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How to Create a Compelling Documentary Treatment

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Documentary Filmmaking Treatment

Creating a treatment for your documentary is an essential part of the filmmaking process and it's something that is often overlooked, especially by beginner filmmakers. But what exactly is a treatment, and how can it help you bring your documentary to life?


What is a Documentary Treatment?

A documentary treatment is a written pitch for your film. It outlines the story, the visual style, and why you're the best person to make this film or series. Treatments are vital for pitching to investors, finding crew, and getting your thoughts organised. 

To help bring your documentary project to life as quickly as possible, I've put together a free documentary treatment template that you can access here: Free Documentary Treatment Template


Why Documentary Treatments Are Essential

Think of a treatment as your film's blueprint. Its purpose is to outline the story, how it will look, and its overall vibe. A great treatment turns an idea into something tangible, making it easier to get potential collaborators involved with the project and to secure funding for your film. While not required for every project, treatments are invaluable for taking your documentary from idea to reality.


My Experience With Documentary Treatments

Documentary treatments have been and continue to be the key to getting my documentary projects funded. In the beginning, I also struggled with creating them - I didn't know where to start or what to include. But now, with 20+ years of filmmaking experience under my belt, and having created a lot of treatments in that time, I now understand how to write compelling film treatments that get noticed.

So I thought I'd share my top tips for crafting an effective documentary treatment with you today, using the treatment I created for my short film, One Breath: A Life Without Gravity. You can watch the video on how I create a documentary treatment here:

Or if you'd prefer the steps in written form, you can see my process of creating documentary treatments below.


What to Included in a Documentary Treatment


1. Start with your story idea

Your treatment should begin with a clear and concise explanation of your story idea. What is your film about? Who is your protagonist? What is the central conflict or question you're exploring? Write a summary of your story and what sets it apart from other films.


2. Develop your themes

Think about the themes and ideas you want to explore in your film. What message do you want to communicate to your audience? What issues or topics are you addressing? Your themes should be woven into the story and should be evident in your treatment.


3. Define your characters

Your film will likely feature real-life people who play key roles in your story. Who are these people? What are their motivations? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Your treatment should provide brief outlines of the key characters in your film and their character arc.


4. Share your story structure

A successful film needs a clear structure. How will you divide your film into sections or chapters? What are the key turning points in your story? Your treatment should outline the flow of your film, from start to finish. I like to use a three-act structure to effectively communicate the journey of the film. 


5. Discuss your filmmaking approach

This is where you showcase your unique storytelling approach. What makes your documentary stand out? Will you use vivid visuals, intimate interviews, or a bold stylistic approach? Be specific about the filmmaking techniques that you're planning on using to convey the core message of your film.


6. Include images and videos

Including images and video in a documentary, treatment is crucial because it helps bring the story to life and gives the audience a visual representation of what the final product will look like. Visual elements such as images and video can also help break up long sections of text and keep the audience engaged. They also provide a powerful way to showcase the subject matter and provide context for their story and world. 


7. Revise, revise, revise

Your treatment is a work in progress, and you'll likely revise it many times before you're ready to start filming. It will also change and develop as you start filming and when you get the edit. This might be because you discover something new about your main character or the story develops in a way you never imagined. Also, get feedback from trusted colleagues and friends, and be open to constructive criticism - this is essential to making the best film possible.


Creating a treatment for your documentary may take some time, but it's an important step in the filmmaking process, and spending time creating a treatment helps to give clarity and focus to your documentary. Which in turn, makes for a better film. So, I'd recommend creating your documentary treatment as soon as possible.


How To Write a Good Documentary Treatment

When writing a documentary treatment, focus on delivering a compelling narrative that captures the essence of your subject. Begin with a strong hook to engage your audience immediately. Clearly outline the story's structure, ensuring a logical flow from the introduction, through the main body, to the conclusion. Emphasise the unique perspective or angle your documentary offers. Incorporate vivid descriptions of key characters and settings to bring your story to life. Remember, it's not just about presenting facts, but weaving them into a captivating story. Keep the treatment concise, painting a clear picture of the intended final product. This approach will not only help in pitching your idea to potential backers but also serve as a crucial roadmap during the documentary's production.


Documentary Treatment Template

To save you time, you can access my go-to documentary treatment template here: Get Your Free Documentary Filmmaking Treatment


Good luck with putting together your treatment and happy filmmaking!

Written by Sebastian Solberg

Sebastian is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose credits include One Breath and the BAFTA-nominated film The Eagle HuntressHis passion for fostering emerging talent led to the creation of the Documentary Film Academy, an online community and educational platform designed to empower the next generation of filmmakers.

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