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Female Cinematographer examines her shotAn actress in front of the cameraA writer works in a coffee shopFilm Producer works with teamA woman and a man edit a film in the studioPeople on an action film set

How to Write a Film Treatment

Author: Anna Keizer

Date: March 3, 2020

Reads: 420


Anna Keizer is a Los Angeles-based Screenwriter and filmmaker. She has been writing for film and television for 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago and an M.A. in Film Studies from Chapman University. She has been an Academy Nicholl Fellowships Quarterfinalist and an Austin Film Festival Script Competition Second Rounder.
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A film treatment is a lot like a rainy day fund: You’re never quite sure if you’re going to need it until you do.

And that’s exactly why so many Screenwriters avoid creating one for each of their scripts. But for those aspiring to have a long and successful career in the entertainment industry, having a film treatment on hand is just as important as having a script ready to read.

That’s a fact. Another fact? Some Screenwriters don’t make film treatments because they’re not entirely sure how to write them—or they’re still a little unclear on what they’re supposed to do with them once created.

That’s why we going to break down this head-scratcher of a document and get to the bottom of why it can be such a critical part of a Screenwriter’s portfolio.

Here’s what you’ll learn about film treatments by reading this article:

  • What a film treatment is
  • Why Screenwriters need film treatments
  • How to write a film treatment
  • Film treatment examples

What a Film Treatment Is

Screenwriters are storytellers whose preferred format is the script. And while many use alternate mediums to create the beat sheets and outlines that will eventually be fleshed out into that script, they nevertheless can get a little unsettled when asked to write in prose—which is exactly what a film treatment is.

A film treatment is the prose retelling of the story that takes place in a script1. However, it is also written in third person and in present time, as is a script, so it’s not entirely different than the document from which it’s inspired.

Why Screenwriters Need Film Treatments

Before we launch into the specifics of how to create a film treatment, though, it’s important to clarify exactly why Screenwriters should put their scarce time and precious energy into making them. After all, couldn’t that time and energy be better spent on writing another script?

To Make the Story Clear

What many Screenwriters don’t realize about a film treatment is just how versatile it can be. For instance, a film treatment can be the single most important document in making sure the script’s story is solid.

As mentioned, both beat sheets and outlines can be incredibly helpful in providing a path for Screenwriters to follow as they work on their scripts. But what did we mention before? That Screenwriters are storytellers.

Though the end-goal of a script is to have it realized in a visual format—a film—it will go through dozens if not hundreds of hands as a piece to read before that ever happens. So it’s up to the Screenwriter to make sure that it is a compelling and enjoyable script.

That’s easier said than done when a script usually comes in at 90 pages or more. It’s easy to get sidetracked along the way, losing focus of what the actual story is. Enter the film treatment2.

Before a Screenwriter writes “FADE IN,” they can better their odds of making sure the script stays on track by writing a film treatment. Writer Mercedes Milner notes, “For me, writing a treatment helps to untangle the narrative in my mind and put it on the page. I do it before I start scripting so I’ve got a road map to follow.”

Now, a treatment can vary in length from three pages all the way to a dozen or more. It’s well-known that filmmaker James Cameron loves long and detailed film treatments; the one he wrote for The Terminator is nearly 50 pages!

It’s not necessary to go to such lengths—literally—when writing a treatment, but the point being put forth is that having one can help a Screenwriter shake loose what the actual story is. After all, with the economy of space typically reserved for film treatments, it’s important for the Screenwriter to concisely and clearly write out the broad strokes of the most important plot lines.

In turn, they can then use this guideline when embarking on the much bigger task of writing the entire script.

Added bonus: When that script is completed, the Screenwriter can go back to their film treatment to see if they did indeed faithfully follow what they intended the story to be. One disclaimer, though.

It’s not unusual for a Screenwriter to pivot in another direction with their script once they actually get into writing. Many Writers hit those epiphanies in the middle of the creative process—and that’s great. However, a decision has to be made.

If what they end up writing doesn’t match what the treatment describes, they must alter one so they ultimately align. And the following reason explains exactly why this is so important.

To Give a Glimpse Into the Script

You know how everyone talks about having a script ready to go if and when a Producer, Executive, Manager or Agent wants to read it? Now that’s entirely true.

