Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Treatments and Outlines

Treatments and outlines are a written way of tricking a production company into spending a large amount of money on an idea you've had that might turn out to be complete rubbish.

Theoretically, the idea goes like this: during a meeting your agent has managed to get you with a hapless representative of said production company, you throw together enough random phrases and current new sound-bites that eventually, by sheer chance, you come up with something sounding vaguely credible. Or ''It's about a dead radioactive Russian dissident who shares a flat with... Denise Van Outen!"

The representative likes your Van Outen idea (horribly likely actually), so you go away and write a outline - usually a couple of pages, but it could be four or five - and rewrite it until the production company are confident enough to give you some money for it. The fools! Possibly this is a few hundred quid that gives them the rights to shop it about the channels for six months, or they might commission you to write a more detailed treatment (could be eight to twelve pages) which will contain details of the main characters, the setting, and probably rough plotlines for all prospective episodes.

If they like this, you then get commissioned to write the first script. If they like that you're in pilot territory, and that's a whole different world.

So theoretically it goes: outline, treatment, pilot script.

The problem with this system is that if a script gets generated this way, it's essentially been assembled by committee even if the writer's name is the only one on it. In order to try and get through each stage, you're tempted to file off the rough corners, take out anything that sounds a bit controversial (or if it's a certain kind of comedy, put stuff in just because it is controversial). So ideally, the treatment you're writing is for a series that you know the production company wants to make, but leaves you with enough space to write the series you want to make, which is probably slightly different.

You'll notice I'm writing all this from the point of view that all writers are all creative geniuses, and all producer-type people are stunted money-grabbing know-nothings, whose only aim is to thwart your artistic vision. This is, of course, mostly false, but it does contain just enough of a grain of truth to help you sleep at night. Producers, of course, aren't allowed to point out publicly that most of the writers they work with simply aren't that good. This stops most of them sleeping nights at all, because of the rage and frustration, but at least they're paid more money than writers.

And if they're not, why are you hanging around with them?


Seb said...

I always adore these little sneak peeks into TV writing that you give. I'm never quite sure at the end of them whether I'm reassured or perturbed in regards to my consideration of it as a "kind-of-possible-who-knows" career direction.

I got the same feeling when I saw "Ready When You Are Mr. McGill" when the advice to a budding writer was that drama was either handcuffs, stethoscopes or shagging.

James Henry said...

I like to think if I've put just one person off writing for television as a career, my work here is done.

Anonymous said...

That's a horrible truth about Producers knowing writers aren't actually that good.
I get by on-
1)Somehow coming across as quite impressive at the first meeting.
2)The nagging feeling in the Producer's head that though they soon come to realise I'm not that good, there's a possibility, however small, that I might be.

word verification "birxrush': the scrum in a City champagne bar, 6pm, Fridays.

Anonymous said...

This has unsettled me.

Part of my course I'm about to do involves screenwriting and suchlike; and I must do a few short scripts for my portfolio. And although I don't have the Producery people thinking I may or may not be crap, I have instead the people who will decide for me whether I can do it in the future.

Damn it. I only want to edit or direct... I never professed to be a literary genius! I'm a....visionary. Well; taking other folks' ideas and 'seeing them in my creative mind, darlings'.

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to major in Moving Image and will have to start writing scripts and thingymagins and for the first treatment + script I wrote I spent 40% of the time writing and 60% of the time covering up the fact that I have no clue what the hell I am doing. In class I type away making a lot of noise on the keyboard and the tutor thinks I am writing a Great Masterpiece, when I am actually on my blog or Bebo or MySpace writing to my friend "HELP HELP HELP WHAT THE HELL DO I DO???"

Valerie Polichar said...

Seriously though, does this explain why pilots for series that turn out to be quite good in episodes are often crap? That is, the assembled-by-committee effect?

James Henry said...

Well pilots are a tricky business, as you have to introduce the main characters, the premise and the world the characters live in, as well as setting up lots of potential storylines, so they have an awful lot of work to do. But also, yes, it's also probably been more fiddled with by outside forces than any other episode.

The pilot for 'Heroes', for example, I thought was just confusing and dull - introducing you to eight or nine characters, none of whom seemed remotely interesting, with a pretentious and annoying voiceover. Then I came back to episode three and it was all coming together. Now I'm hooked - although the voiceovers are still pretentious and annoying.

Of course the pilot episode isn't usually the one the audience see at home: sometimes by the time the network has seen the pilot, some of the actors have been recast, and the thing often has to be re-shot in its entirety, maybe with events rewritten so that characters who were popular with audiences but died in the pilot got to live (Carol Hathaway in the ER pilot, two of the main street cops in Hill Street Blues, and Jack in Lost, apparently).
Richard - yes, it's terrifying, isn't it? I got better at meetings when I decided to stop saying things like '... but to be fair, I'm not experienced, so it might be completely shit, so it's up to you really'.

Jen - Just learn to use 'CUT TO:' as early in any scene as you possibly can. And put in lots of directions that'll annoy actors like 'Horace reddens slightly', or 'Tabitha wanders across the snake pit in a mysterious way'.

LC - you'll be pleased to know that when you're doing this for a job, the proportions change to roughly 50/50.

LMS said...

I thought the pilot of Dexter was better than the pilot for Heroes, but then there were less characters to get emotionally invested in so more screen time for them to show a bit of depth. In the end I'm willing to give most shows a chance beyond it's pilot episode if there's something in the story, character and performances to keep me hooked.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're here, James.

CUT TO: Jennifer eating a cracker.

MIX TO: Jennifer choking on cracker.
Jennifer reddens slightly. Then goes blue.



Based on a true story.