Beware of the HIGH CONCEPT
I’ll be really honest: I want to make big, loud, fun popcorn movies. I want to give an audience an escape. I would not be sad if my film merited a series of collector’s cups from Burger King. Selling out? On the contrary, I think part of the celebration of movies is the other fun stuff that comes with it. Toys, games, spinoffs, all of that can be a really great way to “live” inside the movies we love so much. But the dark side to that is that getting them made is all driven by the ever-looming, ever-elusive HIGH CONCEPT.
The High Concept is the story idea that is so simple, so big, and so unusual that it can be described in one sentence. Or one line on a poster. It’s one of those ideas that when you hear it, you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Exterminators who exterminate ghosts. A private school for wizards. A theme park of dinosaurs. He was dead the whole time!!
But beware. The High Concept is a great way to sell something, but it cannot be your goal. Stories have to get interesting and take little turns and be personal to you. Otherwise you are going to have a really hard time telling them. If you fixate too much on the High Concept, you will lose sight of the actual story. I’m sure we can all think of a movie that had a great premise and even a great trailer full of amazing images, but the actual 90 minute experience did not deliver. I’ve fallen victim to the lure of the High Concept, so I thought I should warn you. I used to think I could write about ANYTHING if a producer hired me to do so. Robot Babysitter? Rescue team of talking dolphins? Farm animals start a rock band? You bet. By the way, all of those projects are real.
I should tell you the story of “The Diary.” At the beginning of my career, I partnered with some friends in a production company and we were taking meetings all over town. We were hot and interesting and new and several producers wanted to be in business with us. Great! But they wanted us to bring them a really clear “high concept.” So my partners and I spent a few weeks white boarding and brainstorming all of our best log lines and came up with a list of about 40 ideas. Of those 40 ideas, we debated and voted until we carved those down to 10 ideas. Then we took those 10 and loose-pitched them to a prominent producer. He picked three of those. We wrote extended two-page treatments of all three and then he picked the ONE. The ONE he thought was the MOST LIKELY to sell. The ONE that had the most potential “traction” in the marketplace. It doesn’t matter what the idea ultimately was, but we called it “The Diary” (Spoiler: it had to do with a diary).
After all of this development, it was decided that I was the one in our group who should write this. I was raring to do it. I sat down and started the long and painstaking process of outlining the entire plot. It was a 15 page outline. I got notes on that. I rewrote the outline several times. Then after a couple months, it became clear that… I just didn’t care about this story at all. Not one bit. I kept trying to like it and get invested in our “perfect concept”… but no. It wasn’t one of the ideas I had put up on the white board, and it wasn’t one I really had a stake in. Sitting down to write it was like doing homework. And you might think, “Well buck up, be a professional. Do your homework!” But imagine doing the SAME homework assignment every day, all day, for months. Then imagine it is the one subject you hate. Why do that to yourself? And how good will a piece of art be — even commercial art — if you can’t find some way to be inspired as you make it? I will tell you, at least for me, it can’t be done. And there have been times when I desperately needed the job. But once you get the job, you’ve got to know you can DO the job. Executing a script has to come from somewhere deeper inside you than a need to pay your bills.
And you cannot confuse the High Concept with a PLOT. Plot is the complicated path your characters take. It is hidden underneath the High Concept. And you’d better have one. You can’t just entertain people for 90 minutes by playing off your one-sentance idea. Studio heads and marketing departments love to talk about the High Concept. But they don’t have to worry about the story. If you’re the filmmaker… you do.
There has to be a personal story inside the Big Concept. Or you won’t get it to the finish line. So if you have one of those loud, bold, simple ideas, just make sure that inside that candy-coated shell is something really important to you that you really want to say. Because you’ll need that little spark on days when you don’t feel like writing. Or on days when you are completely grid-locked by the annoying details of finishing the draft. Notes will be coming at you, months will turn into a year, and you’ll have to LOVE that thing you are writing.
Now that’s not to say that a transforming robot or a superhero can’t be a passion project. You’ve just got to find the thing that makes it matter to you. Once you figure that out, the high concept on YOUR poster is: “WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WRITER GETS EXCITED ABOUT WHAT THEY’RE WRITING?” Even if that script doesn’t make a billion dollars, the ending is still a happy one.