If you’re writing a movie or show, chances are you’ve also thought about the difficult road ahead that is selling or funding your idea. If you want to get producers excited, you’ll need a killer treatment.
In this post, we’ll explain treatments and how you can use one to sell your own concept. Producers love a person who has a clear idea for a film or television show, and nothing will help you more than that clarity.
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Story treatment overview
Story treatments are created to help you get your idea in front of successful industry decision makers so that your idea can have the best chance to end up on screen.
They are very focused documents, and they have their own structure.
STORY TREATMENT DEFINITION
What is a story treatment?
A film treatment (or story treatment) is a detailed summary of your film. It should communicate all of the important scenes in a style that evokes the tone and theme of your idea. The purpose of a treatment is to entice buyers and producers into reading or developing your idea.
What does a treatment do?
- It summarizes the plot and characters in your idea.
- It communicates the tone and theme of your idea.
- It entices buyers and producers into developing your idea.
Sounds simple, right?
Actually, writing a treatment is harder than it looks.
You need to identify the heart of your story, and cut out everything else.
If you haven’t already written your screenplay, this can be especially challenging because you have nothing to work off from.
As mentioned, film treatments have a particular structure and some “rules” to abide by. But before we get into that, we should take a look at the story you’re pitching.
FILM SCREENPLAY TREATMENT
Talk to buyers
The easiest way is to go directly to the buyers.
But where are they?
Buyers are often at film markets such as AFM and Cannes. Once there, you can hone in on what type of screenplays distributors are looking for. You can also apply for internships, get a job as an assistant, or hang around the trendy restaurants around Hollywood.
The buyers will help you understand big market needs, but they aren’t going to spoon feed you a great idea like The Big Lebowski.
That’s your job.
Most will happily explain the flavor of the moment. If you’re quick, you can then come up with a movie idea that fits the current market trends.
This can be tricky, of course, as the industry is notoriously fickle, and in many cases the ultra-focused trends are here today and gone tomorrow.
But who knows; maybe your zombie movie that was originally a vampire movie can be switched to a dystopian superhero movie.
FILM TREATMENT EXAMPLES
Talk to producers
Producers are the most likely people to buy your movie treatment.
So spark up a conversation.
Find out what kind of movies they’re looking to produce next.
Producers take pitch meetings at studios and production companies.
While they pitch their own films, they find out from the executives what the studios are looking for. They are in the same boat as you.
They can help you identify what will be marketable in the near future.
HOW TO WRITE A TREATMENT
Talk to viewers
Distributors and producers aren’t simply making this stuff up. If contained thrillers are a big deal today, it’s because there’s an audience that has demonstrated an interest in them.
Follow box office trends (and not just at the top tier). Figure out what types of films are making money for their distributors and studios.
Horror films can make a lot of money if they’re produced cheaply enough.
Follow the money. You’ll know what types of films the studios and production companies are looking to create.
MOVIE SCRIPT TREATMENT
What is “high concept”?
If you want your movie treatment to sell, your movie or show will often benefit from being “high concept”.
Generally, this is an idea with an enormous crisis, established ticking clock, and can be boiled down into a clear, concise sentence.This sentence is known as the logline.
A logline gives a precise sense of the genre, central conflict and tone of your film or show idea. It should be fun to say as well.
“A deadly Alien is loose aboard a stranded spaceship.” - Alien
This logline doesn’t say anything about Sigourney Weaver or chest bursting or androids - all it says is enough to get a producer excited.
It also tells them the film will be easy to promote.
Low concept films (like heavier, Oscar-primed dramas) get made all the time, but it’s much harder to sell those with a story treatment alone, and those are far harder to get made without years of industry contacts.
Unless you have these strong industry connections, you might consider writing the script first. That way, if it is brilliant enough to attract a star actor or director, they might throw their weight behind it.
Structure helps your treatment
A movie treatment describes your movie’s story, not just the story basics.
