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How To Become A Screenwriter

Recently screenwriters have been asking me if query letters really work as a strategy to break into Hollywood. Query letters have been such a big part of my career, it never occurred to me that some people doubt that they work. But it got me thinking, in general, how do most screenwriters break in? And do query letters play a significant role in helping screenwriters succeed?

Through my podcast I’ve interviewed lots of screenwriters. And I almost always ask them how they broke in. Since these podcast episodes are available for anyone to listen to, anyone can queue up a specific episode and hear exactly how someone broke in straight from the actual screenwriter. So below you will find a chart of all the screenwriters I’ve interviewed and how they broke into the business. (Spoiler: query letters work!)

First, I want to be clear on a few things. I might be biased. So let’s get that out of the way.

I have signed with agents and managers, found producers, sold screenplays, and I launched my career using query letters, so I have first hand knowledge that it can work.

At the time of this writing (June 2015), with the exception of my most recent credit, Ninja Apocalypse, every single screenwriting credit I have can be directly linked to a query letter. And even Ninja Apocalypse, I would argue, can be traced to a query letter (long story, but it was a writing assignment I got which was at least partially due to the fact that I had optioned another script many years before, and that option was through a query letter).

Keep in mind, too, for every produced credit I have, there are lots and lots of other projects and assignments that didn’t make it to production. And again, the vast majority of these options and assignments came from a query letter.

You can listen to me tell my story in episode 2 of the SYS Podcast. Also, if you haven’t already done so, check out my credits on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0583488/

I sell what I consider to be the best query letter service to agents, managers, and producers. I personally help writers whip their log line and query letter into shape and my producers list has around six thousands contacts in it. I use this service myself to promote my own scripts and many people have had success with it.

Okay, so let’s dig into the actual numbers.

The Data

# Name Method Notes
2 Ashley Scott Meyers query letters
3 Eric Myers networking happenstance – met someone at a party
5 Paul T. Murray staged readings
6 A L Katz networking happenstance – college friend
7 Jacob Stuart short films
11 Jeanne Bowerman networking deliberate networking to advance screenwriting career – super networker
12 Richard Botto networking worked in the industry
14 Lee Jessup networking worked in the industry – grew up in the industry
15 Doug Richardson cold calls
17 Martin Gooch short films
18 Nathan Ives query letters my writing partner – his first sale was my first sale
21 Andrew Kole networking happenstance – meet someone on a ski lift
24 Chris Sparling low budget feature / query letters used query letters to promote low budget feature
27 Gordy Hoffman networking worked in the industry
28 Jason Spellman query letters InkTip
30 Joe Gazzam networking happenstance – random friend in LA
32 Brian D. Young query letters InkTip
33 Kateland Brown networking / contests worked in the industry – and also had success with contests
34 Eric Haywood networking worked in the industry – hustled directing work doing music videos
35 David Jung networking worked in the industry
36 Kraig Wenman query letters InkTip
37 Jaime Primak Sullivan networking deliberate networking to advance screenwriting career – publicist, but then deliberately started pitching her ideas
39 Melanie Oram networking worked in the industry
40 Markus Blunder networking worked in the industry
41 Alejandro Seri contests
Johnny Silver co-guest episode 41
43 Bobby Roe low budget feature
Zack Andrews co-guest episode 43
44 John Suits low budget feature
45 Julian Gilbey low budget feature
46 Arnold Rudnick query letters / networking worked in the industry – query letters got them their first agent, then networking got them their first pitch
47 Jeremy Culver short films
48 Angus Sampson networking worked in the industry – worked as an actor
49 Corey Mandell networking worked in the industry – worked for an agent
50 T.A. Snyder contests although networking helped him land a manager
51 Matt Creed low budget feature
52 Saar Klein networking worked in the industry
53 Greg Francis low budget feature
54 Tawnya Bhattacharya contests TV writing fellowship
55 Nunzio DeFilippis contests fellowship through USC
56 Jeta Amata networking worked in the industry
57 Jordan Imiola query letters Success using my service!
58 Francois Simard short films
Anouk Whissell co-guest episode 58
Yoann-Karl Whissell co-guest episode 58
60 Beau Martin Williams low budget feature
61 Stephen Mitchell networking deliberate networking to advance screenwriting career
62 Marc Lawrence query letters
63 Adam Green low budget feature
64 Michael Stagliano networking worked in the industry – reality TV star, and recently optioned a TV pilot using my query letter service
65 Thomas McCarthy low budget feature
67 John Jarrell networking happenstance – friend met an agent at a wedding
68 Tim Ogletree networking worked in the industry – working actor
70 Terry Jastrow networking worked in the industry
71 Jorge Gonzalez short films
72 J. Mills Goodloe networking worked in the industry – Richard Donner’s assistant
73 Jarret Tarnol short films
Brent Tarnol co-guest episode 73
74 Kamal Ahmed low budget feature
75 Julius Onah short films
Mayuran Tiruchelvam co-guest episode 75
76 Kane Senes networking deliberate networking to advance screenwriting career

