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Necessary evils, or major boosts? Directors & EPs deconstruct the treatment process.

Posted on October 28, 2021

Backyard Director Greg Popp writes all of his own treatments, and likes to think of the novelist Colson Whitehead when he does. “He said about writing, ‘It doesn’t get easier or harder. It’s just always kind of terrible.’ And that’s how I feel about it, too.”

For Popp, and a few other directors and EPs we spoke to, treatments are sort of a necessary evil, demanded for almost every job and at times of ponderous value. How important are they? “They run the gamut from being unread to incredibly important, and everywhere in between,” says Popp, who adds that their value and role “varies by director, by agency, by client, by job – by all the myriad factors that go into a project.”

Simian spoke to a handful of knowledgeable directors and EP about the treatment process, its demands, pressures and payoffs, and came away with a sense that, when it comes to creating and submitting treatments, the pressure has never been greater.

“It’s incredibly challenging, even for seasoned directors,” says Tessa Films’ EP Lisa Masseur about the treatment process. “It’s harder than it’s ever been, and the expectations are so great, even for the smallest job. And you’re often competing with an agency deck that they spent months creating – and you’ve got mere days to prepare yours.”

Nick Spooner is a former agency creative turned director who’s now freelancing, after having been on the roster of production companies such as Satellite Films, The Sweet Shop and The Artists Company. Working as an independent, he writes and produces all of his own treatments. It helps that he’s also a cartoonist, and publishes his funny drawings on his web site and in a humor magazine.

“Treatments are now one of the most important parts of winning any job, even when you’re single-bid,” Spooner says. “It’s not that uncommon to see treatments running to 40 pages, and they all have to look and read like high-end brochures. And one wrong or poorly-chosen image that doesn’t sit right with a junior creative can sink the whole thing.”

Spooner says that the need for submitting a treatment is nearly universal. “Directors working at every level are expected to submit them, no one gets a pass.” And, as others have notes, the expectations for all of them remain high. “They need to be sophisticated, not just in the writing, but also in their design and production.”

Given the time pressures on just about everybody these days, it’s not uncommon for directors to have to do follow-up calls after the treatment has been submitted – and you can imagine what’s behind the request. “There’s a phrase you don’t want to hear once you’ve submitted your pitch, which is, ‘Why don’t you take us through your treatment?’ That’s code that they didn’t read it,” says Popp.

But J. P. McMahon, Founder & EP at A Common Thread in L.A., says that there are genuine benefits to these post-pitch calls. He views treatments as being of the utmost importance, and he and his directors are all in on the process. “It’s where the collaboration happens,” he says of these calls to go over the document. “Agencies are looking for ideas. At this point, they’ve been through a long process, and they’re very close to the project. These are opportunities for the director to really plus things up a bit.”

And now that they’re all conducted via Zoom or Google Meet – about the only real change since the pandemic impacted the business – they’re now genuine show-and-tells, which directors feel is an improvement. “It holds people a bit accountable,” says Popp. “You can gauge their interest, see what they’re doing.” Adds Spooner, “You’re no longer this faceless voice, and it allows you to do some interesting tricks with your computer, to make it more engaging. And if the creatives ask for changes, that can be a good sign – it usually means they’re going to share it with the client.”

Speaking of which, how involved are clients? In some cases, maybe too involved. “They’re being sent treatments, but they haven’t been on any of the calls and have no idea how the agency briefed the director before the treatment was created,” says Masseur. She cites an experience where a client latched on to something in a treatment that the agency had specifically asked the director to include. “It can put the director and the production company at a disadvantage.”

Often, clients see things in treatments and expect them to be literally translated to the shoot itself. “They’re looking for guarantees, in an endeavor that should be somewhat free-form,” says Spooner. “You find that at times, agencies and clients will try and hold you to things that are in the treatment.”

But it’s a two-way street; clients can tip the scales in a director’s favor, based on the treatment. Popp says he won a job recently that he didn’t expect to win, and they found out later that it was the treatment that sold the client. “They read it and said, ‘He gets it – he understands our brand.’”

Everyone agrees that the treatment process puts undue strain on production companies’ finances. “When a job is already underfunded, and they’re asking for elaborate treatments, these things can run into the thousands to create, and you may still not get the job,” says Spooner. All this, he notes, at a time when budgets are going in the opposite direction, just underscores the pressure to win each and every job. “it’s really gotten out of whack. And no one is waiving the requirement for them anytime soon.”

Agonizing though they may be for some tortured writers, the treatment process does play a role in ideation. Popp says that often once he’s done, he feels a sense of accomplishment, “like I’ve already completed the project in my mind. I’ve already made a lot of the difficult choices that will make the job easier should I win it.”

So is there an art to the successful treatment? “Absolutely,” says McMahon. “It’s got to address all the key elements of the job, with a look and feel and visuals that back that up. And it’s got to be well-written as well. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work.”