My company frequently receives literary solicitations from young or up-and-coming writers trying to establish their names in the business. It usually begins with a first-contact email or, occasionally, a postcard or mailed letter attempting to establish a rapport. These initial communications are vital in getting a working relationship off on the right foot. Most of these business communiqués are very professional… and in some cases profitable. But one writer's recent attempt to connect with us might best serve as a how NOT to solicit
your literary works to a production company in modern Hollywood.
In this particular case, our communication with the potential writer was initiated via e-mail. Let's start with the subject line… literally the very first impression you will be offering a production company of yourself and your work. Most subject lines mention "Submission of Literary Material," or something similar. Instead, this courageous writer opted for the following:
No, I am not making this stuff up. If anyone at a major studio encountered such a subject line, I can assure you that this e-mail would never have even been opened (except maybe for a laugh). If you can't be bothered to spell the word "script" correctly, how is anyone going to suppose your actual writing – the very thing you are ostensibly promoting – is of any value whatsoever? But in my case, I also write for the independent film scene
and thought that this might be a worthy blog entry. Boy, was I right.
After opening the e-mail I read the following paragraph.
Notice that there is no salutation or greeting. Does this person have any idea who might open this email? In this case it was me, the CEO of the company. Also, please note that there is not even a perfunctory attempt at thanking anyone for their time and/or consideration. Instead the writer makes sure to explain that they are "gifted" and apparently above
such common courtesy.
Again: If you can't properly format an intelligent communiqué, how am I supposed to become excited about wanting to read your work? I should have deleted the message right then and there, but then I thought this might still have value as a lesson for future writers. I grudgingly responded, but with caution; at this point I still don't know who is on the other end of the line.
See how I asked the writer for a release form first? This is uncommon. Normally, the release from is provided by the production company you are soliciting (assuming that they are willing to vet such material at all; most aren’t)… but I wanted to see if this person had any idea what a
release form even is. This was the response I received…
Yes! Read that again. This person’s e-mail just turned into an advertisement for their own book. At this point, I’m in too deep. I have to see where this leads, knowing full well that this blog entry is going to write itself.
I responded thus:
Wasting no time (other than mine), he responded…
Well, a bio would have been a useful thing to submit at the outset, don’t you think?
To this writer's credit, his confusion over a signed release form is valid. Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Paramount Studios… none of the big production companies will ever ask for a release. They know that no one would ever go through the trouble of suing, even IF they had a legitimate claim. (In fact, the last time that occurred was in the early 1990s, Art Buchwald vs. Paramount.) Instead, the big boys simply won’t bother to read your material. (Especially if your initial subject line is misspelled…or more importantly, you are not represented by
a reputable agent.)
If and when a major production company does happen to read your material, it is typically read and reviewed by an office intern. Someone who often times has little to no production experience. These overworked interns will then write a coverage report of your submission and hand it to his or her boss, on whose desk said report will sit (on a very tall stack of similar reports) while the producer focuses on their company's more lucrative tentpole franchises.
Remember: For most people in the industry, this is a business, not a craft. A producer won’t keep their job for very long with only a few minor successes and low-budget projects to your name. A perfect example of how this system typically unfolds is the telling story behind the acquisition of the Harry Potter franchise. The producer involved, David Heyman, was inundated with various productions in various stages of development and had very little time to read the numerous literary submissions being forwarded to his office in London. Consequently, he solicited his staff to read this endless stream of incoming material on his behalf. One such submission was a slim volume entitled Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone by one J.K. Rowling.
Unimpressed with the book’s title, Heyman had placed Rowling's novel at the bottom of his “low priority” shelf, where his secretary – yes, his secretary – took the book home one night for a quick read. The next morning, she informed Heyman that she hadn't slept all night because she simply couldn't put it down. Heyman, still unconvinced, added it to his
reading list. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sorry, I digress. Let’s get back to the case at hand.
I cautiously responded once again:
But the writer's response to this e-mail (seen below), doesn't use proper punctuation nor is it even written in a complete sentence. They write as if they are sending a text in traffic (which, let’s face it, they probably did).
Most writers have a love of the language, and at the very least a rudimentary understanding of grammar and proper presentation. (There are exceptions; read any number of modern paperback novels and you’ll shake your head in disbelief that such poorly constructed fiction was ever committed to paper. And if you don’t shake your head… perhaps professional writing isn’t in your future.)
At this point, I needed to pass this person off to – guess who? – my secretary, who is far less indulgent than I am with “writers” trying to bluster their way into a job.
Literary competition is strong in the movie making industry right now because there is a high demand for original material. This is as true of small “boutique” production houses (like ours) as it is to the new Hollywood players… huge outfits like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Studios. Don't make the same mistake this "writer" did by setting an unprofessional tone right
off the bat. You won’t get very far.
I assume this lesson speaks for itself, and that I do not need to demonstrate what a properly formatted e-mail solicitation looks like. For what it’s worth, this writer's material won’t end up on our “low priority” bookshelf. In fact, it won’t be read at all. How you present yourself is a key stepping stone in any industry, and this relationship is irreparable. We simply don’t have the time to teach anyone proper writing etiquette; we’d rather spend that time
Update: July 29, 2018:
As if you needed to read any more about this saga to get my point, my secretary recently received another correspondence from our would-be "writer" that I just had to add to this post.
Once again, a total lack of punctuation, and very little comprehension of proper grammar or formatting is evident. To add insult to injury, the "writer" misspells the name of legendary writer/director George A. Romero, with whom my business partner and I worked in the 1990s.
George was a very kind and generous man, and our company recently paid tribute to his cinematic legacy in Pittsburgh with the first public memorial to his memory and
his accomplishments as an artist. (CLICK HERE)
Just a nickel's worth of free advice: Do your research on the companies you choose to solicit before you reach out to them. Know intimately the material they are developing and
their past accomplishments.
At this point, said "writer" has been relegated to correspondence with our summer intern.