View Full Version : "High Concept" vs. "Great Story"

04-07-2005, 12:22 PM
So I'm noodling around, going through my idea file trying to come up with a story for script #6 (my agent having dinged the period action-adventure that I WANT to write next...), and thinking about the eternal debate between the "write what you love" camp and the "write what's commercial" camp (reconciled by the "write what you love as long as it's commercial" camp).

I got to wondering just how many hit movies were "high concept" (as opposed to just having great stories). So I went through a list of the top-60 worldwide money-makers for the period 1999-2005.

Some definitions of "high concept":

-- "a movie idea that's judged to be so commercially appealing it will draw a huge audience all by itself."

-- "The plot of a high concept movie can be easily assimilated by audiences, and can usually be described in a sentence or two, and features relatively simple characters and heavy reliance on conventions of genre."

-- "a previously-sucessful movie in a new context (e.g., Die Hard on a [fill in the blank]"

-- "sucessful movie A meets sucessful movie B"

-- "1. It is unique. 2. It appeals to a wide audience.
3. It can be said in one sentence and...you instantly see the whole movie."

Here's the highly-subjective list I came up with:

Adaptations/franchises/licensed properties/remakes (i.e., things out of bounds for the average spec writer): 23 films

High concept ONLY: 3

Great Story ONLY: 27

High Concept AND Great Story: 7

My understanding is that "high concept" is basically a marketing idea intended to predict which project will put butts in the seats on the opening weekend (when most films make the bulk of their revenue).

However, it seems less reliable as a predictor of the total revenue produced by a film (which I'd think would be of even greater interest to studios).



JakeSchuster aka Ostroff
04-07-2005, 12:39 PM
This is actually a very good question. "High concept" is easily definable; but one person's "Great story" is another's dud. So how do you define "Great story"? Is it a compelling narrative that in and of itself carries you along when you read the script or see the picture?

Or is it noted for its originality--because high-concept pictures often seem very familiar?

I just sent a script off to my managers that, as far as I can see, is a wholly original story. I can sum it up in two sentences, but it doesn't fit the usual formula of high concept. So does that make it "great story"? I frankly won't know till my manager calls and either says, "You nailed it!" or "Um, I don't get it..."

Nice thread. I'm interested in reading everyone's response to Lauri.

04-07-2005, 01:15 PM
The truth is that most major players (i.e. studios and companies with deals with studios) think more in terms of trailer moments. It's how they are going to sell the movie. That's what really matters to them. So what sells better a high concept or great story? Obviously a high concept but that doesn't mean it will work.

DEEP IMPACT surprised everyone with it's strong showing. But they should a huge tidal wave in the trailer and everybody wanted to see that. Anyone remember anything from that movie besides the tidal wave?

04-07-2005, 01:29 PM
That's how I pretty much define high concept. Trailer moments. If you got trailer moments that will hook an audience in a few seconds then you got high concept.

Great story takes great characters and regardless of whether the fleshed out people you create are made shallow and two dimensional by a prodco... you have to write them into every script.

High concept SHOULD be great story. Don't write down because you got something flashy that'll sell. Write up and make it impossible to say no to it.

04-07-2005, 01:32 PM
BTW, Lauri... I don't know what movies you used to come up with your list so I can't do the following...

Got to www.boxofficemojo.com (http://www.boxofficemojo.com) and find out what each of the movies you selected made and list them out here. I'd be interested to see the results.

04-07-2005, 05:18 PM
I used a list of top-grossing movies worldwide, which is somewhat different from the US figures. I did a very quick-and-dirty tally, and I'm sure someone else would come up with different figures, and my own numbers would probably vary on a subsequent pass -- so I don't want to argue which category a particular title should be in (tho I would be interested if others' totals were way off from mine); I just wanted to get an order of magnitude based on my own sense of concept vs. story.


04-13-2005, 12:17 AM
Agents I've dealt with don't say High Concept (prolly since that Don Simpson book came out), they say "I can really see the trailer."

