Movie Making Manual/Pitching/Treatment

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This Module is part of the Movie Making Manual

"I'm tempted to say, 'Writing treatments is like designing a film by hiring six million monkeys to tear out pages of an encyclopedia, then you put the pages through a paper-shredder, randomly grab whatever intact lines are left, sing them in Italian to a Spanish deaf-mute, and then make story decisions with the guy via conference call.' But no... compared to writing treatments, that makes sense, too." - Terry Rossio


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The term treatment is short for "treatment of bullshit" or "treatment of a concept". While standards for screenplay formats and theories on screenplay structures are ten a penny, it's quite difficult to find any agreed-upon approach to treatments. One person's treatment is another's "synopsis", while some people write treatments that look like written-down pitches. What your "treatment" looks like depends on its purpose.

In Scr(i)pt magazine (Mar/Apr 2005), John Hill offers "a sample synopsis/treatment" which reads like a written-down pitch. It's about 1500 words (or 5 pages) and it does a great job of explaining the movie. But Hill then says this:

"So, why write a synopsis or a treatment? YOU SHOULDN'T. [...] Why not? Because they are the worst of both worlds for a writer with a new movie story to sell. They expose the idea but not in a form where a deal could be made (unless you're an A-list screenwriter already)."

I guess the not-so-subtle implication here is that if you're "an A-list screenwriter", you can ditch your subscription to Scr(i)pt. Hill's point is that people who are already well-established in the industry can get hired on the basis of a treatment, but for people trying to break in a treatment isn't going to do the business.

Well, it's an opinion. Producer/director/writer Cauri Jaye points out that producers just don't have the time to read every script that comes their way, so a treatment can help them decide whether or not to invest the time reading the full script. Arguably, if you can't sell your script via a treatment, then why should anyone believe your script sells a story? And at the very least a treatment gives you a hell of a lot more room to show what you've got besides a bare logline.

I asked Hollywood script consultant Craig Kellem what he thought of Hill's position, and Craig said that "it depends on the situation - sometimes it's needed". To develop that idea: where it's needed is where someone asks for one, and is very clear that they won't read a script as an alternative.

Where writing a treatment might do you actual creative harm is when you start your passion-project spec. If you're writing a spec script, a good treatment may create a gloss that gets in the way of your creative process. The glare of your sales vehicle can make you botch your craft. (Okay, so it happened to me, you can tell.) Hill recommends that for your own script development purposes you create a simple step outline rather than a treatment.


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A treatment (or script outline) should adhere to the following:

  • Take the reader through the story of the film. It must bring across the characters and events as they will appear in the film.
  • It must not give more information than the audience of the film will have.
  • It should go through each sequence, but does not have to contain every scene.
  • It should come to about 10 pages for a 90 minute feature film (double spaced, 12 pt courier font)
  • You can separate it into acts and sequences (with titles) if it helps.
  • A treatment sells the film to both creative and financial minds, therefore it must:
    • Grip the reader in the first line of the first page.
    • Make the reader want to turn to the next page at the end of every page.
    • Move the action forward and not linger on descriptions

Style notes

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  • Take all of the language into the present tense. i.e. not "We cut to the Police Sergeant Joe Rawlins who is muttering under his breath" but rather "Police Sergeant Joe Rawlins mutters under his breath"
  • Remove any camera instructions to maintain the suspension of disbelief, this also means get rid of lines like "The final scenes include" and "We are now deep into the third act" for the same reason
  • Generally 1 paragraph = 1 scene and you can link them with CUT TO:
  • Use dialogue now and again to help develop the characters and reveal plot points. put dialogue in novel format, i.e. quotes and paragraphs
  • Take out any unnecessary items: for each scene/paragraph ask "does this express conflict" and "does this move the plot forward" if it does not either insert conflict or remove the scene from the treatment (and probably the script)
  • As an addendum to this, keep the most dramatic scenes. This means skip the transitions and skim over the back story. Try and let the background come out as the plot reveals it to the audience
  • Determine the point of view(s) of the story and try to tell it all from that point of view, i.e. do not reveal anything that she does not see or will not know very soon.
  • Start on action, not description. This goes for the treatment as a whole as well as each paragraph.
  • Do not use details about the functional characters. In fact you can probably remove them completely from the treatment as you should only reveal the broad strokes. Remember that we want to tease the reader into asking for more detail, i.e. the full screenplay.
  • Remember make it dramatic, dramatic, dramatic. We want to hear Beethoven's 5th in the background as we read, da da da daaaaaaa :-)

