Archive for October 2010

E-Query Blasts: Yay or Nay?

October 25, 2010

On various screenwriting message boards, I’ve seen comments about mass e-query services being a waste of money. Well, yeah, if you write a crappy query. But if you come up with a killer pitch, it might be worth a shot. I’ve tried different services such as Scriptblaster, Script Delivery and Script Champion, and gotten script reads from all of them.

The requests mostly came from small boutique agencies/managers and prodcos, but bigger fish also bit on my queries, including DreamWorks Animation and the top people at major companies. I got a manager from one e-query mailing, and optioned two projects through contacts I made via the e-query route… note I said “contacts” I made, because chances are they will not make an offer on your spec. If they like your writing, it can open doors for you though. And in the end, aside from selling, the best you can hope for is making connections with decision-makers who have the ability to get projects into production.

Although my experience pertains to screenwriting, I think it also applies to book writers who are querying publishers or agents. I’ve been reading lit agent Nathan Bransford’s excellent blog for book authors, and took part in one of his query contests to see if what worked for me in getting my script read, would translate to a book query. He invited writers to submit their pitches for completed manuscripts or works in progress, and randomly selected 50. For one week, each day he posted 10 queries and asked his blog readers to choose just five that they would request to read if they were an agent like himself…

The twist was that he included three queries from writers who had actually sold those books, using the same pitches that were among the 50 he posted that week. Over 200 readers “voted” in the challenge. My query, which was adapted from my INUGAMI script pitch, had the second most requests overall… about 40 percent made it one of their five choices. It might have been higher, except I made some book query mistakes that “outed” me as a potential ringer: some readers thought it was odd that I offered to send a pdf copy of my manuscript — common for sending scripts via email, but not for books. I also did not include a word count, which is normal for book queries but unheard of in screenwriting (it’s assumed you know to keep scripts under 120 pages). But a few thought mine could have been one of the three that got publishing deals.

I am serious about adapting that script into a book, so I was pleased when Nathan himself asked me to query him again after I complete the novelized version. I’m copying the book query below, but it’s essentially the same as the screenplay query I had used before. What’s interesting though is my e-query breaks a few of the “rules” you hear so much about… and maybe that’s why it got me a lot of requests.

Instead of opening with a standard logline, I began with a vague tag line: “A dead fortune teller. A skeptical private eye. An ancient Japanese curse. The fear is real, but the terror is all in your mind…”

I think it works because I was going for a noir tone that matched the script, and it’s more of a psychological murder mystery than a supernatural thriller. The title, INUGAMI, is vague too — usually not a good thing, except maybe in a mystery. To me, it sounds a little like “origami,” which suggests something intricate that folds in on itself or unfolds in unexpected ways.

I also got good responses to my e-queries for a family/adventure spec about the mythical little people of Hawaii called MENEHUNES and my big budget action script, STUNT GUYS. In both cases, I emphasized “big” action, big screen visuals, and tried to tie the fantasy aspects into real stuff that’s actually happened — things that I felt made the projects timely and commercial. For instance, in the MENEHUNES pitch I mentioned that scientists had recently discovered bones in an Indonesian cave of a race of people that stood just three-feet tall (the so-called Hobbit people)… could they have been the basis for the Menehune myths? STUNT GUYS was set in Dubai, where there really were plans to build the world’s largest theme park. Major Hollywood studios were supposed to be partners in that project. Unfortunately, the worldwide economic crisis caused a major bust in Dubai real estate, which killed the project and all the buzz about Dubai.

Getting back to the e-query debate, my suggestion is you test your pitch first. Email it to some other writers or friends whose opinions you trust. Ask if it grabbed their attention. Make sure your title or subject line generates interest without being too over-the-top or desperate-sounding. Don’t make claims about how great your work is. Fine tune it, then send it to a handful of targeted agents, producers or publishers… if you get nibbles, it might be worth going wide with an e-query service. Which one to use? Eh, I dunno. A couple will offer free advice on your query. Some will “help” you write it for a fee. But if you can’t write an effective query on your own, it could be your script or project just isn’t ready yet. Boring or confusing queries usually reflect bland or unfocused stories. Good, sharp conflict generally reveals itself in the logline or short pitch because it’s right there on the surface. All the subtext and depth is implied by the protag’s overt goal versus the obstacles in that pithy line or two.

Bottom line: Don’t blindly take advice from anonymous writers on any message board or bloggers like me. My motto is do whatever works for you. If you can afford to “invest” a hundred bucks here or there on a mass e-query mailing, the worst that can happen is no one requests your script… and maybe that should tell you something, which could save you a lot of time and heartache rather than putting more work into a project that isn’t exciting anyone to begin with. On the other hand, you could get replies from people you never would have queried on your own — and that could be the break you’ve been looking for.

