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How to Write a Documentary Treatment

Tanner Shinnick

You’ve got an idea for a documentary, but you need funding. Writing a treatment is an essential part of fundraising. 

Top image via Ad Week / Alex Weprin.

Writing treatments is not the most glamorous part of the filmmaking process. However, they demonstrate your grasp of the story and its production. As such, a quality treatment improves your fundraising efforts and streamlines the filmmaking process.

In the simplest terms, a treatment is a detailed report that can inform potential investors or contributors about a project, including its budget, production timeline, and other processes. Often, a treatment is a living document that you alter as necessary — for example, different grant programs or funding outlets require different information. The following are the key components of an effective treatment.

How to Write a Documentary Treatment — gimbal
Image via Shutterstock.

Log Line

A log line is a two- to three-sentence summary of the film. Think of it like an elevator pitch. It needs to be short, powerful, and captivating. Your log line will be the first piece of information people see about your film, so it’s critical to leave a good impression. I can tell you from personal experience that you will recite this log line continuously during the production and distribution of your film, so make sure you love it.

Summary of Topic

The summary is a longer and more detailed version of your log line. Usually, you’ll want to summarize your topic in one to two pages. This is when you begin to really make a case for your film and its relevance. Something to keep in mind is that a treatment is creative. Don’t write it like you would an essay in high school. Write in a captivating and entertaining manner. This is the first chance your reader has to see your narrative voice in action.

Narrative Synopsis

Your narrative synopsis starts to break down the themes and story arcs of your film — in depth. It demonstrates the framework of your film, and this is where you’ll detail the progression of your story and characters. This is also where the reader can see your directorial vision. After reading the synopsis, the reader should understand how the story will play out and how the characters will develop.

How to Write a Documentary Treatment — Lighting
Image via Shutterstock.

Key Characters

Some grant applications ask for summaries of each of the key characters in the film. These summaries are simple, one-paragraph breakdowns of the key characters and how they contribute to the story. You should highlight the details of each character and why you’re including them in the film.

Director’s Statement

Some grant programs or other investors require a director’s statement detailing your passion for the project and why you want to share the story with the world. This is your opportunity to showcase why you’re the right person to make this film.

Status of the Film

Different grant programs will have different timelines in mind while they consider funding films. Thoroughly describe where your film is in the production process, but also clearly identify how much work remains to complete the film.

Key Crew Members

If you have a great team attached to the film, this is your opportunity to sell your crew members and their qualifications for the project.

Line Item Budget

How to Write a Documentary Treatment — Budget
Image via Shutterstock.

If a grant committee or investor is going to contribute funds, they will want to know how you plan to allocate them. Go into detail, and be prepared to answer why you really need $50 for gummy bears or why you’re shooting in a more expensive camera format. Check out a film production budget template for ideas about how to craft your own.

Fundraising Strategy

Unless you’re very lucky, most grants or investments won’t fund the entire project. In this section, you will detail how you plan to pursue additional funding to complete the project.

Distribution and Marketing Strategy

From the beginning of your project, you’ve probably envisioned the perfect platform or space for the finished project. In this section of your treatment, you will explain how you plan to place the finished film with these platforms to reach the largest audience possible.

As you start the treatment submission process, you will find that each outlet has unique requirements. Be prepared to make changes or additions to your treatment. Take the time to craft a quality treatment beforehand, and this process will go much more smoothly.

Do you know any tips or tricks about the treatment writing process? Let us know in the comments.