Story Merchant


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What Is a Treatment? Share

The key to getting a deal in Hollywood is getting someone to read a script. Since the industry is so personal, the sequence of events in a "seller's" convincing a "buyer" generally begins with a chance encounter or a telephone conversation in which urgency is conveyed; and ending, ideally, with the buyer saying,
"Okay, send it over."
"Promise me you'll read it yourself."
"I promise," the buyer lies. "How long is it?"
"124 pages."
"Okay, but do you have a treatment?"

Because the buyer rarely has time to read a screenplay without knowing what he's about to read, the treatment very often becomes the second important step in the sequence of selling a film.

When adult education courses advertise "sell your ideas to TV" they mislead inexperienced writers who don't understand that the word "idea" is being used loosely. The inexperienced writer doesn't sell an idea. Instead, he writes his idea into a treatment, and tries, after registering it with the Writers Guild of America (which will register practically anything in written form), to get it into the hands of an active film maker. Second only to writing an entire screenplay or teleplay on "spec," your treatment is the best tool for "getting in the door" and breaking into show business.

But the treatment is a strange animal, quite unlike any other kind of writing. If a screenplay is the blueprint for a film, the treatment is the blueprint for a screenplay. Yet there are as many blueprints as there are architects, as many kinds of treatments as there are writers. Treatments are, like screenplays or theatrical plays, a secondary or "non-form" of writing. A treatment never gets produced, or published (with the exception of treatments used as examples in this book!).

On top of all that, the word "treatment" is thrown around loosely in the film and TV world and used from time to time by one executive, writer, or business affairs person or another, to mean variously a one-pager, a synopsis, an outline, or a coverage. None of this confusion helps the "outsider" writer trying to break into the business.

For the writer's purposes, what distinguishes one treatment from another is its effectiveness in making the sale, and/or laying out the story.

Everything we say in this book is intended to assist the writer in understanding and creating the treatment to serve one or the other, or both, of these two crucial purposes:


For the sake of definition, a treatment generally varies in length from 1 to 25 or more pages, depending on the kind of treatment it is and upon its purpose. The treatment of One Night Stand that garnered Joe Eszterhas $2 million was three pages long.

The typical treatment for a television movie is 7-20 pages; for a feature film 10-25 pages.
Treatments are often called "one-pagers," "leave-behinds," "outlines," or "summaries."

Kinds of treatments
In both television and theatrical filmmaking, the three most common kinds of treatments are:
  • "Original dramatic treatments":
    Treatments of dramatic stories invented by the writer.
  • "Adaptation treatments":
    Treatment by the present writer of a story by another writer. A treatment for adapting "Little Women" might convince a studio to develop a script for a remake.
  • "Treatments of true stories":

Treatments that show how the writer would turn fact into drama, organizing actual events into characters and a compelling story line.

The uses of treatments
The use of the treatment in today's motion picture and television industries has expanded with the proliferation of cable programming, expansion of video rentals, and the industry's acutely competitive need for films and programs to fill home and theatrical screens. The usefulness of the treatment is behind the scenes, in developing a story; and/or in pitching it efficiently to filmmakers who might be sold on making the writer's story into a film.

Story development:
Treatments can be tremendously useful in helping the writer envision the "overview" of his story, presenting the profile of the "woods" in contrast to the varied texture of the "trees." For a story editor or development executive, by the same token, the treatment is a useful diagnostic tool for "getting the story straight." By reading a short treatment, the editor obtains a perspective that may be lost sight of when reading a faulty script.

The written pitch:
Nothing can take the place of a live pitch, where the writer dramatizes his story to an attentive audience. But a written pitch is still needed to assist in the next stage of the filmmaking process, where the story is pitched again to the next person higher up along the chain of production. When an oral pitch is impossible, a written pitch can do the job. The treatment is "the written pitch."

It's not unusual for a treatment to be rewritten a half dozen different ways, depending on the market it's being aimed at. The three primary markets for treatments today are:
  • for television;
  • for the feature or "theatrical" motion picture;
  • for Internet, CD Rom, and other electronic media.

Television continually demands program material that attracts targeted audiences and gains high Nielsen ratings for its sponsors' advertising. Movies for television (also known as Movies of the Week) and mini-series based on best-selling books have become a major mainstay of prime time programming among the competing broadcast television networks and subscriber cable television. Yet a treatment written for pitching to NBC, CBS, or ABC won't work with HBO, Lifetime, or Showtime. Formats and demographic requirements are different for the various television markets. Whether you're giving your treatment to a studio or to an independent producer, it's headed eventually for a limited set of buyers, each with its own specific needs:

  • Broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC; Fox):
    For ABC, CBS, and NBC, the primary audience is women; with each network focusing on a different age group. Movies, interrupted by commercial, must have act breaks to match the interruptions. Broadcast Cable Networks are: A&E, CNN, Lifetime, TNT, USA. The Subscriber Cable television networks are HBO, Showtime, Disney Channel and Cinemax.

  • Motion picture theater.
    Feature film treatments, for the theatrical motion picture industry, work across the board for any one of the studios, mini-studios, or production companies.

  • Interactive media, from CD Rom to the Internet.
    As electronic publishing increases by leaps and bounds, programs are being sold by treatments that allow their reader to visualize how that program will "play out" in the new electronic media.

Treatment vs synopsis
"Synopsis" is a term used in the entertainment industry to indicate a matter-of-fact summation of a story's plotline, a shorter version of the longer work (whether that work is a novel, a nonfiction book, a screenplay, or even a treatment). Think of the synopsis as a more or less complete and detailed recitation of all the scenes and events in a story, a condensed version of the plot. The synopsis' purpose is to describe, not to sell. The treatment's purpose is to sell, and that's why it's written with an intensity and urgency the synopsis characteristically lacks.

Treatment vs coverage
"Coverage" is the industry term used to describe the descriptive document provided by the story department readers for executives making acquisition decisions in theatrical film and television. Occasions for "coverage" include:
a script may be covered by a talent agency for casting purposes; by an agency, for "packaging" (attaching talent); by a director, actor, or actor's company to assess its suitability for involvement;
a production company, to assess its viability; as a writing sample, to help someone determine whether the writer should be represented or produced.
For all these occasions, the typical coverage document for sample) consists of:
identifying information (name of story, name of writer, name of person doing the coverage, type of story, etc.);
a "synopsis," as defined above;
a set of "comments" giving the reader's opinion of the cinematic worthiness of the piece covered.
a rating chart, allowing the reader to rate the piece on characterization, dialogue, (other elements).

example of coverage:
Type of Material: Screenplay
Type of Material: Script

The coverage reader's purpose is to report the strong and weak points of a story as objectively and comprehensively as possible. But a treatment, drawing its energy from its writer's personal enthusiasm, is not objective. The coverage is retained in a company's computer for future reference. Although an outstanding coverage is often used by writers, directors, and producers as a selling tool, it's generally accompanied by the treatment--the writer's vision of his story.

Treatment vs outlines
The words "outline" or "reblocking" are used to describe a list of the scenes in a cinematic story. Outlines of this kind are especially useful in the development process because they reveal the flow of the scenes, without elaboration, at a glance. An outline can be thought of as a skeleton treatment, a treatment stripped of its flesh. Where a treatment may contain dialogue to dramatize a particular moment, the outline will contain no dialogue. Basically, it's a list:
Michele dashes toward a taxi.
Inside the taxi, she phones her office in L.A.
The taxi arrives in front of the Denver court house. She jumps out, dashes up the stairs....