At least they're capable of envisioning *sumpthin'*:rolleyes

04-20-2005, 08:06 AM
I side with the "trailer moment" folks on this one. A long while back I wrote a thread where I argued that almost all of the genuine blockbuster films of present and past had one thing in common: Visual Spectacle. From WIZARD OF OZ to GONE WITH THE WIND to THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to TITANIC and on and on...

Of course, there are exceptions, but numerically that's exactly what they are, exceptions. And of course, Visual Spectacle doesn't automatically translate to great b.o.; there are plenty of visually spectacular movies that failed to find an audience...

But the fact is that when you look at the list of all-time top grossers, it's heavily weighted with visually spectacular films...films with widely appealing "trailer moments."

04-20-2005, 05:19 PM
Boski, if you're talking about a list of current movies, then yes, but for an "adjusted for inflation" one, there are plenty of standard dramas, comedies and animated flicks that would no t qualify, unless you extend "visual spectacle" to include virtually anything from Grease to The Sting to The Graduate to 101 Dalmations.

04-20-2005, 05:39 PM
You may be right on an inflation-adjusted basis -- but none of the films you mentioned was green-lighted in the past 20 years.

Whatever worked with audiences (and studio execs) in the past, we are now in the age of spectacle -- though not for the first or last time.


04-20-2005, 10:22 PM
As I said, there are exceptions, but the rule for the last 60 years is that visual spectacle rules; really can't see how anyone can argue otherwise no matter which list you use: current or inflation-adjusted.

I count all animation as visual spectacle; that's why cartoons are so riveting and have been so popular for so long with kids of all ages. It's certainly not the stories. And today's blockbuster CGI stuff is almost pure eye-candy, visual feast from first frame to last...

By my reckoning, using b.o. mojo's Top 50 all time inflation-adjusted list, films heavy on visual spectacle outnumber "unspectacular" films 5-1.

Delight the eyes and you'll delight the film-going audience. Probably has something to do with the fact that cinema's defining characteristic as an art form is that it delivers moving images to an audience on screens the size of highway billboards. Not exactly a medium where you'd expect small domestic dramas or tender coming-of-age stories to dominate.

(Telling, too, that HOME ALONE, the top-grossing comedy of all time, was pure slapstick...elaborate sight gag after sight gag...if only the Three Stooges had lived long enough...)

04-21-2005, 07:11 AM
Also, spectacle translates well -- in that it doesn't need to be translated. A car chase or an orc works in any language -- comedy and drama (which can be culture-specific) sometimes don't.

Interestingly, though, when I just ran the numbers for the top FOREIGN box office for 1999-2005, the ratio of spectacle to non-spectacle is only about 3:1, which is counter-intuitive, assuming your 5:1 ratio is correct for the US market. Any ideas on why this would be?


04-21-2005, 09:54 AM

Excellent point about spectacle speaking a sort of universal language. One thing movie distributors can rely on is that audiences worldwide all have eyeballs and visual cortexes...

B.O. mojo has a list of "worldwide" (combined foreign and domestic) grosses, and the Top 50 on that list, according to my analysis, breaks even MORE favorably for visual spectacle than the domestic Top 50. About 6.25:1.

On that list, I counted the following as "non-spectacle" films: FORREST GUMP (though it had some innovative visuals that were all the buzz when it was originally released) SIXTH SENSE, PASSION OF CHRIST, FOCKERS, GHOST, BRUCE ALMIGHTY, PRETTY WOMAN, and HOME ALONE (though as I said before this movie's just one big sight gag.)

The other 42 trade heavily on visual spectacle. Let me know where to find that 1995-2005 FOREIGN box office list. I'd like to take a look.

04-21-2005, 10:06 AM
I used: www.worldwideboxoffice.com/ (http://www.worldwideboxoffice.com/)

There will, of course, be some disagreement on whether certain films offer "spectacle." Matrix would clearly be in the spectacle camp, Notting Hill clearly wouldn't, and Castaway is arguable (it did have a cool plane crash, but other than that...?)

I would put Passion under "spectacle" (like Gladiator and Troy).