The storyline: original.
The structure: powerful.
The characters: well-developed.
The climax: mind-altering.
The payoff: worth every single moment of the journey.
This is the goal of any literary property…to take the audience on a journey and provide an escape from reality.
Many hours over many days, weeks, and likely many months have been invested in the creative process of bringing carefully crafted words on each and every page of a sparkling new story to life, while you (the writer) have undoubtedly sacrificed sleep, sanity, a social life (a show of hands for the writers reading this who are actually social butterflies?), relationships, and even basic hygiene; all in an effort to make sure that each and every word, action, and emotion contained within the pages of your dynamic new story jumps clear off the print and grabs anyone who may find themselves lucky enough to get hands on such a brilliant piece of literature by the proverbial throat.
Undoubtedly combined with a careful eye for grammar and spelling, you have critiqued your new story over and over no less than a dozen times to ensure that every punctuation mark is in its proper place, every character’s name and emotive word is spelled correctly, and that just enough unique and colorful descriptions have been incorporated to impress even the most calloused readers in the cutthroat literary industry, who (without apology) insist that they have literally read it all.
So, what comes next? How do you grab the attention of a literary representative, who, with the mere click of a keyboard, harbors the magical powers to further an aspiring writer’s career?
THAT is the question this article — a screenwriter’s guide to finding a Hollywood manager or agent — intends to answer. And it is likewise with hope that the following information will provide desired clarity for those of you who find yourselves frustrated by the daunting system of “pitching” in the rapidly evolving age of modern-day entertainment.
But first, before another word is penned (I’m scribbling this blurb from 48,000 feet over the Atlantic while en route back to the U.S. from Europe), please allow me to offer sincere accolades to any writer who accomplishes what many creatives set out to do, but so few actually follow through on: completing a brand new screenplay/manuscript.
CONGRATULATIONS! HIGH FIVE!! RAISE A GLASS AND TOAST!!!
My glass is actually a plastic cup filled with mineral water on a Lufthansa flight (single serving patron here in seat 34B), and now that we’re beyond the overdue celebration of your accomplishment, it’s time to assemble the pitch package, and, equally important, the verbiage for the pitch letter that is going to provide you with the opportunity to land the coveted attention and notoriety every writer sincerely desires.
Let’s start with the basics. In this day and age, having a shiny new screenplay or manuscript in hand is simply not enough “real estate” to land interest from a literary representative (or producer). Truth be told, the screenplay/manuscript itself is merely the foundation of a much larger piece of real estate that needs to be developed in order to gain interest, and it is typically requested only after a few other pieces of property are delivered first.
I use the analogy of “real estate” frequently, because that is exactly what a screenplay/manuscript is, intellectual property (I.P.). Furthermore, it helps to think of the literary property development process via the perspective of a real estate developer, because in real estate development, the foundation of the property is built first (the treatment), then the dwelling is constructed (the screenplay/manuscript), and finally, the finishing touches are added (the pitch) to attract a buyer.
If you’ve ever walked into a real estate “open house,” then you may agree that a property showcased with nice furnishings is going to land the most interest, because the furnishings help bring the property to life. In every bit the same way, “the pitch” for your screenplay/manuscript accomplishes the same directive, attracting potential buyers by showcasing the best attributes of your literary property.
Specifically with respect to the “pitching” process, a second analogy is incorporated to help clarify, because it is the easiest way to understand how the system truly works.
If you have ever been involved in the “dating game,” it is the best possible way to describe the actual process of pitching. Period. No, that isn’t a typo. I did in fact refer to pitching as the “dating game.” Let’s solidify for the sake of this article that the process described below is equated to the following…
Pitching = Dating.
In today’s fast-paced world, a first date likely consists of a casual meeting for coffee, simply to see if personalities meld. The “initial pitch” of a literary property (aka: your inquiry letter) should deliver in much the same fashion.
To open an inquiry letter, the writer should A) introduce him/herself, B) specify where he/she is from originally, C) provide a brief background as a writer, and D) provide a little bit of insight about him/herself as a human being.
