How to write a film or TV documentary treatment or proposal

by simon on December 17, 2009

A film crew in Africa - from the Field Museum Library on Flickr

If you want to make a documentary film, you need funding. This may entail persuading other people, such as TV companies, to stump up the money in advance.

They’re only going to do this if you can convince them that you know what you’re doing; you have a great idea; you can make it work; you’ve planned it properly; and most importantly of all, that it will pull in an audience.

The documentary proposal or treatment is, therefore, a sales document. For copywriters, this is a potential source of work. For film-makers, it is a necessary evil and something they will have to complete, one way or another. Either they do it themselves, or they pay someone else to do it for them.

But what should a documentary proposal contain?

A synopsis

This is the most important section – this is where you summarise the overall project. It needs to sell, and hard.

The audience

State clearly your anticipated audience. ‘Everyone’ is not sufficiently specific. You need to convince the TV company that you can pull in an audience for this programme, and that they will sit through the film with you all the way to the end. If you’re making a series, you need to convince people will keep coming back for more.

The big idea

What is the programme all about? WHat is different about this programme? What new ideas or information will it contain? What is the programme’s main goal?

The conflict

You need conflicting views to be brought out during the programme, otherwise it will be dull and lack drama. Even a factual documentary tells a story. Outline the conflict, in ways that the buyers and planners working for the TV company can easily understand.

Structure

A paragraph or two on how you intend to structure your film.

Resolution

How will the programme end? Where is it heading?

The presenter

Who is the presenter? Why has he or she been chosen? What special qualities do they bring?

A treatment

Documentaries rarely if ever have a script. Film makers can’t control what will happen when the cameras are rolling. They are not working with actors and cannot dictate what their subjects should say.

Instead, you should include a treatment. This might describe in detail the people who are the interviewed, the places the programme will visit, the topics to be discussed, the areas of conflict which will help to bring it all to life.

The treatment will usually be written in the present tense. So: ‘The programme opens with the presenter standing in front of the Taj Mahal. He tells us about….’ and so on. Treatments are usually a narrative, and do not use technical language or jargon. There is no need for camera angles or similar detail. It is an outline of the content, and the emphasis should be on making it as interesting and compelling as possible. The people with the money want to know that this programme will be interesting and engaging to a wide audience – usually s that they can sell advertising and so turn a profit on the whole deal.

Length

Be clear and precise about how long the programme will be. If there are options to make a long or short version, say so.

Budgets

If you know how much money is needed, this is the place to include the details. If you have no idea, then it will be much harder to get funding.

Production timetable

If you know this, or at least have an idea, it’s a good idea to include it. It shows you’ve done some proper planning.

Biographies

This section should include detailed information to demonstrate the competence and talent of all those involved. The director and producer should be included. Other people you may want to present in detail here include the presenter, any technical or scientific advisors, and possibly some of the interviewees and subjects featured in the programme.

Make it sell

Making a film or programme is a time-consuming and expensive business. It’s worth spending some extra time and / or money on the proposal to make it as compelling and convincing as possible. As a copywriter, I would argue that this is a job for a professional. But it certainly can be done by the film makers themselves, providing they have the time to commit to getting it right, making it sell their idea effectively, and giving the buyers and planners enough information to make a decision in you favour.


{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

farooq December 28, 2009 at 9:19 am

i want to make a tvdocumentary on my city.

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Simon February 16, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Sounds good – which city?

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medierÄdgivning January 13, 2010 at 6:55 am

I am agree with you…You did a great job….really it was good post .
‘How to write a film or TV documentary treatment or proposal”in that really you show some important point and facts.

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Simon February 16, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Thanks

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matt felgate January 14, 2010 at 6:40 pm

i just want to leave you a comment to express my admire to your blog and your articles and let you know that i bookmarked it and i will definatly come back for updates

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Simon February 16, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Thanks Matt (though the fact that you left identical comments on several posts did make me suspect you were really looking for the link-love).

