DOES THIS CONCEPT GET YOU HIGH? A Guide to the Elusive “High Concept” and What It Means for You as a Writer

“High concept” has become such a Hollywood cliché that many writers disregard it as a meaningless term or an out-and-out myth. I’ve heard writers complain that “a high concept is anything that ends up being successful” or even state, only half-sarcastically, “high concept just means the stupidest, biggest-budget action idea you could imagine.” Conversely, some “experts” jump on the “high concept bandwagon” and attempt to peddle a magic formula, which is often very complex and consists of a jumble of different elements.

Yet, high concepts aren’t complex – they really can’t be, by definition. It’s pretty universally agreed that a high concept is an idea that is immediately and broadly compelling; lots of people are interested in it and drawn to it. This precludes some sort of in-depth evaluation of the material, as the sort of mass interest we’re talking about is inherently connected to a brief, clear idea that is conveyed in a way people quickly understand and like. And you can’t find high concepts just by working backwards either, as movies succeed for all sorts of reasons, such as star power (Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, or Leonardo DiCaprio in just about anything), character or franchise prominence (X-Men, Batman, and Avengers films), and word-of-mouth (any “little” movie that takes off, essentially because it’s just good). And the idea that high concept is just a term for big, stupid action blockbusters definitely isn’t true either – after all, many of the biggest spec sales ever haven’t been action movies or required a high budget.

So now that we’ve started with the Neti Neti approach – (non-screenwriting fact of the day: Neti Neti is a Hindu term roughly translated to “not this, not that” that refers to a search for universal truth through the elimination of the false) – what’s left? For starters, high concepts tend to be fairly obvious in hindsight; after all, don’t you know them when you see them? Maybe not all the time – high concepts don’t always appeal to everyone – but at least now and then? Haven’t you ever seen a trailer or read a logline for a spec sale and said to yourself, more or less, “F**k me! Why didn’t I think of that? Anybody who came up with that idea and wrote it half-competently would have sold that thing?” By the way, if you haven’t ever had this experience you should start reading the loglines for successful spec sales and blockbuster non-franchise films, and learning how to identify and recognize what they have in common.

The moment I have the clearest memory of that “F**k me! Why didn’t I think of that?” feeling is from over a decade ago, when I was just starting to write screenplays and I saw a trailer for a movie called SWIMFAN. It was FATAL ATTRACTION in high school. There’s an industry half-joke about the viability of just setting every classic novel or play in high school – TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU is THE TAMING OF THE SHREW in high school, O is OTHELLO in high school, SHE’S ALL THAT is PYGMALION in high school, CRUEL INTENTIONS is LES LIAISONES DANGEREUSES in high school, and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN SUBURBIA is so postmodern it puts the “IN” phrase right in its title.

SWIMFAN is just such a commercial idea – take the FATAL ATTRACTION concept, a relatable compelling idea at the core of a hit movie aimed at adults over a decade earlier, and translate it to a high-school setting. (After all, teens are probably even more interested in FATAL ATTRACTION’s core elements than adults are.) SWIMFAN, like FATAL ATTRACTION before it, is the sort of idea that’s so clear and strong it implies the entire story: The protagonist is a nice, popular high-school kid with a seemingly charmed life and a loving girlfriend, but he falls prey to a moment of weakness and hooks up with some other girl. He feels bad, but he figures he can hide it from his girlfriend and go on with his life. Then, inevitably, (unless it’s CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, which this isn’t), the scorned hook-up turns homicidal and terrorizes him, his girlfriend, and his family.

SWIMFAN is hardly a perfect movie; in fact, it’s not even a good movie. The swimming element is oddly prominent, while the FATAL ATTRACTION concept should have dominated the movie, and any other major elements should have been both more integrated and more relatable to a wider audience than swimming. Yet, even with all of the clumsy elements in SWIMFAN, that thing was selling if it was written half-competently – the appeal of the FATAL ATTRACTION concept in a fresh, teenage setting is strikingly obvious.

But what makes SWIMFAN and other high-concept ideas, well, high concept? The answer is almost deceptively simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to replicate. A high concept combines a familiar and successful idea with a new twist. That’s why so many “CLASSIC NOVEL OR PLAY but set in high school” films are successful, and why even some of the ones that weren’t successful commercially for various reasons still sold and/or got made to begin with.

After DIE HARD was a big success and became part of the popular culture, UNDER SIEGE was sold, greenlit, and made a bunch of money in its own right; if you haven’t seen UNDER SIEGE, it’s DIE HARD on a boat. UNDER SIEGE couldn’t have been simply another movie about a lone hero trapped in a building who battles (and defeats) terrorists; viewers would have recognized that movie as a ridiculously brazen copy of DIE HARD, and they just saw DIE HARD. But those viewers really liked DIE HARD, so of course they want to see a new movie similar to DIE HARD. Voila! – set UNDER SIEGE on a boat instead of in a building (and make the hero a martial-arts expert instead of a cop).

