View Full Version : CE - "Lower Your Concepts" Revisited

April Hamilton
06-21-2004, 01:20 PM
I recall the Lower Your Concepts thread, in which aspiring screenwriters were advised to think in terms of strong story + low budget requirements when it comes to selling a first spec.

I started out that way, and it did get me a lot of reads and open doors. But I haven't had an outright sale yet, and the reason I keep hearing from the various producers and execs who've met with me is some variation on, "This is great, but it's kind of small for us." So my little specs got me past the bouncer but then the execs tell me that what they're looking to buy is something very different. From me, a comedy writer, they want high concept stories with big, colorful set pieces.

Thoughts or comments on this writer-whiplash situation? Suggestions for how to successfully navigate the transition?

06-21-2004, 01:39 PM

Don't you think that part of the problem in the question you are posing is that you are looking to break in by selling a spec when that's such a rare occurrence for first time writers?

April Hamilton
06-21-2004, 01:49 PM
Hamboo - what other way is there? Isn't it exceedingly rare for an unsold/unproduced screenwriter to get assignment work? I'd be very happy to break in on assignment work, but that doesn't seem any less a longshot. Is there a third option I'm missing here (bearing in mind that I have no desire to direct, so don't intend to shoot my own small film)?

06-21-2004, 02:07 PM

I don't know what your script is about or the relationship you have with your producers or managers. And I can only speak from my own experience as a writer in a similar situation. I've written 3 complete different versions of the same romantic comedy since I signed with my agent and working with an A-list producer. It's because he and I have a long-term view of my career (or at least that's the B.S. that we are feeding each other). We want to make sure that the spec that will be ready to go out as great as possible so that:

1) we maximize the chance for a sale (hopefully in a bidding war situation)
2) if not 1, then use that script to get meetings that will lead to assignments

Now, this is fairly typical optimal scenario but I don't think any of the three entities involved (me, agent, producer) are in any rush for me to get into the marketplace.

I'm in a similar boat as you. I'm dying to get my scripts out there. I have bills to pay, starlets to meet, free lunches to take advantage of. But I also think it's better to wait until your first script is absolutely best and reflective of your abilities and sensiblities.

Now that being said, I've not answered the original title of the thread.

April Hamilton
06-21-2004, 02:35 PM
Hamboo - yes, we are in the same boat, except I'm not signed with a big-name agency. :)

And I'm also going through the same iterations on my new spec like you, draft after draft after draft, beginning with multiple drafts of just the outline. My issue here isn't being in a rush to get something to market, it's that much of what mentors have taught me to get me into meetings with A-listers (again, after going through many, many drafts and rewrites on a given spec) seems immediately irrelevant and unwanted once those meetings begin.

I'm not angry about it or anything, I'm willing to do whatever's necessary; it's just that it's come as a big surprise to me and I bet it will come as a big surprise to many others here when the time comes. If I'd been expecting it, I would've made sure I had a very big, noisy, polished high-concept spec waiting in the wings for when the inevitable, "This is great, but it's kind of small for us. Do you have anything more high concept?" question arose.

P.S. If anything, I'm probably feeling less time pressure than you since I have a day job that pays well. And I can take or leave the starlets. FYI, I didn't think your posting in 'Opportunities' was sleazy or wrong; I've paid more than that for consulting in the past.

April Hamilton
06-21-2004, 02:55 PM
Directing the question back to CE again - I guess I'm wondering if I should've put all my effort to date into writing the more high-concept stuff to begin with, and if being a comedy writer makes a difference strategy-wise.

06-21-2004, 04:25 PM
think in terms of strong story low budget requirements when it comes to selling a first spec.

I have NEVER heard that before. From what I've always been told, a spec = high concept (or clear hook) + strong, castable lead roles - budget is not a consideration.

Within my close circle of writer friends, some of us are produced, others steadily working, some now in TV, all WGA (except me) - but NONE of us have ever sold a spec.

The ones with WGA cards broke in by going out with a strong spec from which they got assignment work.

with regards to budgets, it occurs to me, could CE be talking about writing comedies and dramas instead of $100 million action sci-fi epics?

06-21-2004, 04:29 PM
Yes, I think he was encouraging people not to write big-budget specs like fantasy adventure, sci-fi, or historical epics, since these do tend to be popular with beginning writers.

