do Not Accept Unsolicited Emails." But I did get one very important hit. It was ICM. They requested my script and gave me good coverage. Nothing has happened with them since, but it gave me some validation. So - it's not entirely impossible to do it this way.

Attending festivals. You do make contacts. I'm still waiting on the results from the Austin Film Festival. It's expensive, but if you can go, do it. I'm fortunate to be a reader for the contest, so I get to go for free. Hey, Steve - I'll let you know when we start reading again, if you're interested.

And as mentioned, I've had some success with Inktip and Moviebytes. Inktip also sends a weekly newsletter (for a price) that's valuable. In fact, I've had more success from that than actually posting my loglines and synopsis.

Okay, I'm outtie....

Steve Peterson said...

Thanks for the notes, Richard. The Nicholl sounds like a complete score! Congrats!

I subscribe to the InkTip preferred newsletter too, but so far only got one request from the queries I sent based off that. Still, that's a relatively good percentage since I haven't sent many queries that way.

Patrick J. Rodio said...

I've had up to 5 scripts listed on Inktip, and thought my loglines/synopsis were decent, but had very few hits (just like you, I've had plenty of logline hits but limited synopsis hits, and maybe a script request every other month).

I tried their "preferred newsletter" which sends you companies that are requesting certain materials - And I'd send them a logline/synopsis for a script that sounded like EXACTLY what they're looking for, and 98% of the time got no response.

This year I'm going for broke (and going broke) on the contests. I'm not entering EVERY one but plenty of them. I entered several last year but looking back I wasn't sending out my best work. This year I feel more confident. Feel free to check my blog/site for updates, and keep us posted on your progress as well!

Good luck!

Steve Peterson said...

Thanks for dropping by, Patrick. I met my wife in New Jersey while attending Rutgers.

Good luck on the contest rounds this year! They strike me as good resume builders and given what Scriptweaver said I'd throw every script I felt decent about at the Nicholl.