But cinematic stories must have a carefully defined structure, because they need to reach as many people as possible, and they’re super duper expensive to make compared to a novel or even a podcast.
A sequence of events is not a story unless it has the shape of a story.
Start by breaking your story into three acts:
- Beginning: where characters, setting and conflict are set up
- Middle: where characters traverse the setting to reach their goal
- End: where characters face the consequences of their actions.
Two of the more popular books on screenplay structure:
The Writer’s Journey — Christopher Vogler
Save the Cat — Blake Snyder
The rules laid out in these books aid the writing of a film treatment by breaking down narratives into more than just three acts, and they are often the same books you will find in a producer’s office.
Whichever narrative theories you subscribe to, make sure your story structure is properly reflected in your movie treatment.
WRITING A MOVIE TREATMENT
How to write a story treatment
Writing a treatment is more science than art, but you still need to be a writer. The first thing to remember is that stories are immediate.
They are happening now.
So write your film treatment in the present tense the same way that you’d go about writing a movie or show script.
You need to convey the entirety of your narrative in a few paragraphs. Don’t spend too much time on details. Just write what happens.
A treatment is not a series bible or novel that digresses into the nooks and crannies of a story. It’s basically a logline on steroids.
One page is enough if you can convey the entire heart of your story.
Introduce your central characters as soon as they appear in your film treatment. Do this like you would when writing a movie script: name (age), brief description, and first action.
“Jack (40s), a competent stay-at-home dad, secretly yearns for an opportunity to return to work.”
It’s okay to hype things up in your film treatment too. If your movie’s climax centers around a chase sequence, don’t write “Mildred chases Andy through Venice.”
Instead, consider “In a high-speed, frantic chase, Mildred pursues Andy across the rooftops and through the canals.”
Find opportunities to give your film treatment a unique voice.
Give it personality without making it too bloated.
You’re a writer, right? So make sure you write it right, otherwise we may have to write up Steven Wright to make it right, correct?
Don’t think of your movie treatment as an advertisement.
Think of it as the product, itself.
That means the beginning, middle, and end need to be strong.
Get the passion going.
The title of your story
This can be a working title, of course. Make it evocative, original, and appropriate for your film treatment’s genre.
Many people like ironic titles that give an idea of the story.
Some like to tease people into checking out their idea.
Others prefer to go with clear and concise titles that use very few words.
The one big suggestion I have is to not choose a title that has already been used in a popular film or show.
Jaws for instance might not be the best idea for your title.
Basic name and contact info
They need to know who to call if they read your movie treatment and love it! Don’t expect anyone to Google you or find you on Facebook.
Make sure your contact info is clearly printed on your film treatment so they can contact you immediately. You may want to create a writer’s email address that is separate from your personal address.
DO NOT ADD YOUR PHYSICAL ADDRESS
Your home address is not relevant. No producer is going to get ahold of you about an idea by stopping by your apartment, unless they are creepers.
HOW TO PROMOTE YOUR TREATMENT
Next steps after you’re done
Once you’ve written your film treatment, it’s time to get it out there.
Start by sharing it with your industry friends. If you don’t have industry friends, it’s time to start networking.
There is no acceptable avenue for unsolicited film treatment submissions to the studios or any production company worth its salt.
That means you need to know people on the inside.
This is a legal issue, and not simply an industry nose turn.
If you’re new to networking, having the film treatment in your back pocket can be very helpful.
Next time you’re schmoozing at a networking event, tell people about your movie idea. If anyone’s interested, offer to send them the movie treatment.
Then make sure to send it to them within 6 hours!
That’s one of the great values of having a film treatment ready to go. You can provide immediate turnaround so your idea isn’t forgotten.
TV Writing & Development Master Class
Now you that you know more about film and television treatments, why not begin to really develop your idea. You can’t get paid if you don’t have something to show, and this is the first big step. StudioBinder has put together a totally FREE TV Writing & Development Master Class that will help you build your show idea. This is a fantastic resource that will keep you on track, and help organize your idea.
Break a lens!