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Daniel Charles February 17, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I enjoyed your info on this topic very much. I have a few very strong ideas for some documentary work. I belive the ideas I have are very fresh and new. How would I go about pitching my idea/ideas to get them off the ground and into the next phase.

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Simon March 20, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Daniel – I’m not really a expert on the art of pitching ideas to TV companies. I have some experience in writing them, but I’m only brought in as a copywriter. I certainly think a strong written proposal will help you a lot.

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Crystal May 25, 2010 at 11:56 am

Thank you so much! : )

I am a beginner for documentary film, it helps a lot……!!

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Hayk June 30, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Dear ser, iwould be graitfull if you could send me some examples of a film treatment , or links to it, i want very much to have an idea about it.
thank you,
Hayk

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James November 23, 2010 at 11:44 am

Hi,

Nice article, can I pick you up on a point where you say there is really no script, what would you do if what you wanted happened in the past but you want it in a documentary you are making now ?

Thanks

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ABHIJIT PAUL(INDIA) December 7, 2010 at 9:28 pm

DEAR,SIR I AM A STUDENT OF VISUAL ARTS.I WANT TO MAKE DOCUMENTARY FILM.BECAUSE I FEEL THE BEAUTY OF FOLK RITUAL OF OUR COUNTRY.AND THEY HAVE MORE EASTHETICAL APPROACHES.SO,HOW TO MAKE THE SCRIPT OF MY DOCUMENTARY FILM.

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Yolanda Maria December 21, 2010 at 12:25 am

I recommended a film team for the filming of a horse show of which I was the Master of Ceremonies.
Now the organizers have given me the responsability to deliver the edited copy and now I need to know what to ask for…..your information has been of great help….Can you suggest any additional info..
Thank you very much!

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Tosa Desmond August 5, 2013 at 8:18 pm

From what i have read so far, am sure i can make a good documentary film. am not a professional but am a good critic or others works.

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victoria January 15, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Hello, I really enjoyed your blog on tv documentary, but I really want to write an outline for a documentary

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Walter February 17, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Hello!
I am a film maker from Rwanda. I want to make a documentary and people am working with are asking me first a complete proposal. I need a help.
Thanks

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Simon February 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Hi Walter, sorry but I’m not really able to help much apart from the advice offered here. You could employ a professional writer to craft your proposal for you, or else simply have a go yourself. I’ve given you the structure. Fill in the blanks and you should have a workable document.

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Nanna March 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I really like your answer to Matts ingenious comment. Maybe you should inform him how to identify a nofollow-blog, hehe.

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Stephen April 7, 2011 at 11:24 am

t’was of great help; am doing an assingment on the same topic.

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su May 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm

hi… i read this page to learn how to write a tv program .this page help me a lot..
thank you so much.

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DIGANTA BOIRAGI August 23, 2011 at 8:39 pm

THANK YOU THAT GENTLEMAN/WOMAN WHO DID THE GREAT JOB. GOD BLESS YOU

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Abigail September 21, 2011 at 10:12 am

Thanks for this post, I am currently putting together a documentary for my dissertation at University, this really helped :)

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Steve Ralph October 29, 2011 at 3:00 am

Thanks for the brisk description of how to get started developing a video documentary project. Very helpful!

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bennyblanco October 29, 2011 at 9:30 am

It is informative reading this article. I am from Africa and my greatest desire is to become a great movie producer someday. I have an idea for a soap but i get so scared to take the first leap considering the finances involved and also the fear of not getting a major advertiser to sponsor the show. I need your advice and tips on how to write a convincing proposal that will be sellable.

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KMorain December 18, 2011 at 2:20 am

Thank you for this post. It’s been very informative. I am in the process of writing a proposal for a documentary myself and seeing that I have never done anything of the kind before finding this info was a Godsend.

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vicky January 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm

help!! i have a idea for a documentary program but need to get filming next week?? how do i go about this?

