Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Writing Tip #14: No Means No!

No means no isn't just for dating anymore.  It's for screenwriters, too.

Screenwriters without agents are totally dependent upon the good graces of producers, directors and development people in order to ply our craft.  (Truth be told, so are screenwriters with agents.)  It is essential to remain in their good graces.  The best way to do that is to understand that no means no.

When someone at a production company requests to read your script after receiving your query, they are paying you a great compliment.  They delete hundreds of queries for every one to which they reply.  When they request your script, they are treating you like a professional screenwriter.  Don't prove them wrong.  Avoid the temptation to make obvious mistakes that hurt all your fellow writers chancing of being read.

1).  Do not send the script itself with the query.  Bad idea on a number of levels.  It is considered rude.  It is a slap in the face of companies that might have read your script if you signed their legal release first.  It's also likely to have your email diverted directly to the spam folder because of internet security concerns.  It also throws off your metrics.  Say you send out a blind query to 100 companies with the script attached.  You have no idea who is actually reading it.  One of them?  Twenty?  All one hundred?  You have no way of knowing,  That's why I want them to request the script.  I want to know which emails are active, and who is actually reading.

Once I send it, I....

2).  Do not check on the status of the script.  I don't care if it's been one day, one week, one month or one year.  Never ever.  Here's the bottom line, if they don't like the script, you will never hear from them.  Silence means they didn't like it.  Period.  Some people can't accept that.  They think it is rude.  Oh well, that's life.  Learn to deal with it.  Pestering them will only get your future queries sent to the spam folder.  The last thing any thinking writer wants to do is alienate a production company person willing to consider unsolicited queries by bugging them.  That's just crazy.

However, if they do bother to send you a rejection....

3).  Do not ask why they didn't like the script.  Usually, most people will only send a rejection if they feel you deserve professional courtesy.  Sometimes, if they really liked the script, they will say encouraging words about it.  Sometimes, if you really impressed them, they will ask if you have any other scripts they'd be interested in.  However, if you write back and ask them why they didn't like it, they will immediately realize you didn't deserve the professional courtesy they offered you.  Why?  Because you are not giving them proper professional courtesy.

Development people tend to be buried under a deluge of work.  They spend all day fulfilling the mercurial whims of their bosses, then they have to carry a stack of scripts home with them every night and on the weekends.  They don't have time to walk you through your second act mishap.  There are multitudes of professional script reading services available.  Asking the development people to do it for free is simply insulting.  Bam!  Guess who has been relegated to the spam folder?

The only proper response when someone read your script is:  "Thank you for your consideration."

Feel free to pitch them your next script, but, whatever you do....

4).  Don't ask them to read the rewrite of the script they already read.  You only get one chance with a producer or a production company.  That's why you have to make sure it's perfect the first time.  And, in all honesty, your rewrite probably wouldn't change the script enough to overcome their problems with it anyway.  Let's talk writer to writer.  When we make revisions on our own, we tweak a scene here, a character there, etc.  We think those changes are significant, but, a jaded producer probably wouldn't even notice them.  Plus, irrregardless of the changes you make, they will not ask to read it again.

Let me give you an example.  I wrote a comedy mystery called Judy with director Lee Bonner.  I pitched it to a producer.  He said he liked the script, but felt we had missed some great opportunities.  He left the door open for me to call him so I did.  (A very rare occurrence on my part. I am a writer.  I prefer to be judged by my words on paper rather than my sparkling repartee and Baltimore accent.)  The producer gave me his thoughts on how to improve the script.  He had some very good ideas -- but they entailed fundamentally changing the script.  I called Lee afterwards.  He liked the producer's ideas, too.  So we took a week and completely rewrote the script, top to bottom.  Afterwards, I called the producer again.  I told him we had made all of his changes.  I asked him if he was interested in reading the new script.  He said nope.

Insane, right?  Why would he spend over a half an hour on the phone telling me how to improve the script and then not read it?  Because you only get one shot.  Those are the rules.  What did I do?  Well, I certainly didn't try to guilt trip him into rereading the script.  Why?  Because now I had an open door to pitch him future scripts.  And that's worth a lot.  Over the years I have slowly accumulated a number of emails of people who actually read.  They are a very valuable resource!

As an addendum to this rule, I do want to say that I have no problem querying a person more than once about a script -- provided they hadn't actually read it.  If I come up with a better logline, or if the subject matter somehow becomes topical, I do not hesitate to re-pitch people six months to a year later.  I've gotten some good reads that way.

I know many of you will find these rules frustrating.  Personally, I don't.  I expect the "no"s and the silences.  They don't bother me.  Why?  Because a "no" can't hurt you.  Your life is not materially changed when someone says "No!"  Only a "yes" can change your life.  But don't expect it to change it too much.  Remember, you'll still be the same person after you sell your script that you were before you did!

Also, I have to admit that the "no"s can be fun.  Over the years, I have sent email queries to the producer Don Murphy.  He's a genuine Hollywood big shot who has produced a ton of blockbusters.  He also has a reputation for being difficult.  That doesn't bother me.  I say let he who is without sin throw the first stone.

You might think it would be difficult to get his email, but you'd be wrong.  It is readily available.  So a couple of years ago I sent him an unsolicited query.  He wrote back:  "This is NOT how it's done."  Okay.  I get it, Donnie.  A few years later I queried him about another script, and got a smarmy response back.  Okay.  I'm fine with that.  I recently queried him with my script Life-Like, and I was treated to the volcanic mother of all rejections.  He laid into my query letter the way the boys from Mystery Science Theater 3000 laid into Gamera movies.  He gave it a scathing line-by-line critique.  It was hilarious.  I only stopped laughing long enough to wonder why the producer of the Transformers series would take so much time responding to a nobody.

Needless to say, he didn't request the script.

Am I going to query him about my next script?

You betcha!  Wouldn't miss it for the world.

Other Tips:

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

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