It should flow approximately like this (this comes from a textbook on treatment writing, it summarizes what I have learned pretty well, so use what you can)

Pgs 1-2 act 1 - Introduce protagonist - Let us know (his/her) mission - Set up the mood - Give a hint of the protagonist's conflict - Introduce the subplot, the plot-line that conflicts with the protagonist's mission - Introduce antagonist - The huge event that changes (his/her) life around

Pgs 3-6 act 2, part 1 - Protagonist reacts to (his/her) new challenge, and the decisions made lead (him/her) into action - Protagonist starts to develop along (his/her) character arc - Give the reader an inkling of what's coming

Pgs 7-8 act 2, part 2 - Protagonist's reversals continue, until (S/he) begins to make headway - Around page 8, new information that turns everything 180 degrees and forces (him/her) to face an even greater obsticle than the reader imagined

Pgs 9-10 act 2, part 3 - The characters converge - A hint at the moral of the story. Maybe a place where all seems lost, where protagonist feels maybe (S/he) should give up. Here the plot and subplot begin to break up and we get to protagonist's darkest hour - Suddenly something happens and everything changes. The universe gives (him/her) a break. (S/He) seizes the moment and goes for it. - By page 10 (S/he)'s standing at the crossroads of action. (His/Her) next move will be definitive, the climactic turning point. Will (S/he) win or lose?

Pgs 11-15 act 3 - The crisis is the sequence of scenes in which the final outcome of the story is completely determined by the protagonist's actions. At this point it's like a separate story with its own beginning, middle and end, here we put in all the twists and turns. - The climax is the end of the crisis - The resolution: the final moments (keep this short– end quickly and with a dramatic punch)

These are just guide points to help you pace a treatment. It will guide you in where you need to reduce the detail and scenes to make things shorter and where you need to add some meat. The screenplay will follow a similar pacing (just with more pages per act of course)

Music Video Treatment

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A treatment consists of a written condensation of a proposed film or TV dramatic production. It covers the basic ideas and issues of the production as well as the main characters, locations, and story angles.

In part, its purpose is to sell the proposal to financial backers and major stars. Treatments should be attention-getting and interesting to read. They are written in the present tense, using active language and often read like a short story.

Treatments cover the full story sequence. They typically contain some key scenes that help to entice the reader and sell your idea.

Here is an example;

“Leap Year” Music Video

This music video is all about time and friendship, losing friends and those who never loose hope or stop waiting for those that matter. We begin by focusing on a boy, pondering a picture on a window-sill (digitally), the picture flies from his hand in a gust of wind, music begins. An montage of urban scenes flash by, starting with a sun rising very fast, mixed with short flashes of character remembering his two friends. There are three main shots that remain constant scenes. One, a candlelit room with a large frozen clock taking up the entire background, where the boy occasionally sings along with mixture of mystery, longing, and sadness. Next, a simple framed shot of the boy centered between his female and male friend, both facing them, only the backs of their heads and shoulder blades are visible as the stand halfway outside the spotlight . The boy now sits up in an old, grey tree, centered in a gated off abandoned schoolyard. Numbers of a clock circle around him and certain things hang on the branches like a Christmas tree. These very fantasy like, slow motion; whimsical, a little detached from reality shots of the boy striving to find the true friends as he remembers but not clearly enough. The girl friend is a manikin through most of the video, symbolizing how girls grow less honest of themselves around old friends in awkward meetings, and at the climax of the song she becomes real as he finally finds the way to see her the same again. Now the climax of the song and at an abandoned closed down establishment the two stand together, Just beginning to speak, suddenly a car turns towards them, the headlights blinding bright. From this point on, several flashes, like camera flashes, creating a sense of the clock getting faster and slowing down to normal at the end of the video. Finally, we see a close up of the character's hands reaching for on another, silloutted by a bright headlight. This image fades to “The End” written in Christmas lights.


A music video treatment is the starting point of every project. It allows the production company to communicate its ideas to the artists and it allows artists to make decisions regarding the direction of their video. The treatment also helps production companies to write production budgets that are accurate and that give artists a complete view of what to expect when embarking on the production of their music video.

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