His advice was to develop a high concept but not high budget spec.

06-21-2004, 04:46 PM
JimJim --

I agree! I just had a friend who got a writing job for an A list producer and a one year deal with a studio for lots of $ -- she has never sold anything. So many people on this site talk about selling the spec, selling the spec -- but of the freinds I know who broke in none have sold anything (actually one has but AFTER he broke in!)

How did this person break in -- she wrote one great script after the other. Met with EVERYONE. Got a good rep' and based on all that got a HUGE job!!$$

See NOT selling a script -- if it's good - isn't the end of the road... The phrase "try to make fans" isn't BS...it's true. When you write one good script after the next it gets around. Even if you don't sell it your ods of getting a job goes up with every good script you write and send out.

06-21-2004, 04:54 PM
What I also think is interesting is that of the people I know who have broken in -- thier experience is SO different (in a good way for the most part) than what I read about on these boards. That's why I don't visit much. How it really works seems to have little or no connection with 90% of what's on the boards...

April Hamilton
06-21-2004, 05:22 PM
Jsomm - I agree with what you're saying; I know my path hasn't been typical so far, but then again I'm not sure there's even any such thing as a "typical" path anymore.

06-21-2004, 05:28 PM
I followed the high-concept route. I came up with a great idea and wrote a fantasy-comedy with huge set pieces and really big characters. My industry friends (writers/directors) loved it. When they passed it to agents and producers for me, the response was "It's too big for me." Everybody now told me that I should be writing lower budget, edgier stuff.

Very frustrating. I wrote the thing because everybody told me to think big and let my imagination go. Now they tell me the opposite. My opinion is that it's all BS and nobody really knows what they want. Something either catches their interest, regardless of concept or budget, and they go for it. The script I am currently writing is a low budget comedy, but with a strong concept. I hope it does the trick. If not, I at least have all my ground covered if they say they want the opposite.


Writing In The Margins
06-21-2004, 05:41 PM
April -- What does your manager think?

You should never base what you write on the opinions of execs unless you've been paid to take their notes. Only because sometimes they say intangible things like "your story's not big enough" as a polite term of rejection -- and simply put, as it was already pointed out, they don't know what they want.

You'll be spinning your wheels forever if you're writing to appease execs -- unless they're someone with opinions you truly respect.

April Hamilton
06-21-2004, 06:00 PM
Margins: my manager is pushing me to go bigger too, but I've only been working with him on one spec from cradle to grave; all my other stuff was written (and re-written, multiple times!) before he met me. But there again is another case of my "small" specs getting him interested in my work to begin with, even though his firm is only really interested in high concept, mainstream fare.

Bess McNeil
06-22-2004, 07:50 AM
I'd have to agree with jimjim and JSomm. In my experience, getting a writing assignment is far more common than selling a spec.

I have seven specs that have won different awards and gotten me assignment work. But none of them has been produced or 'sold' outright (One of them was optioned twice, but the options ran out before anything happened with that.)

By the way, one script that I wrote, the script that I always hear is "too small", is also the script that keeps getting me writing assignments. So don't abandoned your 'small' scripts entirely.

My work has all come from assignments, for which I was hired because the producers liked my spec writing samples. The spec sale is the brass ring we keep chasing, but assignment work is great too.

You can drive yourself nuts trying to second guess what the producers want in terms of small story high concept low budget high budget genre etc. While it's wise to pay attention to the whims of the market, I think the bottom line is write the best scripts you can, as if there were no limitations. (Okay maybe writing a thirty bazillion $$ budgetted shakespearean aqua-ballet isn't such a good idea, but you get what I mean, right?) The writing sample is the important thing.

Good luck, April!

06-22-2004, 09:15 AM

If you don't mind my asking - - did the contest wins lead directly to getting an agent? Also, how soon after winning a contest did you get assignments? I ask because some writers feel the contests are a waste of time. (I recently entered Nicholl and I'm hoping they're wrong).


I'm just guessing here but I wonder if the hidden task is to prove we can develop a high concept script that could be made for a reasonable or even small budget. This really puts the onus on the writer's skills in terms of plot and character development.

I actually thought about this in my last script when I did the page one revise. I changed the opening so it could be done with a stock aerial of Las Vegas and only one 'new' exterior shot in LV (and there may even be stock available for that one too). The rest of Act 2 requires interiors, which can be shot anywhere, after that the story goes to the back woods of Georgia. While revising, I reviewed every scene and made a choice of setting with budget in mind. And I discovered something interesting - - the script is better because I had to work on making dialog better to make up for the 'bells & whistles' I deleted.

