How to Write a Film Treatment

Most beginners are familiar with a screenplay and what it entails. Those testing the waters generally think screenwriting is all there is but there’s much more to the trade.

Film treatment is another piece of the puzzle for professional writers. However, it is an area that many aspiring writers generally have no clue about. We’re here to set things straight by unveiling what it means, why it is important, and how to write a good one. 

In the simplest terms, a film treatment is the initial draft or summary of a film. It is similar to a short story and entails a breakdown of your screenplay in prose format.

The film treatment captures the original ideas of the writer. It usually comes before the screenplay, giving us an idea of what it will be about and the events within.  

It’s a powerful tool to help a beginner screenwriter to write his/her first screenplay.

Why do you need a film treatment?

Movie producers or agents often require a film treatment. They get hundreds of unsolicited emails about the next big script or movie concept. 99 percent of these emails are discarded. 

The very few move on to the next filtering process – the film treatment.

Moreover, a treatment can be an important part of pre-writing prep. Think of it as a more flushed out version of an outline of plot points and characters.

Screenwriting is a tough gig. Check out a fellow writer’s uphill challenge in this day-in-the-life of a screenwriter.

If you’re juggling screenwriting with another day job, time can be hard to come by. Treatments optimize your writing time so you can make the most out of what little you can spare. 

A treatment reveals the plot’s broad strokes so you can fill in the dialogues and details later on. 

This generalized form of writing allows you to get things done quickly. The plot line tends to become hazy when you go into details and the treatment helps to keep the story flowing.

Script evaluation also becomes cheaper and easier. Imagine having to rewrite a 100-page script three times, it’s no fun! If changes become needed, you’ll have little trouble reworking a 5 to 10-page document.

Film treatments also come in handy during marketing, allowing you to spread your eggs in many baskets. You can work on different screenplays at a time, and pitch different stories you’re working on to sponsors.

One of those is sure to pique interest.

You can spend a lot of time on a screenplay only to keep getting turned down. When you realize an idea is not working, it’s easy to jump ship with a treatment and switch to something more popular.

How is a film treatment different from a script?

A film treatment isn’t a substitute for a screenplay. Both serve different purposes. Most people mistake the script for the film treatment but they aren’t quite the same.

A film treatment typically precedes the script. It offers a shorter version of the events in a screenplay that summaries the entire plotline.

Unlike the script, it also rarely delves into specific dialogue. The script is a longer and more detailed account of events. It takes us through every step of the story without shortcuts.

A film treatment is also not a spec script either. Both terms are often confused too. A speculation script is a sample script used to pitch the story.

It could be a sample of one thrilling episode that offers an entertaining peek under the storyline.

We’ve established that a film treatment isn’t as long as a script, but how long can it be? 

Generally, there’s no pre-established order to film treatment writing length. Your film treatment could be as simple as a one-page pitch, especially if you are an unrepped writer.

You want to be as succinct and to the point.

However, there are three popular versions in the industry. A 3-10 page alternative talking about the story highlights is most common. 

Some writers even write a lengthy film treatment, more than 50 pages. James Cameron, for instance, has amassed a reputation for his crazy long treatments.

The elements of a film treatment and how to write an excellent one

A film treatment basically summaries what the screenplay is about. While its format varies depending on who you ask, there are generally six elements to the basic structure. 

Here’s an example of the next big Netflix show (at least my pitch from 5 years ago). Still think they missed the boat on this one 😉

The first element is the title and author. Separate these into 2 lines. I put the author first because I’m vain like that. 😜

The title tells us what to expect from the screenplay, and could reference a location or character, or something more abstract. Try coming up with an original title so your screenplay isn’t mistaken for another similarly-named movie.

The title of my show is Kapital. It’s the German word for Capital. The K is also the economic symbol for “capital” or economic resources. All these abstract elements helped sum up my TV series in one word – perfect as a working title.

The second element is the format e.g. short/ series/ feature and genre, which may be a singular theme or a combination of two but preferably not more than three. 

Next up is the logline. This defines the protagonist, his antagonist, the goal, and is usually less than 30 words. The best loglines also pack a sense of urgency. 

For example, “A brave, lone soldier infiltrates the Deutsches Heer to stop an impending nuclear launch.” The fourth element introduces us to your key characters and takes us through their development. 

That is followed by a plot summary and concluded by the sixth element which is the writer’s contact details.

Film treatment writing is usually done in the present tense. This makes it easier to show the actions as if they were unfolding before the reader’s eyes.

Remember to keep it simple because the goal is to make it easily comprehensible.

Don’t get sidetracked into storytelling, only bring up the major plot point ideas, setting out a roadmap without detailing every footpath.

Not all your screenplay scenes wind up in the treatment. However, the first and last scenes should be in it.

Also, no long paragraphs that make the reading tedious. Sorry, my personal example from 5 years ago is not a good example.

✅ I would strive for 3 sentence paragraphs.

Keep it short and straight to the point. That said, don’t forget to make the reader feel your story.

The emotional arc should be present in a film treatment, especially the major moments of joy, fear, etc. A good treatment still has to evoke the reader’s emotion to make the story relatable.  

Now that we’ve taken a look at the elements of a film treatment, and what it entails, here’s some advice on what not to include:

👉 Save dialogue for the script. The film treatment shouldn’t feature conversations between characters.

👉  It should also only encompass text without any visual aids such as clip arts. These visual aids can distract from the story, and the same goes for unusual fonts. These take away focus from the plot.

👉  A film treatment shouldn’t entail detailed exposition either on the locations or characters.

👉  Too much writing: The shorter, the better. Be concise and, as much as you can, save the storytelling for the script.

Additionally, don’t commit to specifics. Leave the details open for greater flexibility e.g. leave the actor names undefined.

Treatments required but rarely read (thoroughly)

Yes – that’s right. As screenwriter Terry Rossio mentions in his blog, treatments are required in Hollywood but rarely read, understood or both. Yet the skill of writing one is required.

Most movie executives have little time to read a treatment. Or most of them already have a bias on the story itself – how it should be shot, who should play in it, what to cut, what it lacks.

Your treatment will either confirm their beliefs (at which point a waste of time reading it) or go against their beliefs (again a waste of time reading the opinions of a lowly writer).

And this gets me to the number one rule on how to write a film treatment

Think of a film treatment as another pre-writing tool for your own resources. By writing it, you display mastery over your story and all its elements. Protection Status