Questions to answer in the inquiry letter include…
√ Why did you become a writer?
√ What motivates your desire to put pen to paper?
√ In what genre(s) do you enjoy writing?
√ Have you taken any screenwriting courses or been mentored in some fashion?
Remember to Include Your Resume
Just as in any other industry, a solid resume can provide a leg up against the competition, so feel free to highlight any success that you have achieved, be it current or past, but make sure to keep it simple and straight forward. There is absolutely no need to go on and on about the dozens of awards you have won (or worse, in my opinion, nearly won), or projects that you have optioned in the past, specifically if said options have expired or reached a dead end.
Why refrain from mentioning previous properties that have been optioned but never produced?
If a property has been previously optioned, yet never produced (i.e. the option expired), it suggests the property may be outdated or likely not good enough to sell or get produced. Reps (and producers) prefer not to hear such things about a literary property, so refrain from mentioning it, unless of course you are asked directly whether or not the property has been previously optioned.
The best advice to heed with respect to the initial pitch is “less is more,” so simply list any recent awards and/or current options that have transpired in the past twelve months, and leave the rest of the accolades on your resume.
Most importantly within the inquiry letter, deliver a captivating log-line for the project being pitched.
How do you create a captivating log-line?
At it’s core, a log-line is a simplified pitch of a storyline in one succinct sentence that describes the gist of the story while also highlighting the genre. Below is an example of a captivating log-line I was recently pitched for a murder mystery screenplay. It captured my interest enough to request the script for a read through.
Log-line: A close-knit family in a shady town descends into a tangled web of destruction after the death of a young woman reveals a torrid love triangle and magnifies a teenager’s taboo obsession.
Notice how the log-line delivers the gist and genre of the storyline in a succinct manner, while divulging non-specific information in a captivating way. Additionally, rather than referring to any character by name (too many writers refer to their characters by name in a log-line, which is not recommended), this particular log-line leaves the audience desiring to know more about the young woman and teenager, with an equal amount of desire to solve the mystery of how/why she died, as well as learning about the torrid love triangle and taboo obsession. Subsequent interest from the reader = PIQUED.
If the rep’s interest is in fact piqued by the inquiry letter, you may find yourself with an opportunity for a “second date,” which is a bit more of an investment of each other’s time and energy.
A second date will provide you with an opportunity to divulge more information about the project you’re pitching (i.e. the uniqueness of your characters and their arcs, the backstory about the development process, surprising twists, etc.), as well as yourself as a writer.
If all goes well with the second date (the additional information requested further piques the rep’s interest), a “third date” could very well lead to a budding relationship, meaning the rep is interested in actually requesting a read through of the screenplay/manuscript.
THIS is the ultimate goal to strive for by following the “dating game” rules above, although admittedly there are times when you may find yourself in a budding relationship based solely on your outstanding inquiry letter. If that happens, congratulations on your achievement!
Remember – Patience Reigns Supreme
Upon delivering the screenplay/manuscript to a rep for a read through, a writer must respect that the property will likely not be read in one night. Rather, the material will be sent off to receive “coverage” from a reader (a fellow writer who reads screenplays/manuscripts and provides feedback about the material to the rep).
“Coverage” is heavily used as a filtration process to determine at what level of development a project currently resides, and it also helps a rep determine whether a property is ready to pitch/sell.
Grades of Coverage
Readers score a screenplay/manuscript with a grade, and the grading scale is very simple. 1) Strong Consider 2) Consider 3) Pass.
Naturally, the goal is to receive a “consider” or “strong consider,” but the reality is, even if the pitched screenplay/manuscript receives one of the aforementioned grades, it does not guarantee that a rep will offer representation. Many additional factors come into play with respect to receiving an offer for representation, including the oft-sincere possibility that another (similar) property may already be in the rep’s portfolio. The thing to remember is, regardless of the outcome, never allow yourself to become discouraged. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of literary representatives in the world. You just have to track down one that responds positively to your writing.
