Concept is King

In today’s tight spec-script market, nothing is more important than your idea. In fact, an inferior concept can render even talent and opportunity effectively meaningless.

It comes as a revelation to many talented, hardworking screenwriters to learn that the ultimate commercial fate of their script depends more on the underlying idea—the central story concept—than any other single factor. Moreover, crackling dialogue, sizzling action and description, and stunning visual imagery expressed on the page can all be rendered worthless, in terms of a sale at least, simply because the story concept is not deemed big enough or good enough.

That’s why Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Déjà Vu) preaches a standard he calls “the Warner Bros. hallway test.” The premise is this: If a producer walking by an office notices an assistant reading your script, he or she might ask “What’s that about?” If the assistant can’t summarize your tale into a clear, compelling sentence or two, you fail. Simple as that.

And many, many scripts that make it into Warner Bros. and other studios are rejected precisely because of that failure—regardless of the quality of the writing.

“Concept is the thing that people relate to,” says Joyce San Pedro, a Sony-based creative executive at Zhiv Productions. “People can understand a good concept within a second. It’s a simple, clear, concise idea that people are just drawn to.”

12 Monkeys (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Producer Robert Kosberg (12 Monkeys, Deep Blue Sea, Commando) has crafted a 20-year career from that very premise. “The best high concepts I’ve ever sold are the ones that grab your attention in one or two sentences, and you know what the whole movie is about that quickly,” states Kosberg, currently based at Nash Entertainment with a number of studio projects in development.

In turn, he notes, a precisely formatted version of the two-sentence concept becomes a logline. And, as almost everyone knows, a powerful logline is the currency of the kingdom in Hollywood.

But, says independent producer Brian Udovich (The Key Man, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), whose The Wackness won the Audience Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, a strong concept must also transcend a simple logline. “I agree that [the idea] has to be easily digestible immediately,” he says. “But once you bite into it, you have to realize that there are more layers to be understood.” A good recent example of that principle, Udovich offers, is Inception. His point is that it’s not a movie about dreams and dreaming. It’s a heist film—a commercially proven genre for almost a century—that uses dreams as a novel new twist.

“IS THIS REALLY A MOVIE?”
When it comes to an informed assessment of a prospective concept, no test is more important than a simple, practical question: Is this something millions of people all over the world will line up to see and pay their hard-earned money for? Not always is a good idea a movie.

“For example,” says San Pedro, who has been a Hollywood development executive for almost a decade, “what’s the ending that’s going to drive the story? What about this story is going to attract an audience? You can have a good story that won’t attract an audience. How will it keep an audience interested for two hours? What are the three acts? How does the story play on the screen?”

Udovich suggests that aspiring scribes use what he calls “checkpoints” along the path to a fully developed concept. “And the number-one checkpoint,” he says, “is to ask whether you have a broad enough, commercial enough genre and concept that will allow a producer like me and a studio to put butts in theaters.”

That said, notes Paul Junger Witt, a legendary TV producer (The Golden Girls, Soap, Benson) and veteran film producer (Dead Poets Society, Three Kings, Insomnia), a strong commercial concept today must also demonstrate the potential for crossover business in international markets. That’s because each year, a bigger slice of Hollywood’s total annual revenue is generated in overseas markets. And to play globally, a movie must come off as emotionally honest and truthful—within the context of how regular people live and function—while representing a truly universal experience or emotion.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Photo: Optimum Releasing)

That principle is exemplified in the huge success of The Hangover and its highly successful sequel—which puzzles some people. But, Junger Witt says, men hanging out with their friends, getting into trouble, and being hung over is a cross-cultural experience all over the world, regardless of language.

MISSING THE BOAT
Given the daunting challenge of coming up with ideas that studio executives and producers think can gross at least $100 million in the U.S. and double or triple that internationally, writers make a series of fundamental miscalculations and mistakes.

“One of the biggest challenges for new writers is the struggle to find their voice,” states San Pedro, who spent years in the publishing industry before moving from New York to Los Angeles. “They see what’s selling and they see the movies that are out there. And a lot of writers just try to mirror [the trends]. But that’s not a good way to approach material. For example, people say there are no original ideas anymore. Maybe not, but you can have an original voice that tells a story clearly, which is what is going to separate you from other writers and carry you through. So that’s what you should be focused on, instead of market trends or gimmicks.”

As a purely practical matter, Kosberg sees four common conceptual shortcomings in scripts submitted to him by new writers. “One is extreme period pieces that take place in 400 B.C.,” he says. “No studio executive I know is ever going to make a movie that takes place in 400 B.C.”

The next fatal flaw is a huge budget that renders the script impractical—no matter how brilliantly written it might be—simply because a studio would have to spend $400 million to make it. “No studio executive is ever going to want to make a movie that costs $400 million,” Kosberg adds with a chuckle.

