Is your spec script wrapped around a high concept?
Guess what I rarely ever hear come out of their mouths?
When I fail to hear a high concept spill from their lips, I wonder why they’re screenwriters in today’s world.
So I ask, “What’s your eventual goal?” Invariably, I will hear, “To sell the damn thing.”
I only ask because last time I checked, this is a business. Are you treating your screenwriting like a business?
Maybe you need to think about it from a different perspective… Why do you buy gas for your car? Because you need gas to make your car’s engine run. If the gas station you go to tried to sell you water for your car instead of gas, what would you do? Buy it? Nope. Then WHY do you keep handing water over to prospective producers?
Most screenwriters simply aren’t creating a product that Hollywood wants. Sure, they’re writing a spec screenplay for whatever that’s worth but there’s a very good reason why, once they try to market that spec, production companies, agents, and managers ultimately pass.
Why? Because they’re not creating a product that the market wants.
Let’s assume for the moment—all things being equal—that your spec is professionally up to par when it comes to everything but concept. It looks good. Has the right number of pages. Format is nice. Overall? Not a bad piece of work except for its concept.
I’ve literally read hundreds of specs over the years that I liked. In other words, they were written well. There was a story there. Many of them even had compelling stories but in the end? I had to put my producer hat on and ask myself the all important question, “Who cares?”
The answer? 99.9999999 percent of the time… Nobody. Why? Because it was a story we’ve seen before. There was nothing different about it. No hook. Nothing that made your eyes pop or eyebrows raise.
High Concept is original. The same only different…
You can’t just write a spec script that is like a dozen of your favorite movies and expect anyone in this industry to care. They won’t. You have to give them something they’ve never seen before. Some unique story element that is the same only different.
What’s that? You’re trying to break in by submitting to screenwriting competitions? How’s that workin’ out for ya?
No, I don’t have any resources or stats but you know what? I don’t need any to tell you most semi-finalists, finalists, and screenwriting competition winners are still trying to bang out a SELLING spec screenplay. Sure, it’s entirely possible you could end up with some kind of representation after doing well enough in some kind of competition but if the screenplay that got you there isn’t something a prospective producer wants?
I guess you could go ahead and enter it into another competition but at some point, representation notwithtanding — you’re gonna get the age old question, “What else ya got?”
If I asked you that today? Right now? What would your answer be? Would it include several high concepts that make my eyes POP? Eyebrows raise? If not? It might be time for you to figure out how to make gas. We can get water anywhere. Maybe not great water but water nonetheless.
I never try to convince anyone of anything. The truth is usually obvious once you hear it and the truth is that in today’s film industry, there are less and less opportunities for spec screenwriters. Even if you’re like me and prefer Independent film over the usual studio fare and prefer to write that kind of screenplay, you still might want to figure out how to implement high concept into your story.
Why? Even independent film producers need gas.
Oh and by the way… So do agents and managers. So right about now, some of you might be thinking, “Fuck it… I’ll write a book instead.” Well guess what? High concept pretty much rules the publishing industry too.
Don’t believe me? Look it up.
Still here? Sure, some of you are pissed right about now but you’re still here.
So what the hell is high concept and how do I implement it into my story?
Let’s start off by saying what high concept is not…
- High concept is not high budget. Whew. Dodged that bullet.
- High concept is not a studio tentpole film. Good. Nobody’s going to hire an unknown screenwriter to write a studio tentpole film anyway.
- High concept is not character driven. Melding action and character together kicks your spec up a notch or two but high concept is just as much (if not more) about your Protagonist’s outer journey as it is about his or her inner journey.
- High concept is not difficult to explain or describe. If you can’t pitch your concept in a short, succinct sentence that make eyes pop and eyebrows raise, then you’re not writing high concept.
- High concept isn’t Pulp Fiction. Imagine trying to pitch Pulp Fiction in a short succinct sentence. Can’t be done.
- High concept isn’t formulaic. Sure, there are hundreds of formulaic high concept movies but that doesn’t mean you should be writing one.
