Sunday, November 16, 2014

How to approach a Screenwriter with a film idea. Query Letters!

I get a lot of messages from people with 'ideas' and questions on how to approach a Screenwriter or Producer with an idea, so I have compiled this post to give the full monty on the subject!  This advice would work well in approaching other professionals as well and what to think about before you put finger to keyboard.

Spammy style messages don't do well with any pro.  I get many Sir's and Mr's (I'm a girl!) and no name queries and also lots of bland, waffly, extremely vague queries (takes-10-paragraphs-to-get-to-the-point, if any) messages and after many years working in the industry, I now loathe them with a passion as it get's in the way of the genuine stuff I love to discover in my inbox.  I get a few hundred e-mail a day and people blindly spamming my inbox are not the highlight of my day, so please, before you write to someone - think!

It's best to be very specific when approaching writers, what it is exactly you want from them:

  • Feedback on an idea
  • Feedback on something you've written
  • Written coverage
  • Idea development
  • Synopsis development & logline
  • Treatment
  • Full Screenplay writing (for hire)
  • Full Screenplay writing (co writing)
  • Script Editing
  • Rewriting
  • Advice with query letters and presentation
  • Screenplay coaching
  • Brainstorming
  • Advice on...
  • To work with them on...
  • To offer help with...
  • To make a connection - just sayin' hi!
  • To shower them with affection, adoration and/or gifts!

Get to the point.  Professionals don't get much free time to spare on long waffly e-mails. They'd rather be writing screenplays, or keeping up with their connections and social networks.

What the writer needs to know, to know you're serious:

• What stage is the project at?  An idea, story, published/unpublished/self-published book, synopsis, treatment, unfinished script/full draft script, etc.

• Research - If research is needed, have you  got all the research together or will the writer be required to do all the research/extra research work too? (The latter can be unappealing if it's a subject they may not be interested in, as this can be a huge investment of time and energy when they could be writing/researching their own projects.)

• Do you have professional film experience in any capacity?

• Who else is involved in the project?  Other writers, producers etc.

• Is it Feature, short, television?

• What Genre?  Try and pick a writer you know loves the genre or has experience in that genre. A good tip is to look at their favourite films and interests and what are they sharing online.

• Credits: what is the screen credit to be, if applicable?

• What's your writing budget?   
  1. Money talks louder than anything in the industry. This is the budget to hire a writer, not the budget to make the movie (though it's useful to know if it's low/medium/high budget concept), not what you *think* it could make at the box office, which is a sure fire way to get laughed out of the room! 
  2. 'Good ideas' for movies are ten a penny, especially to professional film creatives.  Value lies in the well written screenplay.  If you're short on budget and all you've got is 'an idea', you're going to need a writing budget, or bring value in another way.  If you can't do that, you will have to write it yourself or hope to get lucky and find a random newbie writer that will write for the experience. If your project is going to be written by an inexperienced writer, are you going to be better off writing it yourself?  
  3. Deferred payment literally means 'no payment' to a professional.  Be respectful.  Asking someone to write a script for free is disrespectful to the writer and craft.  Be honest about your situation and be respectful and occasionally people may be quite helpful if you ask nicely enough (also see top tips below).  
  4. If you don't value another writer enough to write your project, do it yourself.  If a writer is going to work for free, it will be for themselves on their own work, something they're connected to and passionate about. Where they have full ownership and destiny is in their own hands.
  5. If you have no, or little money in your budget, what else can you offer of great value that money can't buy (this does not include imaginary 'box office' takings, but a tangible value to the writer, like you really get on together - genuinely. You have great industry contacts/kudos/attachments to the project)

• What are your plans with the completed project?   Have you already got people lined up/attached? Are you self producing? Have contacts already? Or are you looking for a screenwriter with contacts?   
The latter approach is unlikely to be successful as most screenwriters save contacts for their own projects and for people they've known for a long time and have a long-standing professional relationship with.  Nobody likes users, it's a good way to close doors, so if you are just looking to use someone's contacts for your own gain, pro's are likely to pick this up and can be very guarded.  