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simon January 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Not sure I can help you there. You only need the treatment or proposal to get funding. You won’t arrange that in under a week, so I assume you have the funds you need. A script would come in handy, though.

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Vicky January 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Ok I’m confused.. Spoke to channels and they said I need funding or sponsor,or need to find a documentary producer, I need all advice I can get!!

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simon January 11, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Vicky, you might need to elaborate on where you are now and what you are trying to achieve. But please note that this isn’t a site about film making. It’s about writing. This is the only post on here about film and documentaries, our of hundreds. I’m not a specialist in film, I just happen to have written some treatments for people in the past. So I doubt I’ll be able to help you. But I don’t think filming a documentary is something you can rush.

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Faith December 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Hi Vicky, Simon has done a great job with this article. If you need additional information about making documentaries, here are a suggested list of sites to get you started:

http://www.docsinprogress.org
http://www.documentary.org
http://www.independent-magazine.org

Yes, funding can be quite tricky for documentaries, but it’s possible! I also run a filmmaking site which you may find helpful: desktop-documentaries.com. Please contact me directly from the site if you need additional guidance. Good luck!

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simon December 3, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Faith

thanks for the additional info and tips. Your site looks like a great resource for film makers.

I should point out to everyone that this site, Write Mindset, is mainly about writing, and I am myself primarily a writer – journalist, copywriter, novelist etc. I’m not a film maker and can’t really offer any more advice or expertise than is included here in this article. My knowledge, such as it is, comes from writing proposals for film makers as part of my business. The site is also in a state of hiatus at the moment, so apologies if I’m not answering people’s comments. But thanks to all who do comment.

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felix January 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Very good post. I have an idea to shoot a documentary about war photography in bosnia 1992-95. This will help me for sure! Tnx

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Irene February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Simon,
I’m new to documentary and would like your input on my first proposal.
Thank you
Irene

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charly ryan February 15, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Cheers for that Simon.. I’m currently half way through writing my treatment (which is based on a template I found!) but felt it lacked alot of key areas. It’s a treatment I want to send to a Charity foundation, it’s a charity close to my heart, so I want to make sure that it’s something that they will like and hopefully agree to! Your blogs been great for filling in the gaps!! Fingers crossed now but thank you very much!

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Ariena Ariff February 29, 2012 at 11:38 am

hey there, I’m thinking on making a documentary about the struggles of people from 3rd world countries and war ridden countries starting a new life in Malaysia. This subject touches close to my heart as i know some people here who are going through it.

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Jack Kau April 5, 2012 at 7:26 am

Hi Simon, thanks a lot for this as it is helping me with my documentary big time

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Mark April 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Have a draft treatment – want you to improve – follow me to Channel four or the beeb if we win you win ( get paid) if not. Well C’est la vie – you up for it. Email me will send you draft.

Mj

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Susan April 11, 2012 at 10:13 am

Hello,I’m so grateful and glad to have stumbled upon this tutorial,as it as given me the leverage I need in putting together my proposal of documentary that ive only been dreaming of making..now I feel like I what to do..thanks alot

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Laura April 13, 2012 at 5:03 am

Thank you Simon for this great piece! I’m starting to put thoughts together on a documentary that has really been on my mind for a while and things are really going well. Except, I’m not a writer… I’m a film editor. This lays it all out and helps me start thinking about things I hadn’t thought of yet.

Thanks!

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TEEKAY April 18, 2012 at 4:46 pm

hahaha! you sure are a witty fellow. Anyway, totally love this article. It sure helped me with the information I needed. Nice job!

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Ranty April 29, 2012 at 10:52 pm

I must commend u for ur effort at ensurin that pple especially students gain from u.M a student of mass communicatn and i really wanna specialize in documentary production,cn u b my online teacher,i wanna learn from d beginning,i have little knowledge abt documentary writing and packaging,wl b glad if u can help.thanx for ur anticipated cooperation.