- High concept is not dependent on casting. In a high concept story, concept is king. The concept itself is the star of the movie.
You might have heard a hell of a lot of shit about high concept. Maybe even enough that keeps you from implementing it into your story but the bottom line is this… It’s a hell of a lot easier to sell than a concept needing a ton of explaining. The more explanation a concept needs? The more passes you’re gonna get.
So what is high concept?
- High concept is commercial. It equals money. It’s high octane GAS. High concept sells tickets.
- High concept contains visible goals. It’s okay if your Protagonist develops a character arc, just don’t make THAT the centerpiece of your story. Your protagonist’s goal is to save the girl, kill the shark, find the lost groom in time for the wedding. Make sense?
- High concept contains visible obstacles. We need to see and keep seeing whatever obstacles you throw in front of your Protagonist.
- High concept is original. When I say original? Let me be clear about Hollywood’s definition of original. Same, only different. In other words, high concepts are familiar… They echo movies we’ve seen before but with an original twist that we’ve not seen before — something or someone unique that we’ve never seen before.
- High concept contains mass audience appeal. The majority of just about any audience demographic will not only get the concept immediately, but enjoy it as well.
- High concept contains universal themes. I’m not talking about the theme of your story… What I mean is that your story contains elements the majority of just about any audience demographic can identify with. Themes like love, hate, vengeance, escape, fate, family, power, justice, honesty, etc. A high concept isn’t so stupid that everyone gets it… It’s so universal that everyone gets it. Themes that we as prospective audience members have experienced some time in our lives or themes that we’ve thought and fantasized about. You want your concept to appeal to a prospective audience member living anywhere in the world. Human beings are human beings. Universal themes resonate with us. Don’t forget that.
- High concept contains a time limit or a short time span. You can think of this as a ticking clock or simply insure your concept takes place over a short time span. This is why the title of the book, Six Days of the Condor was changed to Three Days of the Condor for the movie.
- High concept contains a clear, concise, and succinct logline with as few words as possible to describe or explain it.
- High concept has a great title. Short. Evocative. Suggestive. Intriguing. Your title should either qualify or sum up your logline. Think Jaws, Home Alone, Liar Liar, How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, The Fugitive, Jurrasic Park, etc.
- High concept should suggest a high degree of conflict.
- High concept should promise an emotional experience.
- High concept is NOT selling out.
High Concept can make you rich…
That’s what the title says and it’s true. There are people that regularly sell high concepts to Hollywood without a screenplay to go with it.
What’s that tell ya?
It should tell you that Hollywood needs gas just like everyone else and just to let you know? Good gas is hard to find.
If you’re writing screenplays to sell and not simply for enjoyment or to submit to competitions, don’t leave this element out of your story. Hollywood is rampant with script competition semi-finalists, finalists, and winners who still haven’t sold a spec screenplay. Sure, their writing is what got them noticed.
Let me say that again… Their writing is what got them noticed. Hell, their writing even got them representation. What their writing did not do however, was sell.
I dare say you should learn as much as you can about how to come up with, create, and develop a high concept idea way before you ever start writing your screenplay. High concept truly is what separates the men from the boys… Women from the girls.
No high concept? No sale.
The good news? This can actually elevate a so-so screenplay into an actual spec sale IF your concept is high enough and hits all the notes.
The bad news? You better learn how to rewrite the spec as per the inevitable notes you will surely get after you make the sale. That is of course, assuming you want to stay in the game.Would you rather be known as the screenwriter who can come up with a high concept or the screenwriter who can come up with a high concept and a screenplay that lives up to its high concept? The industry is littered with one-shot wonder screenwriters who came up with a high concept but a so-so screenplay but got their shot to kick their draft up to greenlight level only to crash and burn.
Don’t be that screenwriter.
- More articles by The Unknown Screenwriter
- Magic Bullet: High Concept
- 5 Tips to Turn Your Script Into a High Concept Idea
Is Your Concept High Enough? Webinar by Unknown Screenwriter