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Friday, April 25, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – The Pitfalls of Querying (PJ McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

The Pitfalls of Querying

 

Talent really will only get you so far. I’ve heard a lot of cocky people say “Well, if (insert person’s name here) were talented, they would have made it by now. Good material always rises to the top. No. No, it does not. Don’t get me wrong: you need talent. But you also need a healthy dose of luck. Luck that your screenplay will fall into the right hands. Normally you don’t know the sensibilities of the person reading your script. You could be sending your comedy to a reader who only likes horror films. Or your reader could just be having a bad day, and decide to hate every screenplay that starts with a noun. You just don’t know.

Let me tell you how my last script was optioned. I sent a query directly to the head of development and she requested a read. She then sent the script to her reader. The reader provided coverage on it that told her to pass, and about 4 months later, I received a rejection. (Yes, it can sometimes take THAT long – or even longer – to get a response). 2 months later the head of development reached back out to me and asked if they could option the script. Wait, what? It turns out that she couldn’t get the premise for my script out of her head and so she went back and read the script herself…2 months later. I was never told why the reader passed on my script, but the story could have easily ended there. And for most, it does. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a scenario like this. Normally, when something is rejected, they can’t move on fast enough. What happened was luck, plain and simple. You could say it was just because my premise was strong, but I don’t buy it. A lot of stuff had to fall in place for this to happen, and it could have just as easily gone the other way.

Real quick: notice in the last paragraph I said the head of development. I made sure, when I was sending out my query letter, to do the leg-work and find out who the head of development was (Thank you, once again, 2 week free trial at IMDB Pro) and send her an e-mail directly. DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT send to INFO e-mail addresses. It’s an absolute waste of time, and quite frankly, just a bit lazy. Anyone can guess an info e-mail address. Say the production company is Workshop Productions. Then my guess is their INFO e-mail is info@workshopproductions.com. And do you know who that e-mail is going to? No one. There’s a reason all companies put this on their website in lieu of actual contact information. It’s to give you the illusion that you might be reaching someone. (Note: I am not interested in receiving a couple anecdotal stories about INFO e-mail addresses you might have gotten a response from. I will still 100% believe you should do the work and find direct e-mail addresses.)

So, back to the story: why did the script reader pass? Who knows. John August (writer of Go, Big Fish) used to be a script reader and once wrote about the time Quentin Tarantino’s original draft of Natural Born Killers landed on his desk. He thought it was so good, he finished it, flipped right back to the beginning, and read it again. But he passed on it. Why? Because he was too scared to pass it up to his boss. It was too different. Too unique. And even though he thought it was brilliant, he didn’t have the guts to pass it up the chain, for fear it didn’t fit the current Hollywood mold. And I don’t blame him, honestly. Every reader is putting his/her seal of approval on any script that they RECOMMEND. They’re saying, Hey, executive with a million other things to do: take an hour or so out of your day to read this script. I’m not telling this story because I think it was the case with my script, but instead to point out that the factors for WHY your script could be passed up are so varied, you could get a PASS even if they love it. How messed up is that? (My guess is that they passed on my script because the main character spent half the story unconscious; something the production company that optioned it would later change.)

Or the reader could have been a cynical writer, frustrated with his or her own failures. You know another twisted irony of this business? The same people we’re competing against hold the keys to our success. All the hungry, young writers who come out here get jobs as script readers as they try to peddle their own material. So naturally, they’re inclined to think that their stuff is better and everything they read is garbage. Try talking to a script reader at a party sometime, and listen to all that bitterness as they write off 99% of what they read as garbage, but then quickly begin to talk up their own work.

So it all comes back to luck, mixed with the talent to follow through. But don’t give up. The odds are stacked against you (as any screenwriting book’s introductory chapter will gladly tell you), but don’t give up. If you give up, then your high school English teacher was right all along. And you’ll lose out on the satisfaction of some day being able to send her a cake with the words “Eat it, Miss Mudie.” written across it in frosting. And she’ll be hurt, but think she at least has the consolation of a delicious cake to eat. But then she’ll cut into it and be met with immediate disappointment when she finds out it’s red velvet. Because honestly, who the hell likes red velvet?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

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