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mariam June 25, 2012 at 11:35 am

hello,

I’ve never written documentary porposal before. I would appreciate an exmple.

thank you very much !

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jeremia nyaga June 25, 2012 at 3:08 pm

thaks 4 tha post..am in kenya and i would really like you to email me a sample proposal for a film

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Taura Ariki Taputu July 7, 2012 at 12:37 am

I am new in the script and movie or documentary industry, I would love to hear from some one that could help me finish of my documentary and movie script “THE VIKINGS OF THE ENUAMANU” any one out there help, kind regards Taura

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Paddy Rangihaeata July 18, 2012 at 7:18 am

Kia Ora Taura,
I happened to search the NZ on Air from stuff.co.nz when my search lead me to where I am now surprised but some what excited to know that a fellow Maori has an interest in wanting to get into the film industry. As for myself I have had no experience in the the industry at all but always wanted to do a documentary. I’ve been in the building construction industry for over 30 yrs as an Architectural Designer & Licensed builder in NSW & Qld. I’m 55 yrs old and keen to get into a different way of deliverance to the public sector.
I’m at the stage of getting out of the building industry for that purpose and only now just researching the application process for funding. I would be interested in viewing your synopsis for your sketch if ok with you. I have a son who has just completed QUT Uni in Brisban re: Animation & some special affects and has done some movie works & put together auditions for characters. Anyway hope all goes well and korero soon.
Paddy

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Paul July 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Hey, thanks for the info… Buh I wld like to knw hw program ideas make money for the creator (i.e the person pitchin). Thanks.TOFFEE

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kunle busari- adamasingba August 13, 2012 at 7:26 am

Majority of Nigerian popular film makers dominating the mass market lack adequate knowledge of fund raising through corporate means. This affect the ability to gain support for knowledge update through training and project support. This is tragic because the industry rather than growing is shrinking and unable to gain social relevance because seriuos issue contain in the millenium developmental goal could not be harness to the themes of many projects whose social responsibility would have improve the industry credibility and profile. With the moral decadence, economic challenges and educational deterioration movie due to it popularity would have serve as a vital medium for mass orientation and info/ educational as well as entertainment medium. Support for upgrading of nigeria especially producers and director in local language is highly neededand would be appreciated.

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anthony henry September 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm

i want to make a tv documentary please state all the equipment needed when i want to start shutting.

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Mitch September 17, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Hi Simon, came across this during my research and just wanted to say thanks for putting out such a great piece of writing. All the best :-)

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Meharban karim October 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Indeed this will help us ,thanks .

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Chuma November 26, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Hi Simon,

I have followed your above proposal sketch and have completed a proposal that had seen me stuck before finding this link.

My request to you is if you will be kind to have a look and offer your advice before I can present it.

Kind regards,
Chuma from Kenya in East Africa.

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S. Kaur January 16, 2013 at 10:54 pm

This information is helpful, needed it for a proposal I am doing on a documentary at University. The documentary is going to be about the Digital Divide in the UK and Brazil.

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Shellwick January 23, 2013 at 3:47 am

Thank you for laying out the basics so well. Its really helped. Glad I don’t have to write the script as it is the technical advisors who have the know..
Did not realise I would have to find a producer and director. Thanks, time for more research :}

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Daniel February 5, 2013 at 5:00 am

Appriciate

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Odeyemi Femi February 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm

You are too wonderfull.

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Ayushi June 14, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Hi Simon,
I am a young beginner in documentary film making, just pitching for a film on gender based issues in India. I have no guide on my head to red ink my proposal, but this article has definitely given me great perspective!!

Thanks a dozen!

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allen July 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Thanks Simon and other contributors for the very useful insight on doc production. I think I will attempt it following Simons’ template. God Bless Man.

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Fay January 10, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Hi Simon,
Happy new year… I know you feel happy seeing your work being appreciated after about four yrs since you did it eh….
good job man:-)

Fay (repping 254 )

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