A film treatment is a condensed version of a film or television screenplay. It presents the major features of the full project, typically so financial backers and major stars can decide whether or not to sign on. The treatment is usually prepared before the creator invests the time in preparing a full screenplay, but it can also be used afterwards as a tool for the writing team.
Movies and television shows are expensive to produce and entail a high risk of failure. As business products, they have a very high upside and a very low downside. The window to determine if a project is successful is usually a matter of weeks, and there is not a lot of leeway for product modifications to accommodate a negative reception. If a film product fails, it fails quickly, and the significant investment of funds to produce the project can be lost overnight.
Many people want to break into the entertainment industry with what they think is an interesting idea for a movie or show. Financial backers, including production studios, cannot give every person the time to present a full project pitch. Further, the likelihood that a particular idea will get picked up by a studio is small. It doesn't make sense for backers to require a full screenplay for a project that they do not have time to read or for a creator to slave over a full screenplay that might never be read. Instead, the parties exchange a film treatment that gives the backers enough information to make a decision without tying up the writer's time completing a screenplay that is not generating interest.
A film treatment presents the project's basic ideas and issues in a short story format. It is written in the present tense and covers the full story sequence and certain key scenes. The treatment should include information on the main characters and the story locations and angles. Some treatments will also include the creator's ideas regarding direction and production style.
It is probably easiest to think of the film treatment as a written summary of the project highlights. Unlike a traditional summary, however, the film treatment presents much more of the meat of the project. The document is often presented in a three-act structure, providing insight into the beginning, middle and end of the story. Ultimately, the treatment must have enough information in it to sell the project.
Film treatments are often used for two purposes. The most common type of treatment is used at the project presentation stage to make a pitch to financial backers or major stars. Treatments are also used during the writing process so the writing team has a summary document that they can refer to as they work of scripts.