Q. In your book, "Crafty Screenwriting", you mention that it's best to send out query letters first, wait for responses, then write the screenplay. It sounds like a great idea, but I'm a little confuddled. Once I pique the interest of a production company's reader (assuming that I actually do), how long is this person going to wait for me to write the thing before he loses interest?
First of all, if it makes you nervous, by all means, write the screenplay first.
The reason I suggest querying first is that the vast, vast majority of query letters I read when I was a development exec described scripts that are commercially doomed. Even if they were brilliantly written, they just don't have a hook. If you don't work in showbiz, it's hard to get a good sense of what showbiz is looking for in a script. If you query first, you get a sense of whether anyone's going to want to read your script once you've written it. If you fire off 50 queries, and you don't hear back from anyone, you've just saved six months.
What you have to understand is that the development person (or agent) who reads your query is not going to wait for you at all
. They will read your query and shoot off a response or delete it within 15 to 20 seconds. Then the whole thing will vanish from their brain entirely. 99.99% of the time they are not going to give your hook another thought until you send them something.
To reiterate: they will read your query at the speed you are reading this sentence. If they don't like it, bam, gone. If they like it, they might spend 20 seconds thinking "Am I really interested?" Then bam, they respond, and it's gone from their brains like a feminine hygeine commercial on your TiVo.
To be effective as an agent or producer you have to be very effective at forgetting things you don't need to keep track of, and what queries you responded to is definitely something you don't need to keep track of.
When your script shows up eventually, they likely won't remember when you queried. If by some miracle they remember it was a while ago, they will probably still want to see it. Maybe 3% of the time they're responding to your query because they just heard that Paramount wants something like your idea -- but that kind of interest rarely helps you, because they're only interested in making the one submission. The other 97% of the time they just think you have a commercial concept and they could potentially set it up at any number of different places. So if they wanted to read it then, they'll want to read it now.
That's the logic behind querying before writing. But hey, it's just a strategy. Whatever works for you. I personally don't write a script until I've pitched it to some of my professional friends, and above all, asked my agent if she thinks she could sell it. If you don't have friends in the biz, and an agent, then querying first might be a good substitute. And again, yes, you're fibbing a bit when you write the email.
But it's showbiz, Punky. You think agents and development execs don't lie?
And if it results in a script they can sell, then where's the harm?