BPS 072: How to Write a Bad Ass Query Letter for Your Screenplay with Geoffery Calhoun

After many requests, I decided to finally tackle the dreaded query letter. I bring back to the show screenwriter, author, and IFH Academy instructor Geoffery Calhoun. Below Query Letter Checklist and a few areas, we discuss in the episode.

  1. No Snail Mail
  2. Do Your Research
  3. Address the Letter to Individuals, not “To Whom It May Concern”
  4. It’s about the script, not you!
  5. Be Causaul but not too casual
  6. Cut to the chase
  7. Don’t forget the Logline
  8. This isn’t open mic night
  9. Its CATS meets The Goonies
  10. Dig through your contacts
  11. Proofread

Some resources to help you with your Query Letter:

I hope this helps you write that query letter. Best of luck and keep on writing!

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Alex Ferrari 0:00
I'd like to welcome back to the show returning champion, Jeff Calhoun.

Geoffrey Calhoun 3:29
Brother, how you doing? Thanks, good to be

Alex Ferrari 3:31
here. I'm good. But I'm good. I reached back out to you, man, because I want I've been getting a lot of emails and requests about query letters. And I, we've never done anything like that on the show. I don't even think I have an article about it in bulletproof screenwriting. So I was like, You know what, I'm gonna call a man who knows about these things. And, you know, you obviously created the the screenwriters guide to formatting course that we have on ifH Academy. And this kind of goes along with that beginner level kind of stuff was like query letters and all that kind of thing. So I thought that this would be a good match. So just to answer some of the questions that I'm getting from the tribe and see if you can provide some value to the audience today. So I appreciate that.

Geoffrey Calhoun 4:18
Yeah, absolutely.

Alex Ferrari 4:20
So first of all, what is a query letter sir?

Geoffrey Calhoun 4:24
Well, I mean, a query letter is you're pretty much pitching your script to producer director, a major manager manager or an agent any of those things, but it's just like a real quick email. It's not anything too involved.

Alex Ferrari 4:39
That so simple as that and generally it is an email, not a snail mail.

Geoffrey Calhoun 4:45
Yeah, no, you're not you're not staying mailing anymore.

Alex Ferrari 4:49
Not so much just for the faxes sir. Not the faxing. You don't do

Geoffrey Calhoun 4:52
the fax you're not gonna use a pager. That stuff. When I was first starting out though you could send letters and so he did do that back then. But yeah, no, you're not mailing scripts anymore, none of that stuff.

Alex Ferrari 5:07
So what are some of the biggest mistakes you see with query letters?

Geoffrey Calhoun 5:12
I mean, one of them is they'll, they'll try and pitch themselves. Like, you know, I won all these awards, and I'm in this big fancy writer. Right. I think one of the one of the worst ones I've seen is like, you need to read this script, or else you don't know what you're missing. I mean, nothing comes off this are desperate or arrogant, or that

Alex Ferrari 5:32
is it. But isn't it funny that you say like, oh, yeah, you like, I've won all these awards. I'm such a hot shot, big screenwriter. But yet, you're sending a query letter. So that height is like John August, not sending the query letters. Yeah, exactly. You know, Aaron Sorkin not sending the query letters? So um, it's kind of counterproductive in that sense.

Geoffrey Calhoun 5:52
Yeah. It doesn't make sense. Yeah, I would, I mean, haven't bad grammar is a big issue. It's a big issue

period, even in script.

Yeah, well, some writers try and justify it. But yeah, no, it's a big problem. The see the thing about query letter is that I mean, you're introducing your skills, a writer right there. So it's an introduction to who you are in whether you're talented in that and the way your query letter reads, well, then it's indication that you could be a decent at least a decent screenwriter.

Alex Ferrari 6:28
Now, how long should it be?

Geoffrey Calhoun 6:31
It's not long, I mean, we're not sending out pages. You're just gonna do your, your your intro. And then you're going to do you're gonna do a logline like a one to two sentence log line. And there's two schools of thought on this. It kind of has to depend how it works for you. So you could do the log line and then what we call the elevator pitch. Or you could do the logline, the elevator pitch and a short synopsis. And that's about it. I don't I wouldn't go beyond that. And again, like I said, there's two schools of thought on that some people do this synopsis some people do.

Alex Ferrari 7:03
So just for people who don't know it real quick, what is the logline so just for people who don't understand

Geoffrey Calhoun 7:09
Yeah, of course. So the logline is just a brief one to two sentence explanation of your script.

