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Treating Your Video Right: How to Create and Use a Video Treatment

If you care about making tapes that people want to watch -- you could use a treatment. Learn how this useful tool can work for you in every stage of production.

One of the most neglected tools in the videographer's tool kit is usually the video treatment, a document that defines the concept, summarizes the story and determines the creative approach of your video. A well-written video treatment takes the lightbulb glowing over your head and makes it visible to others. It's an important tool that can help you plan, generate interest and obtain funding for your video.

Treatments aren't just for the pros. A great video treatment can make the difference between having a Matterhorn of unfinished projects and unwatchable tapes or having a library of high-quality, compelling videos. If you care about the end result--tapes that people actually want to watch--you could use a treatment.

Whether videography is your profession, avocation or hobby, you can ignite your creativity, enjoy production more than ever and experience real satisfaction when you screen the final, sensational results. Read on to learn how video treatments work for you in every stage of production, and how to develop them effectively and professionally.

Anatomy of a video Treatment

To understand the concept of a video treatment, imagine that you're telling friends about a movie you've just seen. First, you'd probably mention the title and try to capture their interest by giving them the high concept. ("Have you seen Root of All Evil? It's about this 21st century cop who goes back in time ...") Then you'd probably start at the beginning and tell the story sequentially, elaborating on scenes that were especially exciting, funny or that moved you. You might finish with a line or image that dramatically sums up the movie's theme . Then (if your friends aren't angrily berating you for spoiling it for them), everyone has a good idea of what happens in the film. A video treatment is pretty much the same thing: it summarizes the concept and essential story elements, captures the emotion and pacing and defines the creative slant of the finished piece.

Your video treatment is the foundation of the video project, so spend time on it. Make it good. After all, if the video doesn't work on the page, it's probably destined for that media Matterhorn where a tape resides until someone scans it, shrugs, and uses it to tape the new episode of When Animals Attack.

Step One: Research

The first thing you'll need to do is gather some basic information. What's the theme or central message? Who is the audience? What's the purpose of the video? What's the desired outcome--what do you want the viewer to do, think or feel? What style has been successful with this particular audience in the past? What's new or different about this subject? What's the budget for the production? How long will the finished video be? Record your answers on a worksheet and keep these guidelines on hand as you write.

Step Two: The Concept

Use your research worksheet to create a "concept statement"--a very brief summary of the theme and purpose of the video. Here's an example: "Entering the Japanese marketplace is a potentially lucrative prospect for software developers. But, differences in business style, technical requirements, currency and language create barriers. In this 5-minute video Head East, we introduce AccessPro, an exciting, new resource for those seeking to expand and succeed in Asian markets." It's a simple statement of what--a program called AccessPro, who--for software developers, why--to overcome cultural barriers and succeed in foreign markets, and how--by viewing this 5-minute video explaining the program.

The concept statement is the core message of the video, as defined by you or agreed upon by you and your client. The core message doesn't change, but you can present it or "treat" it in many creative ways.

Step Three: The Approach

The core message of a fast food restaurant may be "Find happiness buying our tasty, inexpensive food." But, for best results, advertisers develop different approaches. They might approach Mom by asking "Why should you have to cook every night? Let them eat burgers!" Dad responds to "You're gone all the time! But you can be the fun-lovin' hero of your family for the price of a few French fries." Kids respond like Pavlov's dogs to the "French fries! Bright, plastic toys! Kids rule!" campaigns. Different approaches, but all are built around the same core concept: "Find happiness buying our tasty, inexpensive food."

Once you've defined the core concept, fire up your imagination. Think of different approaches you could use to reach your audience in a powerful way. What will elicit the response you want? What approach will grab the audience and compel them to watch, think, feel, commit, convert or buy? For inspiration, look at successful television commercials and print ads. You'll see a variety of tried-and-true techniques to reach viewers--humor, sentiment, parody, logic, emotional manipulation, cultural icons and identification with people, sports or lifestyles.

Be sure the approaches you choose are appropriate for the subject. One producer couldn't talk the client out of using "For the Good Times" as background music in a radio commercial. The line, "Hold your warm and tender body close to mine" had a ghastly irony when teamed with the subject. The client sold cemetery plots.

As you develop your treatments, try to engage the senses of your audience. Keep the writing tight and essential, but create vivid scenes we can see and hear.