All Screenwriters should have an example of their work that offers an idea of their writing style, voice, and talent. But here’s the thing. . . Not every Producer, Executive, Manager or Agent wants to read an entire script. And though they might ask for a script and read just the first 10 or 15 pages of it, that might not satisfy their curiosity for how the story ends. That’s where a treatment can be a make-or-break document for Screenwriters.

Instead of potentially delving into a 90-page script, that uber-busy Producer, Executive, Manager or Agent can read a three-page film treatment. So in a fraction of the time, they can get a better sense of the story and decide from there if they want to read the script3.

And in an industry where great first impressions are essential, Screenwriters should never say “I don’t have one” when asked for a film treatment. With a strong film treatment that tells an entertaining story, a Screenwriter can potentially leverage it into a representation, option or even writer-for-hire deal.

One last note on why a film treatment can be a vital part of a Screenwriter’s career: It can strengthen other skills they need to possess. Case in point, pitching. When the day comes that a Screenwriter will need to pitch their story in an Executive’s office, a business meeting or even an elevator, they need to know what’s most important to relay to their audience.

Minutes—indeed, seconds!—count in these scenarios, and a film treatment can provide a blueprint for understanding what to share in order for the pitch to be coherent, comprehensive and concise. Think of it as a kind of pitch cheat sheet!

Says Actor-Writer-Filmmaker Jamie Hill, “The script isn’t enough when you want to sell or show off a product. In a pitch, the party you are showing your script to generally doesn’t have the time to read your entire piece.

Get them interested in the world you’ve created using a smaller package, which is your treatment. The treatment should tell the other person everything they need to know about your script.”

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How to Write a Film Treatment

It’s been mentioned several times that Screenwriters are storytellers, so let that nugget of knowledge be the guiding principle when creating a film treatment. Just write the story4.

As with a script, don’t be too critical with the first pass. Write out as much as is necessary until it feels like the full story has been told. Just remember, present tense and third person!

And once that first pass is completed, now the fun begins. As with a solid script, a tight film treatment can be achieved only with a discerning eye5. Think about the big picture—what is the story really about? If a detail can be deleted without it affecting the story, do it.

Edit, edit and edit again until the story flows. Once the film treatment feels strong, put it away for a while. Yes! Just like a film script. After a few days or weeks, review it again with fresh eyes.

Now here’s the thing. It’s okay to have different versions of a film treatment for the same script. Because in some circumstances, as when an Executive simply wants an idea of what the script is about, a film treatment in the three-to-five-page range will likely suffice.

But if we’re talking about the potential to go into production with a script, and perhaps some investors or Producers need to be convinced to come on board, it might be more beneficial to have a film treatment that’s longer, with more details.

It never hurts to get a little feedback on a film treatment as well. Especially if a friend or colleague has already read the script, getting an outsider’s perspective on whether or not the treatment is faithful to that script can be hugely beneficial.

Sounds like the steps Screenwriters take when writing a script, eh? An important piece of advice to keep in mind when asking for feedback for a script or film treatment: Make sure the person reading it can offer constructive criticism. Having someone who is too nice to be honest about what needs improvement is just as bad as someone who is overly critical or has no tact when pointing out faults.

At the end of the day, a film treatment can be a highly instructive tool and asset for a Screenwriter. In an industry where countless creatives are hoping to get noticed, those looking to make a career for themselves should take all opportunities to keep honing their writing and make it the best it can be.

A strong film treatment can truly be the difference between an Executive passing on a script and getting them to take notice of all those hours of time, energy and passion that were put into the Screenwriter’s work.

Film Treatment Examples

Want to read some examples of film treatments for well-known movies? Take a peek at the film treatments for:

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References

  1. 1Hellerman, Jason. "How to Write a Treatment (with Film Treatment Examples)". No Film School. published: 23 October 2018. retrieved on: 1 March 2020
  2. 2McGrail, Lauren. "What Is a Film Treatment, and When Do You Need One?". Lights Film School. published: . retrieved on: 1 March 2020
  3. 3Grover, Micki. "What is a Film Treatment, and Why Do I Need One?". Writers Store. published: . retrieved on: 1 March 2020
  4. 4Masterclass. "How to Write a Film Treatment in 6 Steps". Masterclass. published: 28 October 2019. retrieved on: 1 March 2020
  5. 5. "How to Write a Screenplay Treatment That Gets More Requests". Script Reader Pro. published: 2 June 2015. retrieved on: 1 March 2020
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