Think of your favorite movie, whether that favorite movie is WILD STRAWBERRIES or TRANSFORMERS or anything in between. Wouldn’t it be cool to get that same general experience again from a new movie that didn’t just feel like a copy? If a friend came running up to you one day and said, “Hey, I just saw MOVIE X and it totally gave me the same vibe as WILD STRAWBERRIES (or TRANSFORMERS), but it’s not just a copy – it still has its own identity,” and you happened to absolutely love WILD STRAWBERRIES (or TRANSFORMERS), wouldn’t you be really interested in that new movie?

This is why so many pitches talk about MOVIE X “meets” MOVIE Y. This is why you hear about story archetypes (such as “fish out of water”) so much. You know what people liked because they liked it (and, on an even more fundamental level, because certain themes have been universally appealing since the beginning of time), and it’s your job as a writer to twist something likable and universal into something new and interesting that still contains a core element of what people have liked so much in the past.

For those of you who think this sounds like “cheating” or that it encourages unoriginality, I would say that you’re fooling yourselves. Everything’s been done. Your “original” idea isn’t actually original. The human experience is universal, and people write the same basic stories over and over, yet in different ways, with different voices, and in different eras. This article is about the way to explore the human experience if you want your exploration, written in screenplay form, to have the best chance of selling and being commercially appealing to a large number of people.

High concept is the mix of something familiar, comfortable, and broadly likable combined with a new twist. Of course, it’s not that simple, because the new twist matters tremendously – you can’t just write FATAL ATTRACTION in a retirement home and expect a big spec sale. In a purely dramatic sense, there’s no particular reason setting FATAL ATTRACTION in a retirement home wouldn’t work, but the reality is that the FATAL ATTRACTION concept isn’t a great match for the demo you’re targeting (the elderly), and that movies about the elderly, even with themes more appealing to that demo, rarely tend to have large budgets or be big commercial successes.

So far I’ve covered the more-obvious high-concept formula of taking a popular idea directly from an older movie, novel, or play, and adding a compelling new twist, but there are also high concepts that are a bit more subtle. These high concepts still utilize a popular story archetype (or even multiple familiar and popular aspects) at their core and add a compelling new twist, but they don’t derive inspiration from a single source.

An example of this is LIAR, LIAR, which is about a conniving lawyer who finds himself magically unable to tell a lie on the day he must win the biggest case of his life. The archetype here is a very flawed protagonist learning the error of his ways (as with Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL), and, to top it off, everyone’s familiar with both the courtroom and family elements that combine in the movie. None of this is stuff we haven’t seen before… except for a really cool twist: The conniving lawyer is unable to lie. Talk about a high concept! – You have all these familiar, comfortable elements, and then you add a new element that will clearly result in all sorts of comedic “fish out of water” – (another archetype!) – situations, while leading to fulfilling personal growth for the main character, and this new twist is, very importantly, easy for just about anybody to instantly understand and grasp the implications of.

Other examples of high concepts that combine familiar elements with a new twist without being clearly based on a single source include REMEMBER THE TITANS (people from different backgrounds learning to work together, but placed specifically in a racial context against the backdrop of football, which is (coughunlikeswimmingcough) a very popular sport in the United States), MINORITY REPORT (a detective struggling to solve a crime, but with the brilliant new sci-fi element of setting it in a society where the criminal is arrested before the crime happens), and THE SOCIAL NETWORK (a rags to riches story combined with the common theme of how money and worldly success can’t buy happiness, but set within the specific context of a very topical, true story).

I tend to generally to prefer the more-nuanced high concepts in films such as LIAR LIAR, REMEMBER THE TITANS, MINORITY REPORT, and THE SOCIAL NETWORK to high concepts that put a new twist on a single source, but that doesn’t mean this sort of high concept is more successful, or even always “artistically superior.” For example, CLUELESS is a wonderful teen movie, and it’s definitely single-source with a twist – in this case, EMMA (a Jane Austen novel) set in Beverly Hills instead of Victorian England.

The bottom line is that if you can come up with a true high concept – (which means people actually identify with and are attracted to the core element, wherever it comes from, and your new twist is truly compelling to a wide range of potential viewers) – it’s worth writing. Despite the deceptive “simplicity” of the high-concept formula, it’s not easy to actually think of a high concept. If you’re already a competent writer, and understand how to get your work read by legitimate agents and producers, then coming up with a genuine high concept is likely the single biggest thing you can do to give yourself the best shot at a spec sale.

Article by Gideon C., Script-Fix reader.

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