What do we see? Don't just describe the images, describe the underlying emotion. "In a montage of shots, we see several street people. Footage is black and white, restless, disturbing." Or: "A slow pan of the soccer field is interrupted with bursts of extreme close-ups of players in action: strong kicks, slicing arms, sweaty faces."

What do we hear? Don't just say "voice over." Describe the narrator's voice--authoritative, giddy, husky, Park Avenue. Establish an attitude by describing the background music--hip-hop declaration of independence, hockey-arena organ, elegiac strings. Set the mood with background sounds --urban street sounds, distant sirens, crickets chirping.

No need to script the dialog or narration yet. If you've got a particularly clever line or slogan, include it. Otherwise, sum things up in a brief overview. "The two banter, pausing to comment on each exhibit as we follow them through the museum." "The doctor firmly lays out the risks of high blood pressure to her impatient patient." "Dignified, but moving narration describes the pivotal battle as we dissolve between the heart-breaking photos." If your production is unscripted--interviews and testimonials, for instance--be specific about what you'll shoot. "Montage of toasts and blessings from the bride's family." "Moving testimonial by a recipient of the grant."

The Treatment: Don't Leave Home Without It

Preparing three or four unique video treatments may seem like a lot of work in the pre-production phase or even speculative stage of a video, but it does pay off. First, you'll stimulate your creativity, leave the obvious behind and discover terrific new ideas you didn't even know were lurking in the gray matter. Even when the video is for your enjoyment and not for a customer, considering different approaches is a valuable creative exercise. Great ideas, polished in pre-production, equal great viewing later.

Second, you can't always anticipate the client's or viewer's taste. Frequently, clients pass up what appears to be the perfect treatment and go for the red herring. You'll be glad you presented options.

Finally, your treatment is the foundation of the project. When you read it, you're able to see and hear the video in your head, a good way to plan shots, visualize style and identify any potential sink holes.

Once the treatment has been approved, you'll find it valuable in developing other pre-production materials, especially the script. That blank computer screen is a lot less daunting with a strong treatment on the copy stand nearby. The treatment also helps in pulling together preliminary location, equipment and cast lists. If you're seeking funding or distribution paths for your video, or trolling for additional helping hands during production, the treatment can stimulate interest in the project, secure deals and get production money flowing.

The treatment also plays a role in protecting you legally. Once your client approves the treatment, which describes the content of the video, you won't be left holding the bag financially if the scope of the project changes. I once wrote a script based on a humorous treatment approved by the vice president of a high tech company. Shortly before production, the company's ad agency decided a news approach would work better with existing ad campaigns. I had to rewrite the entire script, from FADE IN to FADE OUT. But, because the first script was based on the treatment the VP had approved, I was paid in full for both scripts.

If setting aside the camcorder to sit at a keyboard and pound out treatments is way outside your comfort zone, you can work with a professional scriptwriter. Contact your local film commission or the International Television Association (ITVA, 972-869-1112) for referrals.

Inside Pitch

In most situations, you'll be required to "pitch" your treatment. Pitch is an accurate name for the process--you toss your treatment idea to people and they either connect and run with it, take a swing but don't connect on an emotional or strategic level, or they let the idea go by and wait for the next pitch.

Outside the professional realm, videographers must pitch to everyone whose cooperation is required to make the video. This includes volunteers working on the production and people providing locations, funding, permits and other services. Professionals must pitch treatments to clients to secure jobs and accurately deliver the product the client expects. Check out the sidebar for advice on pitching like a pro.

Okay, I admit it: pitching treatments is to videography as homework is to graduation parties. But be bold and positive. It's important to pitch your idea, in person, with as much enthusiasm and sincerity as possible. Trust your pitching arm--it's strong, thanks to all the time spent polishing the treatments.

Risky Business

Some videographers don't want to take the risk of pitching treatments to potential clients before a contract is signed for fear an idea will be stolen and produced by the competition. This is a valid concern. You'll need to evaluate each situation, judge whether you're pitching to ethical people and follow your instincts.

I always take the risk and I'm seldom disappointed. In my opinion, pitching the treatments prequalifies me for the job. It demonstrates that I understand the concept, that I'm creative and deliver on schedule. The pitch session proves that I can be flexible, receptive to input from the client and can think on my feet. Clients become involved with an idea during the pitch and the wheels start to turn. If clients want the treatment, they'll nearly always want to work with the person or people who created it. You're hired.