Another weakness Kosberg sees in scripts by new writers is the most common … and self-defeating. “And that,” he says, “is a general lack of knowledge about the market—what has made money, what has not, and what is in production or development now—and the direct competition your idea faces, one way or another. Like it or not, making movies is a business. And to be in the business, you have to know the business side of things. But, too many writers ignore that.

“Instead,” Kosberg says, “writers get caught up in their own prejudices, which is fully understandable. They get caught up in the love of their own ideas. But if they would spend as much time as they’re going to spend writing the script trying to find that simple, great, one or two-line concept that will be the heart of the movie, they would save themselves months and months of getting off on the wrong foot.”

Last, but not least, on Kosberg’s Richter scale of seismic blunders by newbies, is trend-chasing—trying to emulate box-office successes with a similar tale. It never works. “The more you chase a trend, the more you’re in competition with a million other writers doing the same thing,” Kosberg states. “But there’s nothing wrong with coming up with a vampire or werewolf story if you can put a brand-new spin on it. The problem is the people who say, ‘I’m going to write a vampire movie,’ or ‘I’m going to write a werewolf movie’ think the sheer skill of their writing will get their script sold and the movie made. That is not the case. You have to have a gimmick. You have to have something truly original.”

GOOD ADVICE
Regardless of talent and opportunity, in order to become a success in Hollywood, a writer must understand and adhere to certain principles that studio executives and producers appreciate by well-established consensus.

“To get noticed, writers have to write to their strengths,” says Junger Witt. “Nothing is going to get writers noticed more quickly than really displaying their talent. So, the work should be reflective of a real passion for whatever story they’re telling. And that talent and passion will get noticed, whether the movie gets made or not.”

Genuine passion for your story is at least as important as talent. Maybe more so, Junger Witt notes and others agree, because so many talented writers lack real, enduring passion for their work. “You see the passion in the approach to the story, in the quality of the writing and the depth of the characters,” Junger Witt says. “Those are the things I react to. I want to be moved.”

That being the case with most producers and studio execs, Udovich suggests that a writer pursue a genre for which he or she has real passion. “Then work your personal story within that genre,” urges Udovich, who holds an M.F.A. in producing from the American Film Institute. “That will make it a lot easier when you’re done to find out what studios and producers are amenable to the kind of film you wrote.”

The bottom line, Udovich says and his peers agree, is that passion and expert knowledge of genre cannot be faked. “You can tell within the first five pages whether a script is written from the heart or whether it’s being written for a paycheck.”

A related truism, he adds, is that “You’re never going to succeed in Hollywood trying to write what you think other people want.” Instead, Udovich advises, careful study and analysis of the movie market is essential to the creation of commercially viable concepts.

Junger Witt concurs: “All a new writer has to do is look at the box-office [grosses] of both domestic and international films and see which films crossed over successfully,” he explains. “Then analyze what is similar about those films. For one thing, they tend not to be culturally specific, meaning that it’s not true that only a few cultures can understand the situation and the relationships or the frame of reference.”

THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
If there is indeed a secret code or mantra for conceptual triumph in Hollywood, it is the adage “Give me the same but different.” In fact, Kosberg says, that statement embodies the essence of the movie industry.

“That is a great one-line description of how the movie business really works,” he says. “It gives a studio exec or producer something that has done well in the past, but with a new twist—representing the best of both worlds because if you give people something too different, it scares them. And there’s a lot of fear in Hollywood.” But, Kosberg summarizes, give studios and producers a genuine new twist on an old idea that made a lot of money and you and your work will become very, very popular around town.

3 thoughts on “Concept is King

  1. Melody Beattie

    Thanks for the great tips. When I began screenwriting, my partner franticlly chased trends. By the time we wrote the script, the trend had passed and a new one took its place. He went on to become a big-time producer and writer; I had too many book contracts in the works to devote time and energy to learning the screewriting craft — then.

    Now, ten years later, I’m realizing my 20-year goal of writing screenplays. When my first book hit the NY Times Bestseller list, it surprised me more than anyone else. Then, when it rode the list for three years (and continues to be a backlist bestseller in 20 countries), it continues to surprise me (pleasantly) daily. The problem is, the same book that nobody wanted in the beginning because it’s concept was new and different, became the concept that publishers want me to write over and over. People fear the new.

    We need to trust our passion and hearts as writers. A commitment to a script or writing a book is similar to a marriage. We need to get past the first rosey glow and have enough commitment to carry us through when problems, challenges and objections arise. Only true and heart-felt passion coupled with commitment will do that.

    I learned (and need to remember) that if I write what I have passion for, and enjoy each moment of writing (even the extremely painful ones), there’s no way I can lose. I’m doing what I love each day, whether I sell that piece or not.

    Thanks for the brilliant reminder.

    (I’m working at adapting a didactic bestseller into a script by telling a “now-story” about how applying the concepts I wrote about 25 years ago works in life and death challenging life circumstances today — a different take on adaptation. We’ll just have to see whether or not it works.)

    Thank you. More, please.

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