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Film & TV

Treatments, Pitching, and Funding

Ken Burns

Lesson time 13:38 min

Filmmaking requires passion, vision—and money. Using an example from The Civil War, Ken teaches you the purpose and process of writing a treatment and his tips for navigating the world of fundraising.

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Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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I think a treatment is, at least for me, it's essentially a fundraising tool that turns out in the discipline in order to write it, something that helps us sort of plant the flag creatively in what we're going to do. It's going to develop into an expanded treatment or the scripts or the blueprint for how we're going to go out and start shooting and actually making the thing. I learned as much about writing working on proposals and treatments as I've done writing in the films themselves. And while I really want to focus on the latter because that's the important and the glamorous stuff, in fact, the other stuff has been equally important. And we've learned stuff again about what we wanted to do by refining it. You have to be able to sort of tell it to distill the essence of what you're going to do into a page or a page and a half or two pages that is compelling to somebody who doesn't necessarily have the enthusiasm for the project that you do. Sometimes it's a really long essay. But it also has at the head a kind of abstract that says, this is what we think it's going to be. And we work really hard on what that is. And I wrote one with my brother Rick for the Civil War series, which, you know, maybe it would be good to read. You know? So here's the proposal. Big. Well, I can read this and we'll be done in a couple of days. Some of the granting sources for me required 25 pages. And some end up requiring-- or we end up having-- proposals that run more than 200 pages. This had a kind of opening abstract. "Somehow between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers-- if only to become the kind of nation that could no longer quite conceive how that was possible." My brother wrote that sentence. It's so flippin' good that it's in the film. We added it to Jeff Ward's script because it's so good. "The Civil War made us what we are, a union. But to become united, we had to tear each other apart. And in so doing, we went far towards eliminating the differences that had made the war inevitable. And at the center of it all is the simple fact no less terrible for being obvious the Civil War was above all about men dying. And no talk of the glory of battle or what might otherwise have been can reduce the foolishness, the absurdity, the tragedy of that. We wish in our film to convey that tragedy, to particularize it in the words and deeds and lives of the men and women who experienced it." So interesting, we always in some ways come back to an essential part, or many essential parts, of a treatment in what we finally do, not out of some loyalty to it, but out of the fact that in order to communicate a passion and an enthusiasm for a particular subject, we had to understand how that subject needed to be told. And that means you get a double bang for it. You just say, well, I'm out there. I'm raising money. But it's helping me understand what it is. [MUSIC PLAYING] Before you write a treatment...


The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Thank you! I love this guy. I just love him. I have learned so much and feel very inspired. Thank you.

Watching someone at the top of their field, and listening to them, has so many rewards. I'll probably never make a documentary film, but hearing about starting, and being willing to cut 80 % of the work has a lot of applicabilty for me.

I had an idea for a production before beginning the class but did not know where to begin. As Ken said in the wrapup, it's important that there be a first step. That statement is the confidence builder I needed. I will take a first step. The class was extremely valuable and Ken was spellbinding.

Loved it. Again, it is the personality of the teacher that really keeps me engaged. Ken is a very inspiring guy.


Comments

JD Mayo

Ken Burns Civil War series is one my favorite films he's done so far. It was one of his projects that inspired me to become a film maker. He was also in the movie Gettysburg as a cameo.

David S.

I am a high school Television Production teacher and have been working with a small team of students this year to produce a documentary on some changes in the status quo in education that have been taking place in Virginia. The students and I are SOLD on the innovative things that are taking place! The trick has been funding (hotel expenses, etc.) as we travel. At first I just wanted people to give us the money for this worthwhile project that seemed so important. BUT...we had to get out there and fund it...the students became pitchman for the film....AND they became much more invested in the story. So, what I thought was going to be a drag actually honed our ideas and invested those students- "skin in the game" Loved the episode...and am loving the class....so much to take to my young filmmakers in rural Virginia!

Cecilie H.

This visual craftsman makes me want to cry each time I dive into his series. There is something about Ken Burn's incredible level of decency, honesty, insight, and humility that I find extremely moving - and painfully rare these days. His advice is hard-earned and worth gold for those of us just finding our feet in this genre. I am grateful to be here.

Noel H.

Ken, this is amazing! I am going to recommend your class to my brother! We have watched many of your documentaries. Seeing how you go about creating a documentary film is simplify fascinating and flabbergasting! 5 STARs

Ashraf A.

I would highly appreciate anyone who can share a documentary treatment. Thanks.

Jonathan B.

1500 rejections and 15 yes. Just wow. Knowing what to anticipate, knowing, that this could be a challenge down the road to fund a film... that is definitely awe inspiring. I like challenges and hoping to build up my experience as an editor more and more cause I am learning the hard way how long this process is taking.

Christa A.

Oh my goodness! Ken's generosity with information in this lesson and also in the workbook materials for this lesson just knocks me out. I'm so grateful. Worth its weight in gold as I navigate my way through my new job in documentary film.

Phil N.

1500 rejections for 15 acceptances. I gotta get out there to get more rejections. And hopefully one acceptance! I would like to hear more about the acceptances and how much creative control you risk giving up in order to guarantee a sale. Is there ever a fear that you sign a contract to fund your project only to have it stalled or put on the shelf by the funder? Perhaps intentionally if there are controversial issues and partisan interests involved? My Energy Documentary goes both ways politically. I show my proud family heritage in the early coal and oil industries of the 1800's and, contrarily, the global environmental crises caused by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels in The Year 2020. While I admire the progressive ideals of renewable energy (politically Democrat), I don't want to preach to the converted. Perhaps the point of view of industry (politically Republican) is what I should sell, without wavering on the evidence and my concern for clean air and water. In this sales process, Ken Burns is correct, that we may test our own beliefs and refine our message to one that can make a difference.

EK T.

I have written proposals like this for three different projects. If you take your time, and know you are not going to get it all done in one day, it is not as overwhelming as one may think. Doing the budget can be a killer, unless you are willing to spring for the relatively expensive budgeting software. Once you write up the proposal for a project, you can use it as a template to apply to many different sources with specific variations, depending on the organization. Still, it is no walk in the park, but it is good to know that there are resources out there.

Mary C.

Ken, have you had ideas stolen? Routinely, networks and production companies will accept film pitches but their responses via letter or email states that "we may have similar ideas in consideration". Through the pitch, you've abandoned all rights to the idea. You can submit pitches with "copyrights" and post a copy to yourself but they can always claim to have had the idea first. They may alter the idea sufficiently to cover themselves but it happens all the time. It has happened to us as wildlife and conservation doco filmmakers. That, and being a principal on a film, purposefully being left off credits are big bummers. The other thing that has happened is that an unethical executive producer will open up their file cabinets and give your story or aspects of your film, away as a favor to a colleague. Has anyone else had this happen?