Making Movies- Part III

The last two weeks, I’ve had Pepper Langlinais here to talk about screen plays versus novels. Today’s final posting is about querying. So I’ll let you take it away, Pepper.
So we’ve (well, I’ve) talked about how screenwriting differs from writing prose (books, stories). But does the querying differ too?

In some ways, yes, though the goal is largely the same: To get someone interested enough to want to read your work.

For a book manuscript, you might query agents and also publishers directly if they accept author submissions.

When trying to get your script read, you have a few different avenues: managers, agents, producers, directors, agencies. With all these options, it might seem like you have a better chance at getting a script read, but in actuality it’s much more difficult. Because even though there are all these possible readers, none of them actually like to read.

In fact, the goal for any of the above-mentioned people is to not have to read your script. They’re busy and have other things to do. That’s why they hire kids right out of college to read scripts for them, even though those kids don’t know s— about how to read and evaluate a script. (Most of them don’t anyway.)

This means your query has to be all the stronger for a script than for a book. You generally lead with what’s called the LOG LINE, which in a book query would be roughly the same as “the hook.” Except a log line has a definite structure. It should be only one sentence, and the best way to start is to say to yourself, “If a friend asked me what a movie was about, how would I answer in one sentence that would also make him want to go see that movie?”

You can probably do the same with a book hook, you know. Pretend you’re trying to convince a friend to read a book you think is awesome. He asks, “What is it about?” How do you answer in one sentence in a way that makes him want to read the book?

Sample Log Line: A New York cop tries to save his estranged wife from terrorists who have taken an L.A. office building hostage on Christmas Eve.

You all know this movie. It’s “Die Hard.” And if someone were to ask, “What’s ‘Die Hard’ about?” this is pretty much what your answer would be, though worded more formally here than if you were talking to a friend.

The key to querying for a script is to find producers, directors and so forth who do that kind of movie. Just as you would want to find a publisher or agent who handles your genre of writing. There are directories, similar to Writer’s Market type stuff, that list various production companies and whether they take unsolicited queries. IMDb Pro is also a great source to find out contact info and research who makes movies similar to the one you’ve written. (These are called COMPS, short for “comparative titles.”)

The wait time for a response is similar as well. It’s no use checking your e-mail incessantly; queries largely go unanswered. If you’re lucky enough to get someone to request your script, you can expect to wait 2 to 6 months for a response. (It’s fair to follow up after about 3 months.) Or you might never hear anything. The thing about Hollywood is that no one wants to say “no.” Because they never know how big you might get later, and they don’t want you to hold their rejection against them if you do make it big. So it’s easier and more politic to just say nothing at all. In Hollywood, no news is bad news.

Novel writers usually look for a literary agent. Screenwriters do, too. But you don’t have to have an agent, and in fact they’re nearly impossible to get. They usually don’t want you until you’ve already sold something or made a hit film. Kind of backwards, but that’s the way things are going in both publishing and filmmaking: You have to prove yourself first by self-publishing or making your own indie movie or whatever. Only then will the industry take you seriously. So while you look for an agent for your script, you should also be looking for potential directors, actors, etc. If you can get someone, anyone, to sign on to make your movie, you’re making progress.

These days the reigning advice is to make your movie yourself. Mount a Kickstarter campaign, take donations from family and friends, but just do it. It’s worked for some people, but it’s not for everyone. Plenty of writers just want to write and not be filmmakers in their own rights.

If you DO get an agent, he or she will (ideally) begin sending your script out to agencies, directors, producers, etc. Having an agent means having someone connected to the great web of Hollywood and someone to do the legwork for you. Still, it’s worse to have a bad agent than no agent at all. A bad agent sits on your script and never does a thing and then nothing happens because you think he’s doing the work so you aren’t doing anything either. The lesson is: Always be promoting. Networking. Taking advantage of opportunities. Even if you do have an agent.

Just as with manuscripts, a screenwriting agent will take 10-15% of whatever deal he or she is able to make for you. If you’re wondering why you should pay him if you’re still doing so much work, the answer is because he knows the industry, knows how much a script is worth and how to negotiate. He should also know what to look for in the legal documents. It’s definitely worth it to have a GOOD agent.

How do you know if he’s good? Ask for a list of his clients and/or sales. Make sure he’s a WGA Signatory. Give him a test run of 90 days and if nothing’s happening, look elsewhere. But you should NEVER have to pay an agent anything up front. He makes his money when he sells your work.

Finally, another way to get your script out there is to participate in Web sites like InkTip, which for a fee allows you to post your script and have it read by industry professionals. Also, directors looking for screenplays sometimes read these sites to find their next projects. Or they’ll put out calls for particular kinds of scripts that writers can look through to see if their screenplays fit the bill. I haven’t tried sites like this, and I’ve heard mixed reviews. Like with so many things, it works for some people but not everyone.

I hope I’ve answered any questions you might have had about querying scripts and getting them read and produced. If you have more questions, feel free to post them in the comments or send me an e-mail at visitors [at] pepperwords [dot] com.
Querying screen plays sounds just as frustrating as querying novels. 🙂 Thanks so much, Pepper. It was fun to see all the similarities and differences between the writing and movie industries.

6 Responses

  1. What a fun concept! I think most writers probably daydream about seeing their story on the silver screen, but I have never thought concretely about what it takes to write a screen play, let alone query one! Thanks for the great info 🙂

  2. Writers who don’t have the skills (or software) to turn their books into screenplays usually hire a screenplay writer to adapt their book. I’ve done it with my own work and others’.

  3. YES! Getting your script read is more about knowing someone than having a strong query, but that helps too. Really, the more personal connections you can make in your industry, the better off you’ll be.

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