Sep 1, 2021
Maybe you’ve been asked to submit a treatment for a short film competition, but don’t know where to start.
Or perhaps you’ve written some music video treatments in the past, but want to up your game. Or you might have no idea what a treatment is, but now you’re mildly curious.
Whatever the case, we’re going to give you all the tools you need to write the best treatments for short films and music videos.
The main purpose of a treatment is to convey your project’s concept and story in a concise way. It's a key building block of video production that could make or break a project.
The tricky thing is that there are no hard and fast rules on format and length. The form can change depending on who’s asking for the treatment or what it’s being used for.
Treatments fall somewhere between a concept and a full script. They’re a little different from outlines, and they aren’t pitch documents, though they can be effective in selling your project. Most treatments include a combination of title, logline, and story summary, while some, particularly music video treatments, will feature visual references.
Treatments can wear many hats. First, they’re a great writer’s tool. Their conciseness can help you get to the core of your vision. They can be the perfect stepping stone to writing a great script.
But treatments don’t have to be just for you. They can also be an effective sales tool, helping get cast and crew interested in your project before you write the script, or even after you’ve written it.
Finally, in the case of music videos, the treatment can serve the same purpose as a screenplay does on short films i.e., as a creative roadmap during prep and production.
Now that we have a general sense of their form and function, let’s investigate how to write professional-grade treatments in a few categories: narrative short films, documentary short films, and music videos.
Let’s kick things off with a general overview of what to include in a short film treatment. This outline is applicable to both narrative and documentary projects:
A good rule of thumb for any kind of treatment is to start with a splash. If you’re submitting to a competition or potential financier, it’s likely your treatment will end up in a big pile alongside many others. Therefore, you want to hook the reader as quickly as possible.
The one-two punch of title and logline is the perfect way to do that. There are lots of resources on writing exciting loglines, but the idea is a concise 1-2 sentence summary of your story that really sells your idea.
This is essentially a list of your main characters, with a short description of who they are. Include stuff like their job, temperament, and any relevant backstory. The shorter the better.
Character breakdowns aren’t always a necessity and can be incorporated into the synopsis section. But in many cases, they’re a helpful reference for your reader, particularly if you have a lot of characters.
The heart of the treatment is the summary. The idea is to tell the events of your story as succinctly as possible.
Here are some formatting and writing basics to keep in mind with short film synopses, either narrative or documentary.
While there are no hard and fast rules for treatment length, shorter is always better. For a short film, staying under 3 pages is a worthy goal.
According to professional screenwriter John August (“Big Fish,” “Aladdin”), if a company or potential investor is asking you to submit a treatment, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask how long they’d like it to be. But as always, err on the side of concision.
Let’s get into some specifics on narrative short film treatments. As we previously mentioned, treatments can be an invaluable tool to find the heart of the story you want to tell. After your initial inspiration, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds while writing, even on a short film. Building a strong creative foundation is key, and treatments can provide that.
Treatments can also be a helpful document to share with others. If you’re not finished writing a script, but want to start getting collaborators on board, sending a treatment can be a great way to jumpstart the process. They can also be a great sales tool, even after the script is complete.
As filmmaker Chris Neal discovered, his short film treatment helped generate enthusiasm among potential crew members and actors. People are often more likely to look at a short treatment over a full script. And getting people excited and building momentum are crucial when you’re putting together a short film, particularly if people are volunteering their time.
Image source: gofilmnow.com
You’ll notice that in Chris’s treatment, he relies heavily on images. If you’re submitting to a competition, that kind of treatment might not fly. But as a director putting together his project, Chris found that the visually-driven treatment worked well as a sales tool.
Remember, the form of your treatment will depend on the context. If a treatment is being asked of you, never hesitate to get clarity on the format.
In the documentary world, it’s important to differentiate a documentary treatment from a documentary proposal.
Proposals actually include the treatment, along with a budget, team bios, and a distribution plan. But the treatment is often the first step in the filmmaking process. You’ll want to get started on it as soon as possible, as it can be helpful in getting collaborators on board. Why not right now?
For documentaries, writing treatments early on in the process can be tricky, since you haven’t collected much footage yet. There will inevitably be surprises, and perhaps the entire scope of the project will change along the way. Even so, you want to get specific about the story you’re trying to tell, where you see it going, and why it’s important to you.
In some cases, incorporating visuals can be a great addition. If you’ve already been filming, you can include stills. With documentaries, the treatment will evolve as you get more footage and more of the story emerges. Keeping the treatment updated along the way can be very helpful, as you never know when you’ll need to send it to potential collaborators or financiers.
Music video treatments differ greatly from short film treatments in function and form. For music videos, the treatment can take the place of a script as a creative blueprint. It can be a roadmap used throughout development, prep and production.
And in contrast to the text-only confines of some short film treatments, music video treatments should always be bigger, bolder, and more colorful. You want them to be as eye-catching as possible. If you’re a director going up against others to win over an artist or label, you want to pull out all the stops to grab their attention.
Image source: Fstoppers.com
Build your treatment in a program like Powerpoint or Canva, where you can include images on each page. Play around with colorful and attention-grabbing fonts. And in most cases, the less text the better.
Music video director Jakob Owens, who’s worked with artists like Tyga and Wale, has found that wordiness gets you nowhere. Big blocks of text are a great way to lose people’s attention. Use language sparingly to tell the story, and let the images do the rest. Again, there aren’t any standard length restrictions, but as always, brevity is king.
As in short films, the bulk of your treatment will focus on the story and images happening in the music video. But you can also dedicate slides to describing the tone and style. In contrast to short film treatments, camera and lighting ideas are definitely encouraged. You can also include reference images or video links to convey the tone, look and feel that you’re going for.
And while visuals are a big selling point, don’t slack on the story. Big visuals that don’t have anything to say will leave the reader feeling empty. When you get a music video directing gig, the unique angle you bring to the project will be a big part of it. So putting as much of your personal touch on the treatment is key.
Beginning a project is often the most daunting part of the process. But distilling your ideas into a treatment is a very manageable first step that will serve you all the way to the finished product.
Chase Clements is a writer and filmmaker with development and production experience at Lionsgate and Kevin Hart’s Laugh Out Loud.