Alex Ferrari 7:15
Simple as that. And then the synopsis obviously is the synopsis of your

Geoffrey Calhoun 7:19
script. But I would do a short synopsis though. So I would do like three similar senses.

Alex Ferrari 7:25
Yeah, tops right. And the elevator pitch is similar as far as the link Yeah,

Geoffrey Calhoun 7:29
so So the elevator pitch is just like it's Back to the Future meets Pulp Fiction, you know, something like that.

Alex Ferrari 7:37
I will see that movie. I watch that movie, which I was I was another question I was gonna ask you should you do the whole you know, back Back to the Future meets Pulp Fiction world or better yet Pulp Fiction meets Jurassic Park that movie I want to say but like do you do you do that? Because I know a lot of people like it's so Hollywood to do that. But it does get the it gets the message across really quickly like in the 90s diehard on a boat, diehard on a plane diehard in an arena.

Geoffrey Calhoun 8:11
I'm going to I'm going to be honest with you it's dealer's choice at this point. I mean, you can do it you can get away with it. You can not I mean? I guess it comes down if you're doing it well. I haven't done it but would my query the success I got I did my logline and I did a short synopsis and then that then ended up getting into Fred seabirds hands. Next thing you know, I was getting a call from Frederick otter and they were asking me if if I if I had a TV children's animated comedy, and I didn't so of course I said yes. And call up one of my best writer friends and said guess what we're writing tonight. And and then we wrote a pilot and we pitched it to him so so that's how I got success. But if you were to do the elevator pitch I would make sure you only did films that were successful and well known so

Alex Ferrari 9:02
like cats cats meets Ishtar not not it's not that shouldn't be

Geoffrey Calhoun 9:09
I've had nightmares of that one. How did you know you're my dreams?

Alex Ferrari 9:13
Scare ads meets his art. We should do a whole

Geoffrey Calhoun 9:18
show on finance meets falls two.

Alex Ferrari 9:21
Oh no, no, no. Cats meets cats meet the room.

Geoffrey Calhoun 9:28
I'm sold cats. That theater

Alex Ferrari 9:32
director Tommy was so can you imagine Can you imagine giving Tommy Wiseau $200 million.

Geoffrey Calhoun 9:38
I think you just figured out his next project.

Alex Ferrari 9:41
Thank you. I think I Tommy that's free if you're listening. Now, you were saying earlier don't focus on yourself. Focus on the story. Focus on the screenplay. How formal should you be? Because a lot of times like hey bro a little too informal but also don't want to be but you also don't want to be like To Whom It May Concern. Oh, I don't have that. So where's the where's the balance?

Geoffrey Calhoun 10:04
Yeah, well, you're going to when you're going to query somebody, you're going to target them. So you've already done your research on them. And you can find people through IMDb Pro, or there's even books you can find. But whoever you are querying you, let's talk about this for a second, make sure that they accept unsolicited materials, unsolicited meaning you don't have an agent or manager. So that's, that's first bar. So if they do accept unsolicited materials, then you can query that person, because they're open to it. And it's just Hi, hello. And then you know, Alex, or whoever their name is, you don't get to Formula formal with it. But you don't get too casual. So I would say it would be like the writing version of business casual so your your appropriate but your little loose?

Alex Ferrari 10:51
You got it. Exactly. It let's let's talk a little bit about how to find that right person to send it to because both you and I get query letters for screenplays, which is still mind boggling to me. I mean, at least you're a screenwriting, you know, instructor and Guru and consultant. I don't I interview people who are in the screenwriting space. I mean, I run a website

Geoffrey Calhoun 11:16
to make this $200 million script I

Alex Ferrari 11:18
wrote I you know, which is cats meets the room. But um, but anything cats meets your it's, it's solid, it's money. It's money. It's solid. It's cats meet Star Wars cats meets, you know, Harry Potter, I mean, every every, it's all it's just, it's, you're all good. But I get I get query letters, and I just delete them right away, because I'm like, I'm not even gonna respond. Because I don't want to just like I don't want to be legally responsible or anything like that. But that's the

Geoffrey Calhoun 11:48
big thing. Yeah. You don't want to get you don't want to get sued for that.

