What is a Film Screenplay Treatment & How Do I Write One That Sells
Start to streamline your writing process with a film treatment.
You just got out of a great general meeting, and the executive you met with loves your latest idea. You want to develop it together, and that's the first step towards your vision finding its way to the screen.
But you have to pump the breaks because you need something first.
Before you even write. Something to get all these great ideas down onto the page... That something is… a script treatment
But wait…what’s a script treatment, or film treatment (we’ll use those terms interchangeably)? And more importantly, how can you write one that helps seal the deal, or evens sells the movie?
In this post I'm not only going to show you how to write an amazing script treatment that will aid in the development process, but how that document can also be super useful to you when you sit down to write the screenplay itself.
What is a film treatment
Firs things first, you should never write a film script treatment for free. Free work is the bane of all writer's existence. If you don't know how to turn down the offer or suggestion that you do free work the WGA has you covered check out this video:
But a film treatment is still an excellent tool for your own process, and there are plenty of place that will compensate you fairly for that work.
What is a film treatment though?
A film treatment, or script treatment, is a multi-page document written in prose, that tells the story that happens in your screenplay. It has action, sparse dialogue, and works as a roadmap for the reader, producer, and writer.
This is your story, broken down into an easy-to-follow document, that anyone who picks it up can grasp immediately.
And get excited about.
Your film treatment must be engaging to any agent, assistant, executive, or layperson on the street.
Why Do You Need A Film Script Treatment?
Film treatments are beneficial when it comes to shopping your work around town.
They’re also great for hashing out ideas before entering a draft, and to see if that kernel of inspiration is worth pursuing as your next project.
Another thing I love about script treatments?
They do a lot of the heavy lifting when you’re trying to figure out your movie or TV show’s tone.
It’s your chance to be snarky, emotional, and nail the world of your story before you even open your screenwriting software.
It’s like a dry-run. And it can be fun to do it, too.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to pitch your idea out-loud to people. A script treatment gets all the details out on the page and entertainingly spins them into a yarn worth retelling.
If you can get the treatment down, the pitch is a lot easier.
How long should a film treatment be?
While a script can be 80-120 pages, a script treatment’s length will vary.
When I write film treatments I usually try to keep them around 10-12 pages. I include act breaks, opener, and closing scene.
But some people do a real quick version all on one page.
If my script treatment is for a TV show it can skew longer. But you don’t want to confuse a script treatment with a TV bible. The TV treatment should cover the pilot and probably will become a section in the bible.
Lots of people don’t add dialogue to their treatments, but sometimes I’ll add one or two lines to evoke emotions or even some jokes.
You certainly don’t want to go overboard on the dialogue in film treatments. Dialogue always changes, and you don’t want someone to bump on the idea because the dialogue you include doesn’t radiate off the page.
Still, there are no definitive rules about how you format a script treatment, so make rules that work for you.
This is your chance to convey your story the best way possible. Maybe that means outlining characters, spending time on paragraphs describing the world, or even just giving a state of the union on why you NEED to write this movie.
Let the script treatment speak for you and spark ideas.
Sample Script Treatment
This is the outline I use when writing a film treatment. It’s not perfect, but it prompts me and starts getting me going.
Use it as a leaping off point and customize it for your needs.
Put your voice into this film treatment sample!
Logline: Sum up the story in one sentence.
Characters: Give us only the main characters, and make us fall in love with them.
Opening Scene: Where are we, what’s happening, how does it convey the tone?
Act One: Who’s the movie/tv show about? What’s the world?
Act Two: What’s the narrative thrust? What brings these characters together and then breaks them apart?
Act Three: If everything is broken, how do these characters put it back together in the end?
Final Scene: The whole movie/show has been leading up to this moment, what happens in the end and where do we leave everyone? Is there room for a sequel?
I take all these headings and expand upon them.
You want the film treatment to be similar to watching the movie. It should have all the eventual favorite scenes that will be a blast to write.
It should take you through all the big emotions.
Let’s look at two successful writers and see what they have to offer on the subject of film treatments.
Film Script Treatment Examples
Even the greats write treatments for their projects. So I figured it would help to include some script treatment examples by the pros.
Film treatments come in all shapes and sizes. One of the ones I love checking out is from the unmade James Cameron’s Spiderman.
Check out how he evokes the tone and story while also keeping it playful. You’ll also see that he loves to use dialogue too.
