There is often a lot of overlap when talking about a documentary treatment, documentary proposal, documentary synopsis and documentary logline.
Documentary Proposal – This explains the full scope of your documentary project from story synopsis to the people you’re planning to interview to your distribution plan. This document is typically used for fundraising. Think of this as your film's business plan.
Documentary Treatment – The treatment is almost like a script, detailing exact scenes, characters and story structure. This is a constantly developing and organic document, adjusting as the story unfolds. This document helps the filmmaker sort through the major themes and core elements of the story and is sometimes requested by large funding agencies.
Documentary Synopsis - The synopsis is usually the first section of the proposal. It is a succinct overview of what your story is about, why the story is significant and how you’re going to tell it.
Documentary Logline - The logline is a 1-3 sentence summary of your film that captures the central hook/conflict/narrative of your story. This is typically used in the marketing of your film to put on posters, film catalogues, adverts, TV guide, etc.
The idea behind a treatment or proposal is to have a written document that fully describes the documentary project that can be made available to potential investors, participants or supporters. This is the first step in the process to lay out the vision for your film.
Expect your proposal and treatment to be constantly updating as the project progresses.
The proposal/treatment is not only a great tool for the filmmaker to brainstorm ideas and hash through potential themes and angles of the story, it's a terrific document to share with collaborators and potential funders.
Nina Rosenblum, acclaimed documentary film director, guides you through the basics of how to make a documentary film treatment. She produced this video as part of the "Shooting Poverty" film competition, but these are great lessons for anyone wanting to understand better how to write a treatment.
Need a template to work from? Documentary Proposal Template
A proposal is used for grant applications, sponsorship applications, pitches to broadcasters, potential fiscal sponsors or any number of individuals who need to understand the scope of the project.
The proposal should lay out a compelling case for why this documentary needs to be made using quotes, statistics and any other evidence. It answers the question “why this documentary, why now".
The length of a documentary proposal can be anywhere from 2-25 pages (or more) depending on the scope of the project.
The information you include in your proposal is factual and truthful. For example, you do not want to say that the Discovery Channel has endorsed your project if they have not.
Of course, you cannot predict absolutely everything about your project, so the proposal is simply a forecast of how the project is expected to unfold and who will be involved to the best of your knowledge.
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A professional proposal includes not only a detailed synopsis, but a budget, a distribution plan and many other important items. See exactly how to put together a proposal using our Documentary Proposal Template.