Alex Ferrari 11:52
Exactly. So but that was like, the best one I ever got was like, similar similar, like, you need to you need to read this is the next Star Wars The next right, you know, Mission Impossible series or something, some grandiose kind of theory. And you've got to read this. I've also and then they go into who they are, and all the amazing film festivals they've won, and awards they've won, which I've never heard of. But regardless, that's just not the way business is done. In our industry, anybody who's actually if anyone who actually has won real awards, like real awards, things that like an Oscar an Emmy. Yeah, the nickels or something of some sort of magnitude in the space. Yeah. You say that maybe once or twice in the letter like, Hey, I'm a nickels finalist.

Geoffrey Calhoun 12:47
That's that's a little bit you dropped, you

Alex Ferrari 12:49
drop it, you don't slam it over people's heads, and you definitely don't brag about it. Yeah. Because would you fit? Would it be fair to say like, the query letter should be kind of like having a conversation with someone you just met at a party? Like if you meet somebody at a party, you're not going to go up to them and go, Dude, I am the best. My next screenplay is going to be awesome. You need to read this book. Is that Is that fair to say?

Geoffrey Calhoun 13:11
Yeah, I think that's absolutely. I think that's totally accurate. Yeah. Because you're not too formal, right? But you're not too relaxed with the way you're talking with people and, and pitching your, your project. And I think that's good.

Alex Ferrari 13:22
Now, is this coming to with the tone as well being for more knowledge on like, should the tone be? Like, what is the tone? Because you could be aggressive? You could be, you know, do you start telling jokes, I

Geoffrey Calhoun 13:34
would be just purely desperate. If you could just come off? Yes.

Alex Ferrari 13:38
That's a Jakar. desperate. Ah, that's that's the actual cologne they sell that you put the problem?

Geoffrey Calhoun 13:45
Yeah, no, I would, I would, I would keep the tone. As far as the query goes, you want your tone to match kind of the genre of the script, you're writing it. So if you're doing like a short synopsis, you should be in that kind of a tone of, of of like a thriller or a comedy. But you don't want to get to, like I said, you want to get too crazy with it.

Alex Ferrari 14:07
Right. So like, as far as like, being too funny. Make like a joke or two is fine, especially if you're if you're pitching a comedy. Yeah, you're not doing slapstick. Yeah, exactly. But a little bit of that just a little bit to kind of give it of a personality, maybe something to stick out. Slight. Yes. It's all less is more. Exactly. Less is more. Now, I have to ask you the question, though, where where can you go wrong with query letters? Because I, there seems to be it tends to be kind of like a crutch for a lot of screenwriters. So what do Yeah.

Geoffrey Calhoun 14:39
Well, I mean, having been, I achieved a little bit of success with with the query letters, I'm starting to understand that. That's like the 1% with query letters. There's, there's just totally I don't personally I don't believe in them. There. I think that's something you can do, but I think it's something you should do in there. and walk away from and have really no expectation with it. Because what I found with query letters is that people will become kind of addicted to them and have this slot machine like mentality where they've written the script. And if they just pull that arm enough times, eventually they're gonna walk away with a win. And it just doesn't work that way. I think the best way to get your screenplay made is through networking. But I would even argue past that, because what I find with screenwriters is they write the screenplay, they get really excited about it, which is wonderful. But they expect, you know, fame, fortune, you know, making it in Hollywood. And I think the mentality is the issue, because there's a difference between writing a screenplay and expecting it to be huge. And then being a paid writer. Because if you just want to be a paid writer, then it's about using that screenplay you wrote as a resume, to provide what you can do as a writer, and not expecting that ticket sold. When that one of my scripts I did a huge circuit around the country well, and even the world with my script, going to festivals, and meeting people and, and getting to know them, and yes, they would read my work, but I would get hired because of my work to work on their project. And that's how I became a paid writer, I would recommend branding yourself around your writing and less about holding on to that script as a golden ticket.

Alex Ferrari 16:38
So that's a really good point here because a lot of screenwriters Well, there's two things one, a lot of screenwriters think it because I know that the screenwriters mind I know the filmmakers mind, because I have that in mind myself is that the query letter is like, Okay, I've sent out 10 query letters today. I don't have to work on my craft today. Like, I'm good now. And they and they use that as the excuse of like, I'm working towards it. But really, it's not. It's just it should be if you're going to do it, you know, send it out and don't shotgun it, please be strategic with it, not shotgun it because you will get you people will burn you're gonna get burned. Don't do that. Just be strategic about who do the research about who you want to send it to. And there has been successful career ladders, of course there has. But it shouldn't be the only strategy in trying to get your work out there. But branding yourself more as the writer than the screenplay is so much more important. Like, I mean, if you look at Shane Black, he didn't just He wasn't just the lethal weapon script. Right? That wasn't the only thing he had, you know, Aaron Sorkin wasn't just the one script. It wasn't just for a few good men. That's not the script. You know, Tarantino definitely just wasn't Reservoir Dogs. You know, there's they they set themselves up as writers in the space and then got like, even when Tarantino started out, he started getting a lot of rewriting. He did a lot of rewrites of script. doctoring, uncredited, credited. All that kind of stuff because of that mentality what you just said, right?