I also did this with the goal of having the reader think, 'Hey, this can be easily made.'

Just a thought. :)

Bess McNeil
06-22-2004, 09:56 AM

Yes. I got my first agent after winning the Austin. I got my first assignment about 6 months later (that film never got made but at least it was paying work).

Contests (at least the RIGHT contests such as the Nicholl, Austin, Chesterfield and Disney) are definitely NOT a waste of time. I started screenwriting while living in a small town, with no film school education and no contacts. I'd never even met anyone who worked in film. By winning a respected contest I was instantly recognized by established members of the film industry. They suddenly paid attention to me.

Of course, if a particular writer never places or wins in a contest, I could see why that person would feel that contests are a waste. Also, you have to make the most of the hype after winning the contest, so that you don't just fade back into obscurity.

Sure, a lot of contest winners DON'T go on to successful screenwriting careers. But for me, if it weren't for my contest wins, I don't know that I'd be a working screenwriter right now. It's so hard just getting anyone to read your work when you're unknown, and I don't really have an aggressively salesmanlike personality. Winning a contest is like being 'prevalidated' by professionals, so it opens a lot of doors.

Good luck in the Nicholl! (my first contest 'victory' was placing as a Nicholl quarterfinalist, so even if you don't advance any farther than that, consider it a good sign! And even if your script goes no where in the Nicholl, enter it in other contests - my Austin winner never passed the Nicholl first round. )

06-22-2004, 09:59 AM
%%WORD0%1 - you're probably overthinking the situation.

I read for an agency and a prodco and I don't give a whit about the twenty grand it'll take to get helicopter shots for the opening sequence or how many sets there are in the second act and whether they are builds or practicals.

I do worry about stuff like


or action lines like

THE CHOPPER veers into the SEARS TOWER and glass rains down while the ICY BLAST from the North FREEZES the lake and EVERYTHING on it.

We break budgets roughly into three categories, Low - Medium - High. A common "easy out" is when a story doesn't merit the cost. Truth is though, that doesn't mean that if they took the explosions out and made it a medium budget, it would be good enough.

Studios are only going to make one or two event pictures a year and trying to spec that market as an unsigned, unproven writer means you are jumping into the most competitive (and lucrative) writing arena.

Assuming we are talking about studio material, I think the point is that it doesn't matter if your script costs ten million or twenty million or thirty million, not at the writing stage. Besides, unless you have budgeting experience, you won't know anyway. It does matter if it's going to cost a hundred million because everything you write needs to be CGI.

Think Great Concept Clear hook Outstanding Characters

06-22-2004, 10:04 AM
THE CHOPPER veers into the SEARS TOWER and glass rains down while the ICY BLAST from the North FREEZES the lake and EVERYTHING on it.

I would see that movie! :)

06-22-2004, 12:04 PM
Bess: Thanks much-ly!

JimJim: Thank you, too.

06-22-2004, 01:49 PM
Personally, I want to see NEPTUNE'S UNDERSEA MEGA-OPOLIS!

Seriously, thanks for that post, jimjim, it's always good to get a perspective from the other side.

06-22-2004, 03:36 PM
This theory of LOWER YOUR CONCEPTS was not
mine. It belonged to Doc Stiggers.

I wholeheartedly agree that Hollywood is concept
driven. The idea of keeping the budget down
makes sense to me - but it isn't necessarily a
philosophy I would preach. LEGALLY BLONDE
is a great example of what the Doc was talking

If the script is not concept driven, it needs
to be amazingly well written.

I meet lots of writers who pitch "high concept"
ideas - and they are not high concept - they
aren't even interesting.

If I heard your idea, April, I could take an
educated guess at what the exec really
meant when he passed because he wanted
a project with a bigger budget.

Your script will NEVER please everyone and
each person will have a different reason for
passing. "It's too big." "Isn't big enough."
"It feels like an indie." "We're developing a
project just like it." And so on.

Just keep peddling your script until you meet
the producer (or whoever) that is the right

April Hamilton
06-22-2004, 05:33 PM
Thx, CE. And good luck on your TV debut; I plan to watch. :)