Results

Method Count Percent
networking 25 44.60%
low budget feature 9.5 17%
query letters 8 14.30%
short films 7 12.50%
contests 4.5 8%
cold calls 1 1.80%
staged readings 1 1.80%

Notes About Data:

Not all the interviews I’ve done for the podcast are with screenwriters, which is why you’ll notice some episode gaps in the table above.

I’ve included every writer who has had any form of screenwriting success. This includes selling or optioning a screenplay, getting an agent or manager, or having something produced even if that means they produced it themselves. Success is success. You can check out their IMDb credits and/or listen to the podcast episodes yourself to learn more about the writers I’ve interviewed.

I didn’t go back and listen to all 75 episodes (obviously) so I was relying on my memory. If some of the information presented is wrong, let me know, I’m happy to update it. Again, I think the cool thing about this analysis is that all the actual data is from a source that anyone with about 70 hours of free time can listen to themselves.

You’ll notice some half points. When someone used two methods to break in I split the point between the two methods. For instance, episode 24 with Chris Sparling. He produced a low budget feature film and then used query letters to try and get interest in that film. And it worked. Again, listen to the actual episode to hear him tell his story about breaking in.

I counted InkTip successes as query letters because these are essentially the same skills, writing a log line, synopsis, and short bio about yourself and then submitting it to an agent or producer  who you don’t usually know.

Data Bias?

I do want to address a couple of potential things that might bias the data ever so slightly.

Obviously I believe in query letters and at least three of the episodes (episode 2 with myself, episode 18 with Nathan Ives, and episode 57 with Jordan Imiola) reflect that. Nathan is my writing partner on numerous projects. His first sale was my first sale. Although, the reason he was on the podcast when he was, was to promote his feature film, It’s Not You, It’s Me. And Jordan Imiola is a friend of mine from my writers group who has used my email and fax blast service several times (with success, by the way).

But none of the other screenwriters who have used query letters to break into the business were people I knew before I interviewed them.

There are lots of other people who have had success with my query letter service who would be happy to come on the podcast and be interviewed, but I actually have so many other people to interview I just haven’t had time to have them all on yet. So the bias could be a lot worse! But in any event, I think there are enough other people who have used query letters to break into the business to support the fact that query letters obviously can and do work to launch people’s careers.

Also, a lot of the interviews I get come from a publicist who’s working to help filmmakers promote their films. This publicist seems to work mostly with independent films, so there is some bias in my interviews that skew towards these types of independent genre films. I don’t think this is a huge problem, but I do think there are a few more people in my sample who launched their careers through short films or low budget features (two things that I highly endorse, by the way) then what might occur in a more random sampling of screenwriters. It’s fairly easy to spot these interviews, though, as the person being interviewed has a film that’s about to be released when we record it and at the end of the interview I specifically give them a chance to plug their film.

So what does it all mean?

Do I think this sampling is large enough to be statistically significant? I’m not a statistician, so I don’t know. But I do think it’s enough of a sampling to give us a pretty clear picture of what might work. Certainly if something has worked for numerous people in the past, it means it can work again in the future for someone else.

“Networking” is by far the single biggest way people broke into the business. And that probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been around the business for a while. My guess is that no matter how much data you collected on how screenwriters broke in, that would remain constant. This jives with anecdotal evidence from my own experiences in the business. I talk about this numerous times on the podcast, too.

However, “networking” is a very broad term so let’s break it down a bit more.

Method Count Percent
worked in the industry 16 64%
happenstance 5 20%
deliberate networking to advance screenwriting career 4 16%


So within the “networking” category “working in the industry” is the single biggest sub-category. Again, I would guess that most people with experience in the industry aren’t surprised by this.

I think it’s clear, and most people would agree, the best chance of success you have in becoming a screenwriter is to get a low level job in the industry and network and learn as much as possible. You’ll need to write on the weekends but once you have something worth industry recognition, you’ll be in a good position to find the right person for your screenplay.