Geoffrey Calhoun 18:11
Yeah, I mean, it's, it's, it's what you want, I would not look at your script as the golden ticket. And instead, try and figure out how do I want to become this paid writer. And then you start branding, finding the niche that you can fill finding your strengths as a writer, and then building towards that, I mean, that that's the path that I've done. And that's how I found my success.

Alex Ferrari 18:31
Well, my friend, I appreciate you taking the time out to talk about query letters. It is something that the tribe was asking me for, and I think we have covered it and told you how to do it, how not to do it. Maybe you shouldn't do it. And also, even also play the little bit in the philosophy and the philosophy but the psychology of screenwriting, and yeah, getting in your own way. Because trust me, like I remember when I was, you know, like, Oh, I just sent out, you know, I faxed out. I fax out 20 resumes, guys. I faxed out 20 resumes today. I'm good. Let me go sit down and watch the latest reality show notes

Geoffrey Calhoun 19:09
back. I think I think at one point when I first started, I think I queried every manager, an agent in LA. And how that worked out for you. Yeah, I mean, I learned a lesson. Let's put it that way

Alex Ferrari 19:24
was that I'm assuming that was I'm assuming that's a two may concern. Because you didn't do it? Yeah,

Geoffrey Calhoun 19:28
it was like the worst query letter you get fake out. I was like this just green and desperate. And I just went through hundreds. I mean, it was hundreds and and I just didn't know what I was doing. And after that, I realized Yeah, this is this is not the way to do it. And then I just I matured and over time said okay, this, this is how I start

Alex Ferrari 19:47
to get paid. And I just want to put one more thing before we go. The desperation we've joked a little bit about the desperation. If the desperation spills over into a query letter, or into a phone call or in to that stuff. People do not want to work with desperate screenwriter or desperate filmmakers. They don't because trust me, I used to be doused in Jakarta spa. I mean, I used to have so much desperation you could just and professionals in the business they see it coming from a mile away. And in the thing is that you need to not come at it from a point of desperation, but have to come at it from a point of service. How can I help you get to where you want to go? Is that a rewrite of the script? Is is creating a script that's going to help you make money? How can I provide value to you? It's so it's so much more important than I need you to read my script to make my dreams come true. You're done?

Geoffrey Calhoun 20:48
Yeah, no, I mean, that's absolutely right. And we've all been there. I mean, I think that's why you and I do do things like this is because we have we have dripped and sweated and, you know, if it wasn't for email, they'd see my dried tears on my query letters, you know, I mean, it's just, we've been there and we know it, and we don't want people to go through it. The problem is when you are in that that desperation, you kind of don't realize it, you have to have that aha moment where you go, okay, yeah, I need to I need to refocus, I need to change. And you'll know that if you are looking at these query letters as your only hope, then you are in that mentality of being desperate, but there is ways to get around it. You just have to kind of retake control of your path, and start strategizing and planning your way to success. Because the one big concern I have about querying is if you're not strategizing, you're not planning, then you're just being blind faith in blind faith about it and hoping and praying. And I just think you need to take more control of that direction and be more active. If we're going to use screenwriting terms, be more active in your own story and a little less passive,

Alex Ferrari 21:59
right, without question, but I listen, thank you again for being on the show, talking about letters. And hopefully this has helped out a few people and maybe just maybe a couple of cars are ringing out in the world today as they listen to this episode. So thanks again by that. Thanks again.

Geoffrey Calhoun 22:14
My pleasure.

Alex Ferrari 22:16
I want to thank Jeffrey for coming on the show and clarifying what is a good query letter. If you want to get a couple more tips and outline of what we discussed in this episode, head over to the shownotes at bulletproof screenwriting.tv forward slash zero 72. And if you want to check out Jeffrey's new course the screenwriters guide to formatting, just head over to eye F h academy.com. And you can find it there or in the show notes. Thank you guys so much for listening. I hope this episode helps you on your stream writing path. As always, keep on writing, no matter what. I'll talk to you soon.


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