When large sums of money are involved, or if the treatment is for a documentary, film or television program, protect yourself legally before pitching. While concepts cannot be registered or copyrighted, a fully-developed treatment can. For copyright forms and information, contact the Federal Information Center at 1-800-688-9889. To register your work with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), West call 213-782-4500. East of the Mississippi, contact WGA, East at 212-767-7800.

Janis Lonnquist is an award-winning writer and producer with credits in corporate and special interest video, print, television and film.

SIDEBAR I: How to Pitch Like a Pro


  1. Arrive at the pitch session on time. Bring your research, treatments, list of credits and demo reel. Introduce yourself and jot down the name and title of each person at the table.
  2. Tell them you have several treatments for them to consider. Have copies of the treatments for everyone at the table, but don't hand them out yet. You don't want people reading ahead, or reading at all for that matter, while you pitch.
  3. Using your notes, restate the core concept. This reassures everyone you understand their requirements. If there are corrections to the concept, note them, and do your best to adjust the treatments accordingly as you pitch.
  4. As you deliver each treatment, preface it with a sentence or two about why you developed this approach. "Your ads and brochures emphasize the superior technology of your home health care line, but you want the video to be warm and consumer-friendly. In this approach, 'Technology You Can Trust,' we blend these ideas, stressing ease of use and personal benefits to consumers who incorporate the technology into their lives."
  5. Enthusiastically share each treatment. Use notes as you tell the story, but look up frequently and make eye contact. Answer questions, but try to deliver all the treatments before getting feedback.
  6. I like to "sandwich" my treatments. I pitch a standard approach first, followed by what I feel is the strongest idea. Third is a riskier idea or "red herring." (The red herring is a viable approach, just not typical for that audience.) I conclude with another strong, standard approach.
  7. Give everyone copies of the treatments after you've pitched them all. Listen carefully to feedback, noting what they like and why.
  8. Never become hurt or defensive. Don't aggressively push your personal favorite once you're sure everyone understands it. Don't take criticism personally. Try to relax and express with your face and body language that you're open to comments.
  9. When clients contribute ideas of their own, be receptive. Often these ideas, inspired by TV or film, aren't practical. Tactfully explain why and suggest modifications. For example, instead of seeing volcanic lava engulf the competitor's product, as your client suggests, perhaps an actor could rush in, covered with gray volcanic ash, and report what just happened. Bad ideas are usually abandoned quickly.
  10. If clients don't commit in the pitch session, ask if you can provide any other information. Thank them for their time and schedule a follow-up call.

J.L.

SIDEBAR II: Tried and True Approaches

You know the standards: The News Show format. The Friendly Host taking you on a tour. The Documentary. The Testimonials. The Hero (athlete or actor) pitching a product. Here are a few more you may want to try:

  1. Pain/Pleasure: Stir the viewer's pain, anxiety, or guilt, then provide a solution. A stressed-out executive has problem after problem on a business trip. The problems are all solved by the kind, responsive people at PoorYou Hotels.
  2. Parody: Borrow the mood, methods, and mannerisms of something in pop culture. Sculley and Fox-type agents detect corporate security problems in an X-Files parody. An insurance group never stops working just like a certain pink bunny. (Must be an obvious parody. Be sure to respect all copyrights.)
  3. Buddies: Someone gives information or makes a recommendation, intimately, friend to friend. Jack endorses a drug rehab center to his troubled pal. Friends must be real people to whom the audience will relate.
  4. WIFM: Answer the viewer's burning question: What's In it For Me? Know the viewer's imperatives and show how the product or service delivers. A salesman learns how to re-channel faxes, voice mail, and e-mail to his new palm-held computer resulting in (WIFM!) better communication on the road, more sales, and more money.
  5. Before and After: Impressive transformations, such as a cluttered closet before and after installing an organizational system. A homeless person before and after a work training and transition program. A neighborhood before and after an anti-crime campaign.
  6. Nostalgia: Show a way to reclaim the good old days. New software frees up three executives to shoot hoops together like they used to in college. A vitamin line has a senior couple walking along the beach and sharing dreams like they did when they were newlyweds.

J.L.

Tags:  December 1997
Janis
Lonnquist
Mon, 12/01/1997 - 12:00am