Anyhow, for what it’s worth, here’s the INUGAMI pitch I submitted to Nathan Bransford’s “Agent For a Day” contest…

Dear Agent,

A dead fortune teller. A skeptical private eye. An ancient Japanese curse. The fear is real, but the terror is all in your mind…

INUGAMI is a psychological murder mystery that reads like a supernatural thriller. Set in contemporary San Francisco, a Japanese psychic foresees her own brutal death and asks P.I. Greg Padgett for help. But after she tells him the killer is an “inugami” — a person who is possessed by an evil animal spirit — Padgett turns down the case, thinking the old woman is crazy.

That same night, the fortune teller is found mauled to death by a savage beast of unknown origin. Then Padgett receives a cryptic email she sent moments before she was attacked, warning that he will be the inugami’s next victim. So now the P.I. must find a creature he doesn’t believe exists, and stop it before it can fulfill her prophecy.

As Padgett delves deeper into the Japantown subculture, the former undercover narc begins to suspect her drug-addicted son is the real killer. But the P.I. may have addiction problems himself that cloud his judgment, and could be responsible for his mounting paranoia. When the son turns the tables by placing the inugami curse on Padgett, the ultimate question is whether the nonbeliever can resist the power of suggestion.

About myself: I’m a former journalist and columnist for a daily newspaper. My feature screenplays have won or placed in many contests, including the Nicholl Fellowships, which is sponsored by the Academy Foundation (the Oscar folks). Two of my scripts have been optioned by established Hollywood writers/producers, but have not yet been produced.

If you would like to read INUGAMI or sample chapters, I’d be happy to email you a pdf file or snail mail you a hard copy. Thanks for your time and consideration!

Best regards,
Rich Figel

‘Mad Men’ Addictions, Failures

October 11, 2010

Bad decisions make for good stories. I read that somewhere on a screenwriting message board and thought, yeah, that’s very true. Think about the TV shows and movies that really grab you, and chances are the main characters have made ill-fated choices that turned their lives upside down. It’s not that we want to see our protagonists fail — I think we want to see them overcome obstacles and mistakes that we’re vulnerable to in our own true life stories.

This is why I’m loving the current season of Mad Men on AMC. Don Draper’s entire life is built on bad decisions… and yet, on the surface, he appears to have gotten everything he ever wanted. Money. Prestige. Women. The American Dream, in short. But he’s in advertising, so even he knows it’s all an illusion. In the past two seasons I kept wondering when the reality of his constant drinking and smoking would dent his shiny armor. This year, he hit bottom as a drunk, puking on himself. During another crisis, he couldn’t breathe and thought he was having a heart attack, possibly because of his smoking. Since this series is set in the 60s, I figured the emerging drug culture would also come into play sooner or later.

Last night’s episode brought the themes of failure and addiction together, beautifully. Don’s agency has lost their biggest account — a cigarette company. Other companies are wary of using them because there’s concern the agency will fold soon. At the same time, Don encounters a former mistress who tried to introduce him to the Beat culture that predated hippies and the 60s drug scene. She’s an artist who has gotten hooked on heroin. He asks why she doesn’t stop using… and of course, he knows the answer: it’s the same reason he can’t quit drinking, smoking or hooking up with random women. It’s our culture of addiction, which he is so skilled at selling.

What is great to watch though is you can see the wheels turning inside his head, and even if you find his actions morally repellent, it’s hard not to root for him to come up with a brilliant ad idea to save his agency — and himself — from ruin. The seeds for his breakthrough idea have been planted early by the Mad Men writers (Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, who I met at a University of Hawaii screenwriting workshop). The agency hopes to rebound by landing another cigarette brand aimed at women. I’m thinking it’s gotta be Virginia Slims, and it will be an ironic comment on how men are selling addiction to “modern” females under the guise of equality and women’s lib.

But no, the company cancels the meeting — Don doesn’t even get to pitch his ideas! In despair, he goes home and is about to toss out the abstract painting he “bought” from the junkie ex-mistress. He stops and stares at it.  Rips out his journal pages that he kept while trying to cut back on his drinking, and swimming to get back in shape. In his notebook, he writes an open letter about how it was time for his agency to quit tobacco because it was a bad habit that they shouldn’t be encouraging. It’s bull, of course — he’s putting a positive face on getting dumped by the cigarette company and trying to change the conversation. By running the “personal” letter as a big ad in the N.Y. Times, he does something that we’ll see big corporations do in the future: spin control. It opens the door to his agency doing biz with companies that are critical of Big Tobacco and other unhealthy vices…

It’s brilliant! And you expect his colleagues to slap him on the back when he struts into the office the next morning as everyone reads his seemingly heart-felt letter in the pages of the venerable newspaper. Except that’s not how his partners see it. To them, it’s corporate suicide. He’s doomed them all by biting the hand that fed them so well for all those years. It will make other companies nervous about giving their business to an ad man who would do something so risky and so public. But we, the audience, know better, right? It’s going to work out — his daring idea of turning their vice into a virtue with a page of words will save the agency!