Top tips:

A decent 'why?' and good value proposition is what's needed to engage a Screenwriter, or any film professional.  

Keep it brief, friendly, genuine and professional.  Don't waffle.  A great query letter is just a few paragraphs long, succinct, engaging and piques curiosity.  Don't submit/pitch ideas until requested.  All you need is to answer the above questions.  It covers both you and the writer for unsolicited submissions, which the industry generally loathes. If they like the sound of your proposition and what you have to offer, they will request further information.

Does the screenplay/idea fit with the writer's interests?  This can add a lot of value to a project if you're short on funds. Shared interests/common goal has an intrinsic value to a creative person.

Know who you are writing to.  Do your research, put in the time.  Why have you approached the Screenwriter you have approached?   99.9% of query letters are impersonal and random.  Spam, basically. To stand out from the crowd, make your approach personal, as film professional's tend to get massive amounts of correspondence.  Do you interact with them on social networks?  Are you supportive/active/humorous/friendly there?  Or are you scary/stalking/awkward/pushy/needy?  Are you liking/re-tweeting/commenting?  What do you have in common?   

A query letter out of the blue is more likely to be successful if you're familiar and a known quantity of support.  Think of the industry as a tribe of monkey's. There's a strict hierarchy and 'back scratching' is a good way to make yourself popular and liked in a community.  This can lead to more genuine connections.  Best to pick people to network with that you actually have things in common and like as a person.  The more meaningful and genuine the connections are, these are the ones that make stuff happen.  Patience is a virtue.

If you have no industry contacts, there's lots of places online (such as Stage 32 and Linked In) where you can begin to cultivate genuine and meaningful professional relationships.  Join groups, get involved, interact, share your knowledge!  Social networks are a great way to show support to new online friends.  Be a giver and doors are more likely to open.  If it's all about benefiting yourself and what you can get out of it, doors tend to close and people become cagey and distant.  The people that complain the industry is a closed shop are most likely to be asking a lot from random strangers with no real thought to that these are actual humans who worked hard to get where they are. They are NOT filmic vending machines.

A brilliant youtube video about this very subject, by the wonderful Joe Wilson  (@JoeWilsonTV).... just incase the message hasn't quite sunk in...

Understanding how the industry works and why it works as it does is of vital importance when navigating the industry.

Just to reiterate, 'good ideas' for movies are ten a penny in the industry, a good idea that has been developed into a great screenplay is what holds the most value.  When approaching writers be mindful of this.  A 'good idea' is not generally enough, unless you are a professional, or paying customer, or are bringing something of actual value to the writer to the table.  Don't self aggrandise, "My idea will make you millions", etc. Stick to facts and tangible value.

Have no expectations, you either get lucky, or not.  Even if you get a 'no thanks' think about connecting on social networks and showing your support.  Most 'no's come as the person is an 'unknown factor', or they don't provide the right information, it's not what they are looking for (do research) or the person is just too busy with other projects and commitments.  

Have patience!  It can take a while to respond.  As mentioned earlier, film professionals tend to get a huge amount of mail. If deep in a project (or in my case I also have ME/CFS to contend with at the moment, which limits my energy) mail can build up to the thousands and it's not always easy to catch up and stuff can get missed or end up in spam boxes.


  • Is your spelling good and your message well presented?
  • Spelled the name right?
  • Is the person you're writing to the right one for the job in hand?
  • Is your letter relevant to the recipient?
  • Have you made a personal approach, or are you blindly spamming?
  • Are you writing 'cold' or do you support them online?
  • Do you waffle, or get to the point?
  • Is your message all about you?
  • Do you connect with them as a flesh and blood human or talk at them as a vending machine?

Online networking/finding a writer:

Stage 32 link:

Submitting ideas if you don't have any film contacts, money and not looking to be a career writer in the long term:

If you're a total noob and think all of the above is too much work or effort, you could try:

Good luck, have fun and be brilliant!