What is a Film Treatment?
Most aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers have a clear understanding of what a screenplay is but not so much a film treatment. Who would have thought a career in film would involve so much writing? But if you’re serious about making it a full-time gig, you need to have a way with the written word (or find someone who does), learn the components of a film treatment, and understand why it’s a critical piece of the proverbial puzzle.
So What Exactly is a Film Treatment Anyway?
A film treatment (also known as a story treatment) is a prose-based prewriting and marketing document that reads like a short story. It is generally used to pitch a film, television series, or adaptation. While some writers argue that it can/should be a scene-by-scene breakdown, it’s generally a synopsis used to give an overview of a screenplay, which includes overall structure, characters, and main ideas.
Film treatments allow creators to outline their ideas before writing a full-blown screenplay. However, many writers write their treatments after they’ve written the script. The order of this process generally depends on how the writer intends to market the piece.
Film treatments are also useful for protecting a screenwriter’s ideas. For instance, it’s tough to argue that someone—accidentally or maliciously—stole your idea if you never wrote it down, but if you have your film treatment as proof, it makes pitching a much safer process.
How Long Should a Film Treatment Be?
A film treatment should be fall between five and ten pages, twenty max. There are extreme examples where people argue they can be 60 to 70 pages (James Cameron is notorious for long-winded treatments), but as a rule of thumb, less is more. In fact, some executives and producers ask for a one-pager.
It can be useful to think of the comparables/logline, the one-page summary, the written treatment, and the visual treatment as both a sequence of treatments and as a unified story. When developing a treatment, consider creating two or more different versions: Version one can be your one-pager and version two be in the five to ten page range. This initiative not only prepares you for a producer who wants a shorter pitch, but it can also sharpen your own understanding of the story.
Producers and executives get many submissions each week—your goal is to keep them asking for more. Eventually, they will ask for the screenplay itself!
Remember, the whole idea of a treatment is to be concise but compelling. If you’re submitting to an organization with explicit instructions to write a longer or shorter piece, then be sure to follow those guidelines rather than industry best practices.
In What Tense Should It Be Written?
Most industry professionals agree that screenwriters should write film treatments in the present tense. But remember to keep the treatment engaging by using each form of present tense: Simple, present, present continuous, or present perfect continuous.
Simple Present: James talks to Carla.
Present: James has talked to Carla.
Present Continuous: James is talking to Carla.
Present Perfect Continuous: James has been talking to Carla.
Writing in strictly present tense is a significant change in style for many writers, but it’s critical that you maintain the tone and integrity of your story. Don’t let writing in present tense distract you from setting the scene with captivating (but concise) details and language.
What Elements Compose a Film Treatment?
There is no definitive list of items to include a film treatment, but some basics include (in order of importance):
Name and contact information
Format and genre*
5Ws (Who, What, When, Where, Why)
Act highlights/main scenes
*Format is usually feature/series/short, etc.
*Genre should be a specific match. A combination of two or three genres is okay too. For example, Shaun of the Dead is a Rom-Com/Zombie Feature.
*Comparables should include two or three titles that match the screenplay. A well-worn formula is “Title Matching World” meets “Title Matching Tone.” The titles should be well-known and match the format and genre. For example, Game of Thrones might have been Vikings meets House of Cards.
*A logline is one to two sentences, under 25 words covering who encounters a trigger that raises a dilemma, and desires a goal. For example, Blade Runner might be “A blade runner must terminate replicants who illegally return to Earth, but wants to save an unknown fifth who helps him.”
*Key characters should only include those who drive the story arcs.
There are also some elements you should not include. By and large, you want to eliminate long paragraphs of dialogue, secondary and tertiary characters, and extraneous detail.
Many writers are starting to include a Look Book as well. This is a 10-40 page visual treatment of the story (showing the main locations, characters, and other visual elements). The photos and artwork you select should closely match the tone, color, and the framing of the written narrative. Some consider this a separate document from the Film Treatment, while others are recognizing the written and visual treatments as two parts of a whole.
Three Act Structure
Most screenwriters contend that you should follow a “three-act structure.” Think of it as: beginning, middle, and end—or set up, conflict, and resolution. Because most stories are organized into a similar structure, treatments and screenplays translate well into one another. Using this format:
Act One: Lay the foundation for your story by setting the scene, describing the characters, and introducing the conflict.
Act Two: Build intensity by highlighting the conflict.
Act Three: Bring the story to its climax by underscoring the conflict and then transitioning into falling action and resolution.
Keep subplots to a minimum. Remember, your film treatment should serve as a roadmap, not a driver’s log of the mile-by-mile journey. Be sure your readers get to where they’re supposed to go, and quickly, without unnecessary breaks at rest stops along the way.
Why Treatments Matter
Everyone, probably you included, has a significant shortage of time. That’s why writing a screenplay isn’t always the best plan of attack. Film treatments save writers, producers, executives’ time. They also help writers gauge the industry and the audience's interest in the story.
Workshop Your Treatment
Grant Larson Productions provides workshops for aspiring filmmakers, screenwriters, and other creatives looking to break into the industry. With a top-down approach, our intensive courses teach industry best-practices and underscore the nuances of film. If you’re interested, please check out our workshop page for more details.
On the other hand, if you’re a producer or industry executive who needs a writer to adapt a novel, write a one-pager, or create a film treatment, click the button below to contact us today. We’re here to help with that, too.