Writing Script Treatments

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.”
      –Robert McKee

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.

Now, the trouble with most screenwriting books and screenwriting websites is that they spend most of their time talking about how to deal with studio scriptreaders, how to pitch to studio execs, and work within the studio system. It’s interesting, but not really applicable to the independent filmmaker, or those writing a treatment for this contest. Terry Rossio has written the best article I’ve seen on the subject, and includes three treatments for completed films that he worked on.

The rules of the contest only give you three pages, but they also require a lot of info on the cover page, which is good. If you decide to stick to a concept, theme, characters, synopsis structure, you’ll be adding the first two on the cover page. Since I mentioned The Verdict in my article on theme, I’ll use it as an example.

Working Title: The Verdict
Author: David Mamet
Copyright Holder: 20th Century Fox
Genre: Courtroom Drama
Setting: Boston, 1980s
Target Audience: Professionals Adults 18-60, particularly Lawyers, Catholics, Doctors
Predicted Rating: PG
Estimated Production Budget: $4m

Premise: A washed-up, deceitful, ambulance-chasing lawyer is the last hope of the down-trodden relatives of a victim of medical malpractice. As he feebly represents them against the invincible trinity of the hospital, the Catholic church, and the city’s top legal firm, he finds new respect for truth and justice, resists the temptation to compromise, and ultimately redeems himself as he rises to powerfully fulfill his responsibilities.
Commercial and theological significance of the project:
The theme of this film communicates the importance of honesty and responsibility. In a sea of corruption and lies, a flawed man will be forced to overcome his shortcoming and stand up for the truth. The antagonists are represented by people and frustrations that audiences are familiar with, and they will empathize with our hero as he faces these impossible odds and then cheer as he overcomes them through personal character in order to see justice done.
How the film will be distinct, fresh, unique, and superior:
Careful writing will preserve and reinforce the overarching theme of truth vs. lies, making every villain, challenge, setback, and sin a product of deceit, and every victory the result of the truth being made known. The film will very carefully point out specific corruption within the modern medical infrastructure, Roman Catholic church, and legal system, without slandering all doctors, Christians, and magistrates. The worldview communicated will be one of uncompromising truth and personal responsibility that will not only encourage but inspire those who see it.

And now that you’ve communicated the details of your premise and theme, you’ve still got three whole pages for characters and plot. You may not need to give the characters their own section if it’s clear from your story synopsis who they are, but if you have to cut some character exposition from your Act I to fit in all the story points, the reader would probably find it helpful to read brief introductions to the main characters before you dive into the action.

As Mr. Rossio points out, it can be very dangerous to give studio executives a pitch script for many reasons, mainly because most studio guys don’t know how to read a treatment. Nevertheless, they are a vital tool for the writer, and it can even be helpful to condense a script to a short pitch treatment because it will force you to evaluate the priority elements in your story. With a treatment you need to be very economical since, in this contest anyway, you only have three pages. You need to be brief in order to fit everything in and keep the reader from being bored – not because he’s a studio exec, but because he’s a judge who’s read fifty treatments already.