Another thing to note…writers need to respect that the process of reading and “covering” material takes time (a minimum of six weeks is typical), and therefore patience is an absolute necessity.
Reps maintain a revolving stack of screenplays/manuscripts including material written by existing clients (my compiled stack of scripts/manuscripts from clients and blind-pitches is nearly a hundred deep at any given time), and even with a half-dozen readers providing coverage on a weekly basis, it simply takes time to get through all of the material.
FYI – Writers who earn enough interest from a rep to request a read through of their material, but then turn around and pester constantly via email or phone about whether or not the material has yet been read, typically end up turning the rep off from reading their material altogether. BE PATIENT.
What to do in the meantime?
While awaiting feedback from a rep regarding a screenplay/manuscript, there are additional documents that need to be created for each property for the purpose of representation and future sale/production.
The following documents are without question required for pitching, so warm up those fingers and get ready to write some more if you haven’t already created these for your literary property’s portfolio.
1) A one-sheet or “pitch sheet” is a single page that lists the title of the project at the top along with the name of the writer, followed by a captivating log-line, and finally, a short summary. Keep in mind that all of this should appear on one single page, with the summary (a mere three to five paragraphs) filling out the story from beginning to end.
2) A “sample poster” is a visually enticing pitching tool and can be a simple image either pulled from the internet, or created from scratch, that encapsulates the essence of the story being pitched. More importantly, the sample poster should elicit an emotional response from the person to whom the property is being pitched.
A simple example is to use a photo of a cute dog if the screenplay/manuscript is a family-themed story about a dog.
3) While the pitch sheet and sample poster might be old news to most writers, it would be interesting to know how many of you are creating trans-media bibles for each of your screenplays/manuscripts.
“Trans-Media Bible” is a term to commit to memory, for it is the single biggest game-changer in modern day literary property development.
In today’s market, any screenplay/manuscript also needs to showcase its value in various additional mediums (aka: ancillary properties), to truly showcase its ability to sell. This is a requirement, and should be embraced by every writer who desires a professional career in entertainment.
Developing a Trans-Media Bible
These days, everyone agrees that television properties are easily holding their own in respect to competing against those that find their way to the big screen. How many people have a Netflix subscription simply to binge on “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black?” The answer: TENS OF MILLIONS.
That being said, a television bible is now required for any literary property in today’s market, simply to showcase how the same storyline would play out on the small screen over several seasons. There is no longer an exception to this rule.
In addition to having a television bible developed, writers should also have a treatment for a graphic novel on hand as well, unless of course the property currently being pitched is in fact a manuscript for a novel.
Rule of Thumb: The more ancillary properties you have in your portfolio for an original concept, the more pitching power you/your rep will have when negotiating a sale.
You’ve Been Patient?
At least six (6 )weeks have passed since your “third date” and you have been more patient than you ever thought possible. Feel free to send a follow-up email to the rep to see if the screenplay/manuscript has been read/covered. If you have an update to share regarding the property, feel free to highlight that in your follow-up email as well.
If the material has been read/covered and you never heard back from the rep, you will likely be told that it didn’t pique their interest enough to move forward. Rest assured though, if a rep received solid coverage on the material and indeed finds further interest, you will be the first to know.
Materials needed in today’s market to capture the interest of a literary representative include:
√ Inquiry Letter (with a captivating log-line)
√ One-Sheet (aka: “pitch sheet”)
√ Television Bible
√ Sample Poster
√ Trans-Media Bible (treatments for additional ancillary properties)
√ A Lot of Patience
If you have the above eight things on hand when submitting an inquiry letter for literary representation, it will undoubtedly put you far ahead of the countless other writers who are likewise competing for a coveted spot on a roster, and you may just find yourself with a unique opportunity to further your career with support from a professional literary team.
Matt Prater is the owner of Dedicated Talent Management in Los Angeles, a boutique firm that represents award-winning actors, producers, writers, and directors.