A great screenplay query letter – my thoughts

I always suggest opening with a compliment — the “kill ’em with kindness” approach — that way you don’t just sound like you want something from them but you’re here to contribute something to their obviously stellar output. Plus, everyone likes a little ego stroke, especially in Hollywood.

Open the letter by congratulating them on the success of their latest film and tell them how much you love one of their smaller, critically-acclaimed films. They will appreciate you noticing one of their lesser-known, more artistic efforts. I also suggest doing some research and pointing out an obscure fact about them and their work that could only have been known by someone who took the time to do their homework.

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Query Letter

A short letter to a professional company, via email, mail or fax, making them aware of you and your screenplay and “pitching” the story to them in the hopes they’ll request it. Three to five short paragraphs and one page maximum — must be very clear and meticulously proofread. Must include your logline: one sentence, 20-30 words.

HERE is an article with more detail about my approach to query letters.

Packaging a script

Attaching talent to your screenplay. I.e., getting an actor and/or a director to officially declare interest in the script to raise the chances of a sale and production. This is very difficult to do without representation (see Unsolicited Submission), and even more so to attach a “star” as their agents will refuse to look at a script not already funded for production. This is also referred to as attaching “elements.”

A major agency (like CAA or William Morris-Endeavor) can put together a package that includes their clients in the key roles (director, writers, leading actors) with partial financing and approach a studio for finishing funds and/or a distribution commitment.

A new writer wants to generate “buzz” on their script in some way that might get name talent to consider it. A contest/festival win, a referral from a friend or existing client or even a well-known true-life inspiration can help to build buzz on a script and get it read.


An Option is when a producer pays for the right to purchase a screenplay in a set period of time, essentially taking it off the market. In that period (e.g., 6 months, 1 year) they have the exclusive right to shop the script around, hoping to get it sold, financed, or produced. Most options to new screenwriters are for small sums of money; in most cases, a new writer should consider the track record of the producer (thus the likelihood of their script being sold and produced) as being more important than the price.

A sale is an outright purchase of a screenplay, but many sales listed in the trades contain the “guarantee/upfront” amount and the production bonus (e.g. $100,000 against $300,000). One sum is paid up front (usually in steps) and the remainder of the money is paid if and when the film either goes into active development or begins production. This is to insure the studio against overpaying for scripts that will just sit on their shelves, since they buy more material than they can actually make into films.

Inktip Pitch Summit

Dear Screenwriters,

I have been an Inktip member for years and I recommend it to every screenwriter I meet, coach or collaborate with. I know several writers who have found success by listing their scripts on Inktip.

In fact, Inktip is the only site outside of my own that I’ve ever endorsed for the simple reason that they have an incredible track record when it comes to getting films made.

I am proud to be selected by Inktip as one of their approved Consultants for the first annual Inktip Pitch Summit.

It’s the only pitch event that I’ve ever been involved with.

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Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser on what he looks for in a script

After emerging from my sub-basement cryo-chamber as my alter-ego Telematic Dan, I covered the red carpet premiere of Mad Men Season 4 in Hollywood, CA at the Mann Chinese Theater 6 (in the same complex as the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre).

For a round-up of the night, go here.

One moment that stuck out was when I asked actor Vincent Kartheiser (who plays advertising accounts man Peter Campbell on Mad Men) about what he looks for in a screenplay… his first response was…

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The Harsh Truth: Cutting Scenes in your Screenplay

Dear Screenwriter,

you gotta be willing to kill your puppies.

Here’s a quick rule that is deceptively simple, very powerful and utterly crucial. This is a rule none of us can escape. This applies to every scene in your script:

If a SCENE does not:

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Writing Comedy – Interview with Louis C.K.

Louis C.K. in FX channel's "Louie"

Louis C.K. in "Louie" on FX

I’ve hired a lot of writers… The more original, the more unique your stuff is, the better, I think, rather than trying to hit a certain place that’s going to get you employed.  That usually just makes you like everybody else.

Continuing my coverage of FX Networks programming, I took part in a conference call interview with comedy veteran Louis C.K. who is premiering his new 30-minute comedy show “Louie” tonight.

