The Silent Treatment
All about treatments in Hollywood
by Ken Aguado
Of all the forms of creative communication in Hollywood, none is more misunderstood than the humble “treatment.” It’s like the unloved step-child of a script, cursed with a name that sounds like a 19th century medical procedure.
Although the word “treatment” is often used in entertainment to mean any kind of short “presentation” document, I am defining it here as a document used to sell (or “pitch”) something in the film or television business. It’s a project summary, usually written in prose, that can run from one page up to, well, how much time ya got? I’ve seen thirty-page treatments, not that I’ve ever been able to finish one that length. And, depending on the intent, it will include things like a project overview, filmmaker information, technical information, a log line, setting and/or historical information, main character summaries, and a detailed synopsis.
Of course, there’s no requirement that a treatment must only contain text, and some do incorporate additional visual elements. However, for screenwriters, all text is usually the norm.
But is writing a treatment really worth the time and effort?
For most Hollywood screenwriters, the answer is almost always “no.” There are some exceptions, but writing a treatment as a stand-alone sales tool is rarely useful for the pros. If a screenwriter wants to sell a project, they either pitch it, or write it. This fact also syncs up with my experience as a producer and studio executive. In the decades that I’ve been working in showbiz, I’ve never bought a treatment nor had one influence my buying decision. Only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the projects sold will sell from just a treatment.
Despite this lack of viability, it seems to be an article of faith among film students and aspiring filmmakers that writing a treatment can be an important step on the path to success. Don’t get me wrong — I co-wrote a book about pitching, so I believe that learning to write a pitch document is a great skill to master. I’m just saying, most treatments are not the indispensable sales tool they are reputed to be.
For the record, the WGA defines a treatment as “an adaptation of a story, book, play or other literary, dramatic or dramatico-musical material for motion picture purposes in a form suitable for use as the basis of a screenplay.” Additionally, the WGA specifies the minimum pay scale to write a treatment or sell one. As defined, a “treatment” can also be a paid step in a writer’s deal, but in this scenario, the writer has already been hired or has sold something, so it’s really more like a paid outline than a treatment as commonly understood.
So, that’s a good segue to talk about what a treatment is not.
A treatment is not a synopsis. A synopsis is a short plot summary. While a synopsis may be part of a treatment, it’s almost never enough to be useful as a sales tool.
A treatment is not an outline. An outline is a document a writer might create as a step in their writing process that is used as a guideline or “blueprint” for a script that will follow.
A treatment is not a “look-book” or “pitch-book.” In showbiz, a look-book is a document that contains visual references, such as photographs and artwork, usually as a supplement to something that already exists, like a script. Look-books are often used by film and television directors as a means of communication with their cinematographers and production designers. A version of this kind of thing is a staple of the commercial world — where it is usually called a “treatment” — and used by directors as the centerpiece of their pitch when trying to land a directing job, based on a commercial “board”(script) they recieved. It’s intended to add visual references to the existing board, conveying style, casting ideas, cinematography, art direction, color palette, and other details.
A treatment is not a series bible. A series bible is a reference guide used by a television showrunner to catalog the ongoing storylines and character details to help the production maintain narrative and logical continuity as their series unfolds.
Now that we agree on what’s what and what isn’t, let’s get to the heart of the problem with treatments.
While almost all established professionals sell their projects with a pitch or an existing script, it’s almost impossible for newer filmmakers to sell a project without already having a script in hand. If so, what’s the point of writing a treatment? You want a buyer to read your script, right? Isn’t your script the best, most complete representation of your intentions? All you need to do is come up with enough of a “presentation” to get someone to read it. In most cases, all you need is a good log line. Because of this, trying to get someone to read a five- or ten-page treatment first may actually be counter-productive. So instead of writing a treatment, learn how to craft a great log line and a very short verbal pitch.
So now that I’ve thrown cold water on all your hopes and dreams, let me lay out a few scenarios where a treatment can be useful. One caveat: While this article has mostly focused on the treatment as a stand-alone sales tool, there are situations where a writer or director will use a short “presentation” document as part of their “audition” to get a writing or directing assignment. If you want to call this a treatment, I won’t mind, but it’s usually supplemental to a personal presentation in these cases.
In the non-fiction filmmaking world (for example, documentary or “reality” projects), treatments are quite common. After all, most documentaries are “unscripted” until after they are shot, so a treatment can be a viable sales tool. A non-fiction treatment is almost always supplemented by visual aids, such as a sizzle reel.
It’s not unusual for a book author to use a version of a treatment when trying to sell to a publisher. Yes, I know I’ve have been saying “film and television” in this article, but that’s only because I thought saying “media” every time would sound pretentious. That said, publishers often want to see a few sample chapters, followed by a story summary, before they make their buying decision. This document can look very similar to the treatments we peddle in Hollywood and if you’re trying to be Tom Clancy, some of them can be quite lengthy.
Another useful version of a treatment is a “leave-behind.” Leave-behind is the colloquial name for a very short document you might give to a buyer/listener after a formal verbal pitch. The intention is to give a short, written overview to help the listener better understand what they just heard, or in case the listener must subsequently “re-pitch” the project to their boss. Although it might run only one or two-pages, a leave-behind is absolutely a form of treatment and should always be more than just a plot summary or your pitch notes. You should be aware that there is some controversy about the value of leave-behinds. Here is an insider’s tip: consider offering to write one if you blew it in the room (it happens) or if the listener asks for it — but only one page, and write it after the meeting so you can tailor the contents to what you may have learned in the room.
If the project pitched was a TV series, the leave-behind might be a series overview. It’s not a series bible, but it might run 3–4 pages and lay out the franchise of the series, including a short summary of the first season or two. No need to include a summary of the pilot or individual episodes, but it should try to answer the perennial question, “So, where does the series go?”
A director pitching a music video concept to a band always uses a short treatment to sell their concept. This may sound like a rarified situation, but almost all music videos are sold with a treatment. It’s also very likely that this kind of treatment would be combined with visual references, especially if the music video will not be narrative in nature.
In animation, a treatment (often called a “scriptment”) is a commonly used sales tool. As the name implies, a scriptment combines a treatment with script elements. For example, animation scriptments are typically dialog-heavy and quite lengthy. Scriptments are sometimes used in live-action, feature films, but it is far less common.
A treatment might also be used if, for example, you’re a producer trying to entice a writer to come aboard a project that has a lot of historical or factual background. Handing a screenwriter a compelling treatment, culled from extensive research, is much better than saying, “Hey, here’s a link to Wikipedia.” A similar kind of treatment might be useful if you’re trying to sell your exceptional life story, even though you may have no interest in writing the script. In such a case, having a treatment to shop is much more practical than trying to tell your amazing tale to everyone you meet.
Now that I’ve saved you all a lot of time and effort, let me know what you think. Anything I left out?