High Concept and Low Concept



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  • High Concept and Low Concept

          The following are some of the questions I always hear asked
                   about High Concept:
                   What does High Concept mean? 
                   How do I know whether or not my story idea is High Concept?
                   How do I find High Concept ideas?
                   The term/phrase High Concept is used as a marketing tool to
                   pitch a script/movie in order to entice the industry people
                   such as: agents, producers, studio executives, etc.
                   WHAT DOES HIGH CONCEPT MEAN?
                   High Concept is a story idea, referring to the hook, that
                   clearly and immediately conveys a must see unique movie with
                   plenty of conflict that possesses great potential to achieve
                   commercial success. 
                   Let's breakdown the elements that define high concept:
                   1. A big hook/gimmick/twist that can be easily understood in
                   a brief summary causing the reader/listener to immediately
                   see the movie in his mind and be intrigued.
                   The ideal reaction you'd like to hear: Wow!
                   2. It's unique. Haven't seen it before, or a familiar story
                   with a fresh hook/twist.
                   For example:
                   The familiar story of a rich business man's child being
                   kidnapped for ransom. "What if" the business man uses the
                   money that the kidnappers demanded as a reward to anyone who
                   rats out the kidnappers? (RANSOM, with Mel Gibson.)
                   This twist turns the story from familiar to unique.
                   Take "Halloween." After this slasher movie came out in 1978
                   you had Writers writing their own slasher stories with a
                   monster character chasing down the teenagers.
                   These weren't true High Concepts. They were no longer unique.
                   A true High Concept slasher movie after "Halloween" is Wes
                   Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984).
                   Monster, Freddy Krueger, terrorizes teenagers in their
                   dreams. The protagonist must stay awake.
                   Keep in mind, just because you have a story idea that's
                   unique doesn't mean it automatically makes it high concept.
                   For example, consider the following story idea: 
                   An old geezer must ride a lawnmower across the Midwest to fix
                   his relationship with his dying, estranged older brother.
                   This story is unique and it has a hook, but it's not high
                   concept because the appeal is not universal. It'll only
                   attract a niche audience, therefore this story would be
                   considered low concept. 
                   Not saying this story couldn't be made. In fact, it was
                   produced and screened in 1999, titled "The Straight Story."
                   It was a critical success, but it didn't make much money.
                   3. Universal appeal, meaning broad/wide appeal, to achieve
                   the commercial success that the Major Studios strive for.
                   One way to reach a broad audience, besides being unique and
                   having a big hook, is to hit on everyday experiences in the
                   form of themes, emotions and behaviors that human beings all
                   share and can relate to. 
                   You'll hear in order for it to be considered High Concept it
                   must be told in one sentence, 25 words or less.
                   Mike Nicholls said, "If you can say it in one sentence, it's
                   a blockbuster."  
                   Mike Nicholls further explains his "one sentence" statement:
                   "That's a relatively shallow formula, but it has some truth
                   in it."
                   A high concept story idea doesn't "NEED" to be one sentence
                   to be considered high concept, although, usually High
                   Concepts are more plot driven than character driven,
                   therefore, they're more simple and not as complex, so writing
                   the logline, in a majority of cases, would end up being one
                   sentence containing 25 words or less.
                   The idea is that if the industry person "get's it" in one
                   sentence, so will the moviegoing audience, making the movie
                   an easy sell/marketable. 
                   This is how and why the "one sentence" edict evolved.
                   In some cases, another element that implies a script/movie is
                   high concept is its title. High Concept stories tend to be
                   simple so after seeing/hearing its title you'll immediately
                   be able to visualize the story in your mind i.e., scenes,
                   characters, etc.
                   For example, I'll give you a list of 12 movie titles and the
                   titles where you'll immediately create images that you could
                   see unfolding on the screen will be the high concept stories.
                   The titles that draw a blank where you'll have to read the
                   script or see the movie to understand what it will be about
                   is the low concept stories.
                   High Concept and Low Concept Movie Titles:
                   1.  SNAKES ON A PLANE
                   2.  GHOSTBUSTERS
                   3.  SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS
                   4.  GLADIATOR
                   5.  THE SHIPPING NEWS
                   6.  WEDDING CRASHER
                   7.  LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
                   8.  GARDEN STATE 
                   9.  SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
                   10. IDENTITY THIEF 
                   11. THE PIANO
                   12. SIDEWAYS
                   High Concept loglines are pitch driven, meaning you could get
                   the industry doors to open for you with a big High Concept
                   logline. This does not mean you could get away with having
                   weak execution -- that is if you desire to have a career in
                   the industry.
                   The majority of Low Concept loglines are not pitch driven,
                   meaning the industry doors are not gonna fly open upon
                   hearing this logline.
                   Low concept stories are dependent on its execution, great
                   writing, to open industry doors i.e., voice, theme,
                   characterization, etc.
                   High concept doesn't mean the story was dumbed down so it'll
                   appeal to the widest audience. High concept conveys that it's
                   universal because a wide audience "understands" it. 
                   There are superficial high concept movies, but you do not
                   have to sacrifice substance (depth and richness of story and
                   character) to have a High Concept story.
                   "Big," "Tootsie," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Groundhog Day," "Alien,"
                   and a lot more were all well executed High Concept stories
                   with rich characters.
                   Some people have the impression that high concept means a big
                   budgeted, tentpole movie.