How can I expect them to get it. I don't
even get it. I do wish they'd at least
get my name right. It's Spider Man... not
The Spider Man. Jeez. Boneheads. I need
a better publicist.
He rips the magazine easily in half, then in quarters,
then in eights... somewhere in here we realize that this
takes more strength in the hands than you or I have. He
releases the stamp-sized shreds. Camera drifts with them
as they flutter down over the city like confetti.
Wouldn't they have kittens if ttheyknew
Spiderman wasn't even a man. Just a kid
CLOSE UP on an elderly lady yelling. "Peter... you're
going to be late!" It's morning and she's calling up the
PETER PARKER. Age 17. Peter is in the bathroom, popping
a zit in the mirror. He puts on his glasses and checks
his look in the mirror. Still the same. Nerdy. He
doesn't care. Screw 'em.
Turns out, this James Cameron guy is a pretty good writer. And he might be great at script treatment examples.
These are the opening paragraphs:
It’s a show about murder in Alaska. Specifically, it’s about the people who deal with the murders in Alaska: the law enforcement officers, the CSI guys, and the prosecutors.
On a really basic level, if you smushed Law and Order and C.S.I. together, you’d have the format of the show, in that a typical episode would have: (1) a body, (2) some investigators who go around following leads and interrogating people, (3) some cool C.S.I./Quincy stuff, and (4) a trial in which you hopefully convict the bad guy.
It’s all plot, and all twists-and-turns. You think it’s this guy, but he has an alibi, then it turns out his business partner was actually selling heroin to school kids. Regardless of what actually happens, it’s all self-contained within the 60 minutes.”
Right off the bat, you can see that August’s approach is entirely different from Cameron. He’s much more concerned about building out the logic of the world and how the show will function.
Again, neither script treatment example right or wrong, they are just two different approaches given the subject matter.
So Now That I Have a Film Treatment, What’s Next?
I know I got you excited in the opening about development executives loving film treatments, but there area few things you have to come to terms with... the first being that script treatments don’t usually sell.
Once in a while, someone will option an idea based off the treatment.
But that rarely happens. Which leads us to an important question…
Why Write Film Treatments?
I find them to be the first place where I can see if a story can sustain 90 minutes, or if a TV show has what it takes for me to write the pilot.
Film script treatments are where I explore ideas in greater depth. It’s where I feel free to make mistakes, to find out what happens in Act II, and to nail my opening and closing scenes.
After I’m satisfied with my pass, I usually give them to my manager so he can get a sense of my latest project.
After I get my manager’s feedback on the film treatment, I either start writing, or I share with some executives who might have been interested in the idea.
As you know, the best reason to write a script after the treatment is because someone is paying you to do it!
Film treatments rarely get you paid, but it’s good to try!
The script treatment is a great place to explore your idea and get people excited.
A-list screenwriter Terry Rossio has an entire blog post that dispels the commercial viability of a treatment, but also asserts why they’re so important to his process.
“You will write reams of treatments in your stay in Hollywood. And not a single word of any of them will be of any value to anyone. And still, you'll have to do them anyway. I know that doesn't make sense. It never will. As I said, these days, short of understanding, we just go for truth.”
Rossio goes on to say…
“And while the treatments themselves might not have much value, there is value in the act of writing them. It's all about reassurance. And building a relationship with the executive. They're in a tough place -- having to gamble on a writer, and waiting months to see if the gamble pays off. A treatment gives them some bit of hope, a scrap of paper to put into their file, something tangible to hold onto. And I suppose treatments do offer some small insurance, to all involved -- if the writer is way, way off, it's probably better to know that sooner than later. In theory, the best case scenario, a treatment can allow you to 'skip a draft' and fix story problems without having to execute them in detailed screenplay form.”
This can all seem disheartening, but I think the positive to take away from here is how Rossio uses the process to learn and discover.
Writing is so damn hard.
You are literally creating something out of nothing. So you can do yourselve this one favor.
Before you open that screenwriting software, try clearing all your hurdles in the film treatment stage.
Did We Learn How To Write a Film Treatment
A script treatment or film treatment is a great way to organize your thoughts about a project. While they may not be the most commercially viable things, they’re great ways to get on development executive’s good sides and to see if your idea is worthwhile in the marketplace.
Film treatments are your first line of defense against writer’s block, and wonder tools to get your intentions on the page.
If you have other sections you use in your script treatments, or have specific treatments you love, let us know in the comments!
I can’t wait to see what you do next.