Jennifer Lerch in
her book, 500 Ways To Beat The Hollywood Script Reader tells
us that we want to shoot for high concept scripts because they sell.
She says, "A high-concept screenplay can be sold without lengthy
explanation by the Hollywood Reader or the Executive Reader." In
addition, Ms. Lerch, a Hollywood Reader herself, says that readers refer
to those stories that have a catchy idea and broad appeal as high concept.
One thing is certain,
a high concept script will sell before a low concept script. For example,
Liar, Liar, a script in which a lawyer has to tell the truth
for 24 hours was said to be an easy sell.
Here are some one
word film titles that fit the definition of high concept:
Two word examples
films (those big action movies that generally come out in the summer)
are high concept. Think Terminator, Con Air, Air Force One, Die Hard,
etc. But not all high concept movies are big blockbuster-type movies.
Movies like The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects,
and Goodfellas are high concept, but not blockbuster.
Of course, there's
another element to studio execs, agents, and producers thinking a script
is "high concept." I could write a script called Bored Housewife
and we'd all get that it's about a bored housewife, but it wouldn't
be "high concept." High Concept also implies that at least
some of the following elements are present.
- The hero must
be dealing with a BIG PROBLEM. Good scripts are about conflict and
great scripts are about both internal and external conflict!
- Some of the
visual scenes are huge. We don't see a couple of fighter planes in
the sky. We see dozens!
- We either see
an ordinary man in an extraordinary world or an extraordinary man
in an ordinary world. Top Gun is about an extraordinary man.
Jaws uses an ordinary man.
- The concept
must be original. There may be several movies about an asteroid hitting
earth, but if there are, they probably went into development about
the same time or they are spaced years apart.
- An 'A list actor'
would find this movie an appropriate vehicle for his/her career.
Some say that all
the dependence on high concept or blockbusters began with Jaws
in 1975, but a quick look at AFI's list of 100 Best Movies of all time
reveals this may not be so. Only one of the top ten best-loved movies
of all times was made after 1975. All of these are certainly high concept
movies, blockbusters of their time.
AFI 100 Best
1. Citizen Kane
3. The Godfather
4. Gone with
the Wind (1939)
5. Lawrence of
6. The Wizard
of Oz (1939)
7. The Graduate
8. On the Waterfront
10. Singin' in
the Rain (1952)
Let's look at last
year's Academy Awards® nominees for Best Picture:
2. Crouchin Tiger,
3. Erin Brockovich
See any high concepts
in this list?
One of the key elements
in creating a high concept script is broad appeal. What does that mean?
It means that the script appeals to young and old (those under and over
25) and both sexes. How do you appeal to all of those target groups?
Find something that has a universal appeal.
Some possible themes
that will work:
loneliness (Citizen Kane)
family (The Godfather)
lost love (Lethal Weapon; Casablanca)
Another key element
is that we must like the protagonist. We want to see Tom Hanks get the
mermaid! We want to see Mel Gibson save the country! And we want to
see Dustin Hoffman get the girl (in The Graduate). We like our
heroes super strong (able to leap tall buildings in a single bound)
or men of ordinary strength who are so determined that they can do anything
despite their size or underdog status.
Where do people
get high concept ideas? Sometimes they come from a recurring dream (Deep
Blue Sea). Sometimes they come from catastrophic events (Twister,
Armageddon, Earthquake). Sometimes they come from wars (Gone
With the Wind, Pearl Harbor). Often they come from the writer's
imagination (Alien, Star Wars, Independence Day, Godzilla).
One way I get ideas
is to read what the best-selling books (especially non-fiction ones)
are and by reading the New York Times to keep abreast of what's going
on in the world. Almost any major news story can lend itself to a high
concept. Read the article and then ask yourself "What if..."
One high concept
movie Dr. No has turned into a franchise that has created 18
successful films (James Bond). The Last Action Hero was supposed
to be a high concept film that would launch a new studio franchise and
Sometimes you can
come up with a great high concept idea and it doesn't work, like Waterworld.
We immediately get that the world is now only on water ... it's not
a bad concept. But it was too depressing. We didn't want to go there.
We are hooked on happy endings, because most of our lives don't have
Sometimes you can
come up with a great high concept movie but the timing is bad. Now is
not the time to be pitching or writing a movie about terrorists. Just
ask David Griffiths III, the writer of Collateral Damage that
was scheduled to be released soon with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The script was about
Firefighter Gordon Brewer who is plunged into the dangerous world of
international terrorism after he loses his family in a bombing that
takes place in a high rise in Los Angeles.
Men in Black
2 and War of the Worlds production schedules have been halted.
The sequel to The Siege is proceeding on schedule. Some movies
like Spider-Man are being re-edited to remove images of the World
We may see studios
shy away from action films for quite some time as they reassess their
market after the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon.
Would they buy Die Hard today? I doubt it.
- Bonnie Orr
Bonnie Orr is a
SCREENTALK Staff Writer. She graduated from the UCLA graduate level
professional screenwriting program in 1998. Since then she has had two
writing assignments; one a romantic period piece set in Palestine in
the early 20s; the other a sci-fi sequel. Bonnie has been
a reader for The Austin Heart of Film's Screenwriting Contest for the
past four years, teaches screenwriting classes, and has had several
scripts optioned. Recently, she completed her thirteenth script; a comedy
called Welcome To Kick-Ass. Currently, Bonnie is a reader for
the Texas Film Development Corporation.