PASS THE DUTCHIE
As a kid I remember a catchy TV jingle promoting tourism in the Netherlands. But its plural sounding name confused the geography for me. Was it one country or a cluster of smaller countries? Contributing to that confusion was the Netherlands/Dutch/Holland identity issue. I still don’t know much about the Netherlands. Its capital is Amsterdam, where its carefree policies on drugs and a legal red light district make it a popular tourist attraction - which was not part of that catchy TV jingle. Aside from things like windmills, Hans Brinker and his silver skates, and probably the most famous diarist the world will ever know, Anne Frank, I’ve never given the Netherlands much thought.
But, of late, I have been in its thoughts.
It seems that the Netherlands is home to thousands of budding screenwriters, all of whom have had the urge to query me. In the last few weeks, I’ve received thousands of query letters from hopeful Dutch screenwriters. They are earnest letters, mostly written in broken English. These letters crowd my inbox everyday.
I should clarify and say that these don’t seem to be typical query letters like, “Please read my screenplay.” In fact, the letters don’t seem to be hocking screenplays at all, but only ideas for screenplays. The letters all start out with the simple request that I provide feedback on their idea. Some letters contain several ideas. I would need a team of half a dozen to respond to these ideas in a timely fashion. (Is Miep Gies still alive? She’s always been helpful.)
Because of the mass quantities of letters, I have no other choice but to ignore them. I opened one or two at first, and maybe I would have provided the requested feedback. But when all 16.5 million people in the Netherlands seem to be sending queries, the thought of such a task is a little overwhelming. Because I have refused to respond, as a sort of protest, I’m now getting follow-up e-mails like, “I would like to hear from you, either is you are interested or not. I have at least ten more ideas. I can e-mail them to you when you want.”
Since these writers are using the same format in their letters, it seems as if they could be coming from a single source – like a film school. Maybe this is some class assignment gone berserk. Or is it the work of a misguided Dutch query service that sends out mass e-mailings for lazy writers who don’t want to take the time to do it themselves? I certainly can’t be the only target of this infestation. Has Jan De Bont been attacked? I hope others in town will come forward and share their stories with me. This victimization could call for some sort of support group.
Four more e-mails have arrived since I started writing this blog entry. These relentless writers must be offspring of the Dutch Resistance. No wonder Van Gogh chopped off his ear. I’m ready to gouge out my eyes. This proliferation of e-mails borders on an international crisis.
It’s important to remember that many of us get inundated with query letters on a regular basis. Some execs are in the market for queries and look forward to getting them daily in hope of finding the next big thing. Others are generally not as enthused, as they find material in other ways – often through recommendations, reputable screenwriting contests and film festivals. In bigger companies, it is usually against corporate policies to even look at query letters and it is often demanded that they be forwarded to the legal department. Regardless, the job of execs and representatives is not to wade through query letters, so expect the response to be slow or not even arrive at all.
I'm writing all this as a sort of query of my own - addressed to the Netherlands.
It might be difficult to understand or even sympathize with my situation since you’re all so far away from Hollywood. But I’m no different than that little Dutch boy – the one with his finger in the dike. However, unlike that valiant young man (who used his fame to become the spokesperson for a brand of house paint), I have failed to plug up the hole, and the deluge is drowning me.
I’d like to call a truce. Can you please stop sending me your e-mails? How about you fly me to Amsterdam and we set up a pitch workshop in the Red Light District? I’ll gladly listen to all you have to say. But I need my inbox back.
Just so we are perfectly clear. I’m passing on all your ideas. The entire nation of the Netherlands gets a collective PASS.
For more information on the Netherlands:
“Screenplay Mastery” by The Hague
UPDATE: The mystery is revealed HERE.
There’s really no right or wrong in Hollywood, but based on reading a zillion query letters, here’s some suggestions when undertaking a letter writing campaign.
Don’t pitch an idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. It is the expression of that idea (in script form) that makes it unique. Write your script before sending out query letters.
Don’t be in a hurry. Make sure the script is in the best shape before you hand it over to a professional. If he passes once, it’s unlikely he will read it again.
Don’t be longwinded. Draft your query as if the reader has Attention Deficit Disorder. Keep your letter short and make your point quickly. The reader should fully comprehend your pitch with just a glance of the page. If the reader has to fight through countless words and paragraphs, you may lose him. Three short paragraphs are enough (of one-three sentences max). 1) Brief intro (including script title and genre). 2) Logline. 3) Closing.
Avoid silly, self-effacing, or obsequious letters. Sometimes trying to be funny only backfires and lands the letter on the “Wall of Shame” after it’s been passed around the mailroom for some unintentional guffaws. If you’re a comedy writer, it’s most important that the logline be funny. Don't kiss ass. While it's nice to show respect, kowtowing to an agent or exec is unprofessional.
Do not include the scenes from your screenplay in a query letter. Scenes, descriptions of your characters, action or actual dialogue can seem very unappealing when taken out of context. Screenplays deserve to be read in their entirety – as a whole. The success of a script depends on the interrelation of one scene to another – the cause and effect. Reading ten pages out of context might prove you can write but doesn’t prove you can write a screenplay. Faulkner was a great writer and a failed screenwriter. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it), do not include the screenplay unless it was requested.
Avoid insignificant praise and other unnecessary or stupid information. Never include readers’ positive comments. “My college film professor says it’s the best screenplay he’s read this semester.” “The local mailman said my depiction of the United States Postal Service is accurate and riveting.” “Mary Jones at Warner Brothers loves the script but says I must have an agent.” If Mary Jones loves the script, she will do everything within her power to obtain it. Not having an agent is only an obstacle to a writer when the script isn’t up to par. Also, avoid describing your script with hyperbole. Sentences like, “This is an Oscar winner” or “This is the next TITANIC” just tend to turn people off. If you’ve won a reputable screenwriting contest, mention it. But use common sense. It’s not necessary to write (as was the case) that you landed in 429th place in the Writer’s Digest contest. It may impress your Mom but probably not a Hollywood agent. (If you came in 429th place, the agent would be better off reading the 428 scripts that placed ahead of you.) Keep all information in the query letter pertinent. Avoid superfluity. No one cares if you’re a retired accountant or one in a set of septuplets. The exception would be if it pertains to the script. Also, don't make casting suggestions (unless you are targeting an actor’s representative), and do not suggest marketing concepts.
Proofread the letter. One would believe writers have a strong command of their language. However, query letters are often littered with misspelled words. This also includes grammar and syntax errors.
Letters should be sent to a specific person. Be sure their name is spelled correctly. Refer to the “Hollywood Creative Directory,” the Internet, IMDBPro or call for the correct spelling. In general, calling ahead is a good idea. Double check to make sure the executive is still employed with that company. The agent’s name may appear in the “Hollywood Agents and Managers Directory,” but turnover is fierce, and the agent at William Morris today could be at ICM tomorrow.
Avoid writing the letter by hand. Of course, an equal amount of care should be given to the envelope.
Avoid including “yes/no” self-addressed postcards - unless requested.
The question that gets asked the most is "Should I use the word 'query' in the e-mail subject line?" I would say if the company welcomes query letters, use the word "query" in the subject line. If the company doesn't welcome them, use only the title in the subject line. (When in doubt, don't use the word.) This way it will look identical to e-mail coming from other sources and will most likely be opened. Once they read your dazzling logline, they'll have no choice but to contact you. With "query" in the subject line, it's too easy to hit delete.
Ask the Netherlandic writers for confirmation on that.
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