I’ve been getting some mail from readers who plan to enter the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival’s Treatment Competition, and since there aren’t many resources on treatment writing, I figured I should just put up an article. For this contest you need to show that you understand your story well enough to fit it into three pages and still make it clear and lively to the judges. But what is a treatment?
“A true treatment is something that you would never show anyone! It’s an elaborate plan which describes scene by scene what the characters say and do, and what they’re thinking and feeling. It should be about 80-100 pages long. It’s a tool that the writer uses to build toward the screenplay.”
Pitch treatments, on the other hand, are used to sell a film. The industry standard length is anywhere from two sentences to 90 pages, and the are usually follow a “Concept (or Premise), Theme, Characters, Synopsis” structure, since it’s the logical way to explain a film: “What is the story?” “What’s the story really about?” “Who’s in the story?” and finally, “What exactly happens in the story?” One of the things that’s hotly debated among script and treatment writers is whether to submit a full treatment or just a story synopsis, since studio execs get bored reading through all the nuts and bolts of a treatment and just want a short story.
In February I posted about story structure. The structure of a film is important because it is the foundation of the story and the framework upon which plot can be built and characters can work. Strong plots and good characters can be weakened by poor structure. They can also be fragmented by a poor theme.
Theme is the real heart of good screenwriting, in the same way that structure is it’s skeleton. The theme of a film is what it is really about. It’s the main message and purpose of the story. The Hustler is a movie about pool players, but it’s theme is one of personal character. In the film, Jackie Gleason plays an aging pool champ. The young Paul Newman is a better player, but he still can’t defeat Gleason because Newman lacks the character, discipline, and self-mastery of the older man. When he obtains it later in the film, Gleason recognizes the fact that now Newman is unbeatable. It’s a clear illustration of the importance of character.
The film City Hall is on the surface a pretty basic political drama, but it shows how mayor Al Pacino loses everything because of small compromises made early in his political career. Its theme is based on integrity, and shows how small sins, no matter how carefully concealed, will lead to large-scale ruin. This theme of integrity is also crucial to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but in a different way, as Jimmy Stewart’s battle against corruption more specifically shows how our hero’s good name and personal integrity are his greatest strengths.
Check out what just turned up in my mailbox the other day! It’s hard not to be excited about a book that tells you how to find cheap armaments, orchestrate helicopter gunship attacks, and blow up buildings and cars! The DV Rebel’s Guide is “an all-digital approach to making killer action movies on the cheap,” written by Stu Maschwitz. It’s such an expansive book that it’s difficult to classify, packing detailed descriptions of almost every production process in filmmaking into just over 300 pages (and no, those bullet holes don’t go all the way through).
Stu Maschwitz is a name you should know. Formerly an ILM effects artist, then co-founder of The Orphanage, and creator of Magic Bullet and Colorista, Stu is a master of post-production technique.
The first half of the book covers the basics of directing, storyboarding, how to make some of your own camera gear, lighting equipment types, and editing. It’s not incredibly in-depth when it comes to writing and logistical pre-production, but it’s very helpful stuff, and he also breaks down several large Hollywood movies to describe exactly how certain things are accomplished. Then he dives into effects basics and book really gets going.
The second half of the book is packed with post-production info ranging from cinema’s technical history to detailed how-tos of cutting-edge techniques. Everything from where to get guns to how to shoot guns shooting things is covered precisely, as well as digital stunts, bluescreen compositing, and crowd replication. However, its greatest strength is in describing how to clean up and color-correct your final footage into something that look more like Hollywood cinematography.