I know a lot of people who read this blog can’t quit their current jobs, move to LA, and take a low paying production job. So I’m not sure how helpful this statistic really is. If you’re one of these people you’ve got to look at the other avenues for promoting your material.

I would say Jaime Primak Sullivan who I interviewed in episode 37 is the purest form of networking success. So if you’re looking to break in using networking check out that episode. It is worth noting that in some ways Jaime did work in the industry, too, as a publicist. So while she did deliberately network to move her projects ahead, she had a skill set and network of contacts that made this possible.

Also, one method that isn’t well represented here that I think can work very well is “cold calls.” Doug Richardson (Die Hard II, Bad Boys) is the only person in the dataset who has used this method to break in. However, over the years I have heard of this method working very well. Picking up the telephone and calling production companies and trying to talk your way to someone who will read your screenplay can work. But this can be a brutal experience as people hang up on you or are rude. It’s hard. And it’s intimidating. Which is probably why not many people do it. But the fact that very few people do it, is one of the reasons why I think it can be effective. So if you have cold calling telephone sales experience, you might consider this method. In this day and age it’s very easy to find phone numbers for companies (hint: check out IMDb Pro).

Okay, so what about query letters?

To me, this chart is pretty clear evidence that query letters can work. Certainly Marc Lawrence (Miss Congeniality) is a successful screenwriter by anyone’s standard and he started out by sending out query letters.

Now I might get some skeptics who would say, “sure, query letters worked 25 years ago when he broke in, but not anymore.” I don’t think that’s true. I can tell you from my own experience, I’ve had more success with query letters in the last two years then I’ve had nearly my entire career. I’ve optioned nearly a dozen scripts, sold one script outright, and had one decent writing assignment in the last two years, and that’s all through query letters.

Also, I would point you to episode 24 with Chris Sparling. He used query letters very effectively to gain high quality representation, which lead to him selling his spec screenplay Buried. That was in 2009. So not too long ago.

Now there are some limitations to query letters that I think are worth mentioning.

I don’t know James Cameron personally, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t spend a lot of time leafing through query letters. In fact, I would guess he doesn’t spend any time looking at query letters. But that’s not the point. The objective with a query letter is not to sell a script to Universal Pictures and have James Cameron direct it. The objective with a query letter is to make connections. It’s to get that first, or maybe second, or even third foot in the door. It’s to network and meet people. Maybe you’ll sell something or maybe you won’t. But if you are persistent with query letters you will meet people and slowly build up a network of people who like your writing. That’s the main goal with query letters. These relationships are what will pay off down the road. It may take years to see any dividends. But you have to start somewhere.

Now I do want to talk a bit about my own experiences with query letters. It’s hard to say exactly how many query letters I’ve sent but it’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands (yes, you read that correctly). You can look at my credits on IMDb and judge for yourself whether it was worth the effort. However, if you knew how easy it was for me to send out these query letters, I think you’d agree it’s probably been worth the effort. I can (and do) send out thousands of query letters in just a few minutes.

I know how to program and I know how to outsource programming tasks. So I’m really good at this type of thing. I’ve scaled it up and have become incredibly efficient at it. Most people aren’t. And I get that. But that’s the reason query letters don’t work for some people. It’s not because query letters don’t work, it’s the implementation of the method. That’s why I think my own blast service is so excellent. You’re getting the benefits of my skills for a fairly modest sum.

Conclusion

There isn’t one specific strategy that’s better than the other. What’s going to work for you isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else.

So what you need to do is try everything and see what works. If you keep pushing hard with a bunch of these methods hopefully you’ll start to see some success. Figure out what worked and then double down on it.

The fact that most people can’t send out query letters as effectively as I can is precisely the point of this article.

If you’re a fresh college graduate move to L.A. and get a low paying job in production and network.

If you’re great at pitching in person maybe pitch fests are the thing for you.

If you’ve worked in sales perhaps cold calling companies is for you.

If you’re great at writing sales copy, perhaps query letters is the way to go.

Think about your own situation, skills and personality and try and find a method that fits them. That’s how you’re going to find success in this business.

One last point. An article like this overlooks the obvious: you’ve got to write a decent screenplay. The better your screenplay is the better these marketing methods are going to work so don’t forget to write a good script!

Good luck!

P.S. If you have had screenwriting success with any other methods, please let me know. I’m always interested in hearing how writers have found success.

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