Louis had some great insights into comedy writing and, for my money, elucidated the problem with network television and why it’s been getting its ass kicked by cable television for the past decade. Louis C.K.’s credits include Late Night with Conan O’Brien, “TV Funhouse” on Saturday Night Live, Lucky Louie on HBO and the cult hit movie Pootie Tang.


Premieres June 24, 2010/11:00 p.m. PDT

Dan Calvisi: You are listed as the only writer on IMDB.  I don’t know if I missed some press materials where it lists other writers, but if that’s the case, what exactly is your writing process for writing these episodes?

Louis C.K. I am the only writer.  That was a decision I made because I just wanted to write and make the show.  Writers’ rooms, they kind of gravitate towards a certain place.  There’s a need to perfect things in a writers’ room, and that can take a lot of fun out of a show sometimes.  It’s a struggle.  It depends on your personality.  Some people love working with a writing staff.  I had a great writing staff on Lucky Louie, but it sometimes felt like Congress or something.  It’s like if you’re the president and you have the ability to just fire Congress, life would get kind of fun all of a sudden. Read more

Book Review: Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters…

A while back, I was sent an advance copy of Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories and I can report that is a fantastic book that gives you the inside word from the best, most influential and most legendary screenwriters in the business. If you’re working on your first screenplay, have written 50, or you’re just a movie buff, this is an invaluable glimpse into a segment of the industry that is absolutely CRUCIAL but rarely explored in such detail.

From Mike Binder to Nora Ephron to Steven E. de Souza to John August to Paul Schrader to Mick Garris to Frank Darabont to Larry Cohen to Josh Friedman… there’s bound to be a writer in here that changed YOUR life with their words that were translated into film. So don’t just worship the actors and directors; work a little harder and learn about the scribes that the pretty people need but will never give their due credit.

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Inception featurette continues the legacy of The Dark Knight – WATCH IT!

Can you press 3rd floor for me-aaaahhhhhh!

There’s a reason why that anti-gravity hallway effect in Inception looks so amazing.

It’s because that shit is real.

No CGI. It’s a giant rig that rotates 360 degrees and it must have cost a fortune. It’s another example of how and why Christopher Nolan is this generation’s James Cameron.

Like Cameron, Nolan insists on spending millions of the studio’s money on creating real, physical spectacles, sometimes for only a single shot.

This is why those aerial IMAX shots in The Dark Knight looked so amazing; those weren’t sets, they were real skyscrapers in Chicago and Hong Kong.

When we see Batman riding his batpod motorcycle…it’s real. They didn’t just hand off the scene to a bunch of animators.

batpod pic

A team of engineers spent months (and a batload of Warner Brothers’ cash) designing and building a new vehicle that a stuntman could actually drive.

Don't try this at home.

Let’s be clear: they invented a vehicle.  For..one scene?  Yes, for one scene (okay, two and a half scenes, geeks).

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The A-Team: please don’t call them if you’re in trouble

Because this A-Team does not help people in trouble.  They’re only out for revenge.

This A-Team did not serve time in the same military unit and then escape from a prison camp, thus bonding them together for life. In fact…

The B-team.

This A-Team doesn’t make any sense, whatsoever.

And it just got pitied like a fool by The Karate Kid, which made DOUBLE its gross in their mutual opening weekend.

At this time last year, “The Hangover” and “Up” were going gangbusters at the box-office — both ORIGINAL scripts.

But, wait, The Karate Kid is also a remake of a piece of campy 80s material. So why did it fare so much better?

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Screenplay Structure

Would you like to learn how to write a screenplay from a professional screenwriter and Script Doctor who has worked for major movie studios and is based in Los Angeles, California, Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world?

I can give you the TOOLS — the professional screenwriting how to — to write a great movie screenplay or television script. My method is called Story Maps Screenwriting and it is the most simple, clear and effective roadmap to take you from your initial concept all the way to a polished draft that you can submit to agents, managers and producers in the movie industry in Hollywood. Read more


A script or screenplay Logline states the story in one active sentence, focusing on the concept, main story engine, unique Protagonist and main conflict. Ideally in 25 words or less…

A female FBI trainee must enlist the aid of a brilliant, imprisoned serial killer to catch another serial killer-at-large.