                   High concept does not have any set criteria on what its
                   budget must be to qualify as High Concept. The budget could
                   be $10,000,000 or $100,000,000. It doesn't matter.
                   For example, IDENTITY THIEF's estimated budget was
                   $35,000,000 and it went on to become a blockbuster size hit
                   by earning over $135,000,000 (US/Canada).
                   HOW DO I FIND HIGH CONCEPT IDEAS? 
                   There's a list of things that you could do, such as the
                   REUSE A PAST HOOK
                   You could take a hook/twist/gimmick from a past movie and
                   change up one or more of the story elements i.e., genre,
                   world, themes, protagonist's gender, plot, etc., to make your
                   story fresh. 
                   For example, take Bob Hope's movie "Nothing But The Truth"
                   released in 1941. Hope's character, Steve Bennett, is an
                   investment broker and at a charity event a woman that Steve
                   has a secret crush on gives him $10,000 to invest and double
                   it for charity.
                   During a discussion that Steve has with some fellow brokers
                   about lying vs. the truth, Steve gets the idea about doubling
                   the money by betting them the woman's $10,000 that he can
                   tell the truth for 24 hours.
                   By taking this story's hook, must tell the truth for 24
                   hours, what story could you come up with to make it fresh?
                   How about: After his young son's birthday wish magically
                   comes true, an ingrained, lying attorney must tell the truth
                   for 24 hours. (Jim Carrey's LIAR LIAR, released in 1997.)
                   FISH OUT OF WATER 
                   Conflict in a story is important and one of the strongest
                   ways to have conflict is by using the "Fish Out Of Water"
                   formula. This is where the story yanks a character from their
                   familiar world and drops him/her in a unfamiliar world. 
                   Some examples:
                   AFTER HOURS
                   TRADING PLACES
                   CROCODILE DUNDEE 
                   PRIVATE BENJAMIN 
                   DISSIMILAR CHARACTERS
                   Take two poles apart characters, who would never hang out
                   together, and have some event that forces them together.
                   Some examples: 
                   48 HRS
                   KNOCKED UP
                   MIDNIGHT RUN 
                   LETHAL WEAPON 
                   PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES
                   COUNTER STEREOTYPES
                   Take a stereotype character and show them to be the opposite.
                   For example: LEGALLY BLONDE
                   WEIRD COMBINATIONS
                   Combining the familiar with the strange.
                   For example: COWBOYS AND ALIENS  
                   SUBSTITUTE GENRES 
                   For example: Take the drama X-FILES and envision it as a
                   comedy (MEN IN BLACK).
                   "WHAT IF" QUESTIONS 
                   This phrase is used as a creative tool to convert the
                   ordinary into the extraordinary. To develope fresh ideas from
                   a hypothetical standpoint.
                   For example, say your dog was bitten by a stray dog and you
                   take him to the vet to have him checked to see if everything
                   was okay, which it was. 
                   How can we take this ordinary event and make it
                   What if the dog that bit your dog was a mangy, alien looking
                   thing that was foaming from the mouth? The police kill it and
                   the dog is taken to the vet to check for rabies. It has no
                   rabies and your dog, a pit bull, has no rabies.
                   You're relieved everything is fine, but overnight your pit
                   bull's size and muscles expanded 10x bigger. Also, highly
                   intelligent and mean.
                   Now you have a killer monster for a horror/thriller story. A
                   JAWS type of a hook, but with a gigantic pit bull instead of
                   a shark.
                   We don't need to dissect the worthiness of this high concept.
                   It was just to give an example of the application of using
                   "What if." 
                   "What if" could be applied to newspaper articles, dreams,
                   family stories, events happening in your daily routine, etc.
                   If you want to attract the attention of the Major Studios and
                   get your story sold and produced, then your best chance for
                   achieving this is to write a High Concept story that would
                   induce a producer and director to devote 2 years of their
                   life to the project, and to compel a studio executive to risk
                   his job by greenlighting the expenditure of multi-millions of
                   dollars to produce and market the movie.
                   Right now, there's a loud groan of frustration coming from
                   the low concept writers. They're wondering do they need to
                   stop writing the stories that they are passionate about, what
                   their creative nature drives them to write and focus on high
                   concepts, which they don't enjoy writing. 
                   The common belief is to write what you're passionate about.
                   The reason being that to attract the attention of people in
                   the industry to either sell or get assignment jobs you need
                   to have a great script.
                   A writer being passionate about writing a small, character
                   driven story (low concept), where his heart, mind and soul is
                   all in will bring out his best writing.
                   Unfortunately, it will be dreadfully hard, if not impossible
                   to get an industry person to open his door for the script
                   after hearing the pitch of the low concept logline.
                   A more active route would need to be taken to attract the
                   attention of an industry person to request your script. You
                   would need to attach some type of heat to your low concept.
                   For example:
                   Enter it in the Nicholl Fellowship and win. (You'll only have
                   7,000 other entries to compete with.) 
                  A referral from someone that an industry person knows and
                   trusts their tastes.
                   Get an "A" list actor or director to champion it.
                   Contact Independent Production companies that produce the
                   kind of stories that you've written.
                   I'm thankful for the non-pro writers of low concept stories
                   who wouldn't let the obstacles and hardships stop them from
                   writing what their passionate about because otherwise I
                   wouldn't have gotten to see some wonderful films like "Juno,"
                   "Little Miss Sunshine," etc.