Or will it? After guessing wrong on earlier plot set-ups, I’m hesitant to say… and that’s what keeps me addicted to Mad Men. Just when I think I know where it’s going, Don Draper will literally pull a left turn and go down some dark road that intersects with the real history of the American Dream in all its superficial glory and unspoken subtext. This is great writing and terrifically entertaining television.

*****

Oh, another thing I enjoy is how they’ve made even the real commercials entertaining! Normally I DVR my favorite shows so I can fast forward through the ads. But AMC cleverly worked in factoids related to their advertisers that made me hit rewind so I could read the interesting tidbits of information. Then the sponsors created commercials that were made to look like ad men in the 60s doing brainstorming sessions for clients — it fooled me into thinking this was part of the Mad Men show.

In fact, I intend to steal that idea and use it for future factoids and commercials on my own Career Changers TV program for local station OC16 in Hawaii!

Got thoughts on Mad Men or creative advertising? Share your comments below!

Close But No Cigar

October 1, 2010

Contest update: I had two scripts that were still in the running for the Page Awards and Julie Gray’s Silver Contest, which was the subject of some controversy because of a former contest judges’s blog comments. THE DOLL was among the Silver finalists, but wasn’t one of the three prize winners. Since my suspense/thriller had beaten out over 900 scripts to make the Top 10 list, I was pleased to make it that far… but, man, it hurts a little every time you get so close you can practically visualize the check in your hand.

For all the complaining about the Silver judging process, it should be noted that the winning script this year has also won or placed in other contests too. I suspect most of the finalists and semifinalists have had similar success. As I said before, regardless of who is judging or what protocols are followed (or not), the cream usually rises to the top. Not always, but good scripts are hard to put down no matter who is reading them.

As for my LEGENDS OF THE MENEHUNE spec, which had advanced to the Top 25 semifinalist round of the Page Awards in the family feature film category, I didn’t make the finalists cut. That was a little more disappointing. Then I got a personal email from Jennifer, the contest director:

Dear Rich,

I just wanted to write you a quick note to tell you that, although LEGENDS OF THE MENEHUNE didn’t advance to the Finals this year, the Judges liked your script very much, and you just missed advancing to the Final Round by a hair.  This was such a competitive category this year, and each of the Judges had their favorite scripts, including yours!  Score-wise, your script landed within just a few points of making the cut, and we would have loved to move it into the Finals — but unfortunately, we set that cut-off point at 10, so we have to abide by our own rules.


Please just know that you’ve written a terrific screenplay, and you should in no way be discouraged by not making this particular cut. In the end, any judging process is quite subjective.  And although we have to go by the numbers on the scorecards to determine who advances and wins prizes, in reality, this business is never an “exact science.”

So thank you again for allowing our Judges to read your wonderful screenplay.  We wish you the very best of luck with it!!

To tell you the truth, I had mixed feelings about getting that note. I had already accepted that I didn’t make the finals, and let it go at that. Then I get Jen’s email, and I started thinking about how close I was to getting read by industry people — possibly agents or producers who are judging the finals. That’s the most important thing to me about contests. It’s not really the money or prizes. It’s about who is reading your script in the later rounds. If those judges don’t have any pull in the movie biz, what’s the point? With the exception of the Nicholl Fellowship and possibly the Austin Film Festival, making the finals of most contests means nothing to agents or producers in Hollywood.

When I thanked Jen for the note and told her I appreciated knowing my script was that close, she replied that she too had mixed feelings about telling writers such bittersweet news. Some writers didn’t take it so well, apparently. But I believe you should try to turn lemons into lemonade. I copied her email and sent it to one of the judges in the Silver contest, who is a manager. Since I hadn’t been contacted by that manager, I presumed they weren’t interested in THE DOLL and thought perhaps a script in a totally different genre might pique their interest. Why not pitch my family-friendly big budget spec? The manager’s assistant said she’d like to take a look at it. So maybe my “losses” in those two contests will still result in positive developments down the road.

For me, contest season is “pau” — Hawaiian for done or finished. And this is probably my last go-round with the contests. I’ve had just as much success getting read through sending out mass  e-query mailings at less cost than entering competitions — yeah, you’ve probably read on other screenwriting message boards that those e-query services are a waste of money. Not true… that is, IF you can write a dynamite query or pitch. More on that in a future blog post.