A logline is NOT a tagline.  A logline is your story.  A tagline is a marketing pitch that sells the movie, not the screenplay, e.g. “Truth has a soldier” or “This summer your mind will be blown.” Do not submit a tagline with your screenplay because you are in essence telling them how to market your movie, which is their job, not yours.


A unique premise easily understood in a single sentence. A high-concept screenplay often contains a “hook” that puts a twist on a classic situation or even another successful film. A concept that immediately sounds commercial that would attract big names and big box-office. E.g. “A superhero family” (The Incredibles), “A lawyer who can’t lie” (Liar, Liar), “Die Hard on a bus” (Speed), “Emma at an L.A. high school” (Clueless) or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Breakfast Club” (The Faculty). Very helpful with marketing because any one can quickly understand the idea (and hopefully get a sense of genre, tone, and theme) and will be inspired to read the script. But your concept, logline and pitch must be CLEAR. (See also cross-genre and The Big Idea)


Script Development is the process by which a written submission is developed into a final shooting script.

The department in a studio that handles all written material: finding the material, evaluating it and recommending to buy it.


Combining two easily understood genres in a fresh mix. E.g., Science Fiction-Western, Horror-Comedy. The more unique your take the better, but you must be able to capture this mix CLEARLY in a logline so the reader understands your intended style, tone and the story. Just saying “Star Wars meets The Dark Knight” gives no specifics about the protagonist and the throughline and it doesn’t explain the story logic that links those two concepts together.

How to write a GREAT script!

It ain’t easy, but if you strive for excellence and you put in the time, you just may write something that’s not just good but great.

I don’t see any other goal. You’re here to create a great movie that will stand the test of time. Seems obvious to me.

But…we all know those newbies who are only in it to write one screenplay and sell it for the “big money.”  Well, they can keep dreaming because this is a very unique, detailed, demanding, difficult and rewarding craft and it takes more than just one script to get it down.

It takes a strong commitment to being the best. Writing the best Thriller to blow away all Thrillers. The most hilarious, relevant Comedy. The most stirring Drama. The most kleenex-wetting Romance.

And here’s where it begins.  Right here, in this article.

Yes, it’s true, let there be no more speculation and no more confusion. Why?

I’ve got a list.

And everybody loves lists. (Don’t they?) Read more

The Voice of the Screenwriter

Featuring examples from The Departed, Saving Private Ryan, Collateral, Munich, Lethal Weapon, As Good As It Gets, Forrest Gump, Casanova and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan

[note: some of the screenplay excerpts on this page have not been properly formatted for this blog, yet.  I’m working on it. -Dan]
There are three main categories of skill needed to write a screenplay: Structure, Characters and Voice. Dialogue may win Oscars and get many an established pro hired on assignment, but I believe it’s a distant fourth when it comes to a spec screenplay submitted by a NEW writer.

You’ve probably heard about the dreaded studio Readers who read only the dialogue in a script.  Well, that can happen, so I’d contend that it’s your job to make the reader WANT TO READ your description by seducing them with a compelling narrative voice that establishes TONE, PACING and EMOTION right off the bat, rather than just listing flat stage directions.  You need to grab them, shake them, and hold them.

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Don’t Pay for Script Coverage!

Buyer Beware, fine screenwriters: DON’T PAY FOR SCRIPT COVERAGE!

I don’t offer script coverage as one of my consulting services; I prepare detailed story notes that identify narrative problems and offer specific suggestions on how to fix them. However, I wrote coverage on scripts and books for years as a professional movie studio Reader. So I’m very familiar with it. You will find a number of services online that offer screenplay coverage, but in my opinion it’s not the best thing to spend your money on. Here’s why…

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Screenplay Coverage

Attention Screenwriters: Don’t pay for screenplay coverage!

I don’t offer script coverage as one of my consulting services; I prepare detailed story notes that identify narrative problems and offer specific suggestions on how to fix them. However, I wrote coverage on scripts and books for years as a professional movie studio Reader. So I’m very familiar with it. You will find a number of services online that offer screenplay coverage, but in my opinion it’s not the best thing to spend your money on. Here’s why…

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