High Concept Could Make You Rich

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Is your spec script wrapped around a high concept?

High Concept InfographicI’m always intrigued why people write screenplays. When I meet screenwriters, I always ask what they write.

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.”

Really? How?

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?

Unknown Screenwriter High Concept

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 High Concept Snakes on a Planeis 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.

Remember that.

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.

High Concept 3 Days of the CondorLet 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.

Is Your Concept High Enough? Webinar by Unknown Screenwriter

Is Your Concept High Enough? Webinar

How to Create a High Concept Before Beginning Your Work
Techniques That’ll Grab the Interest of Producers, Managers, and Agents

15 thoughts on “High Concept Could Make You Rich

    1. Unknown ScreenwriterUnknown Screenwriter Post author

      If it’s REALLY GOOD? Shop it around to producers unless of course you’ve already got professional relationships established with the studios. Find a producer who LOVES the idea and make a deal for THEM to shop it around using their relationships.

      Having said that? Don’t expect to be paid much… Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Ideas USUALLY do NOT cover the entire gambit of questions that will certainly be asked by industry execs. Questions you could probably answer IF you had a screenplay that reflects the high concept idea.

      Good luck with it!

      Unk

  1. Marv_Boogie

    Nice item Unk, as per usual.

    Playing devil’s advocate, what happens when your “friend” has a high concept project (or more than one), well executed, screenplay(s), only to be told one of the following?..
    “It’s too smart”
    “We have something in this world in development” (and years later still no “something”).
    “It’s great, but it’s too expensive of us”

    1. Unknown ScreenwriterUnknown Screenwriter Post author

      Hmmmm. Wildly original. You don’t have to go that far but sure… It helps. Hollywood’s definition of ORIGINAL is:

      SAME ONLY DIFFERENT

      In other words, they want to see something familiar but with a different HOOK… To use an old standard, let’s take DIE HARD and how many SAME BUT DIFFERENT concepts that spun off from the original… This should make it easy to understand.

      SPEED: Die Hard on a bus.
      CLIFFHANGER: Die Hard on a mountain.
      PASSENGER 57 and AIR FORCE ON and EXECUTIVE DECISION: Die Hard on a plane.
      UNDER SIEGE: Die Hard on a battleship.
      SUDDEN DEATH: Die Hard in a sports arena.
      OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN: Die Hard in the White House.
      THE ROCK: Die Hard in Alcatraz.
      PAUL BLART: MALL COP: Die Hard in a mall.

      And there you have it… SAME ONLY DIFFERENT.

      Unk

    2. Appomattox

      Thank you for responding. I must be good to go. Saving Private Ryan in the Nam with a very unique hook and plenty of punches to the face. Where do I cash my check?

        1. Appomattox

          I appreciate your confidence. The writing is extremely professional and the story much better than you can possibly imagine, but…I can’t even get my friends or family to read it. Even readers paid to read scripts don’t want to read somebody else’s script. They’ll do it for the money, give you worthwhile feedback and that’s the end of it. I’m convinced that the front door to Hollywood is locked and sealed with surveillance cameras trained on unpublished screenwriters to make certain they do not breach the citadel. I need to find a way to break in through the bathroom window.

          1. Unknown ScreenwriterUnknown Screenwriter Post author

            Not true at all…

            It’s definitely LOCKED but not sealed…

            If your spec is as high concept as you say… Written professionally as you say… There are plenty of people in the industry who want to read it.

            Having said that?

            Your logline has to POP! When I read it? I MUST HAVE NO OTHER THOUGHT IN MY MIND OTHER THAN, “I have to read the screenplay.”

            No producer worth a shit would pass up a chance to have their reader read a high concept spec that GOT THEIR ATTENTION.

            Same goes for managers… Don’t even bother with agents. They’re afraid of their own shadow. Target production companies that have made films in your genre. Query them first. Then Managers… If everything is as you say?

            You’ll get read.

            Unk

  2. Filmmagician

    I’m a few sentences into this article and it’s coming off ridiculous. No I wouldn’t buy water for my car, but I also wouldn’t drink gas to live. lol terrible analogy. And what was the high concept idea of great movies like Lost in Translation? Or Breathless? The Lone Ranger was pretty high concept, what happened to that guarantee? I know for a fact that a great script with a low concept is way better than a shitty script with a high concept. If you can’t deliver, what’s the point of your high concept? The new Ghostbusters is a great example of that. You can’t say “just have this ONE thing down pat and you’re going to be successful in this business.” You need to deliver on all fronts. Even Goodfellas isn’t that high of a concept, but we’re still talking about that movie and not frickn’ Dances with Wolves or Snakes on a Plane.
    Spec scripts are way more important than a stupid movie aimed to make money. A spec script is flexing your own artistic flair, not having to work for a producer giving you notes. Star Wars was a spec script for crying out loud. So don’t dismiss, or minimize, or even bastardize them. Everyone’s getting sick and tired of 3D movies, comic book movies, and re-hashes. Those fuckin studio execs don’t have 2 creative cells in their body to chrun out something remotely artistic that can also make money. Don’t put all your eggs in one “high concept” basket.

    1. Unknown ScreenwriterUnknown Screenwriter Post author

      Ridiculous? Terrible analogy? Interesting since I’ve had dozens of emails and DMs telling me exactly the opposite. But hey… You’re entitled to your opinion.

      Lost in Translation and Breathless were NOT high concept movies…

      The Lone Ranger? LOL. Depp signed on. That’s ALL you need for a greenlight. Doesn’t matter how good or bad the script is. Not only that but The Lone Ranger is NOT, in my humble opinion, high concept. It’s the Lone Ranger. A KNOWN property.

      You said: “I know for a fact that a great script with a low concept is way better than a shitty script with a high concept. If you can’t deliver, what’s the point of your high concept?”

      Duh. I said that IN the fucking article. LOL. I myself PREFER indie films to most if not all studio fare. That’s not the point I was trying to make that you apparently COMPLETELY missed.

      Who’s going to MAKE your low concept script? YOU can make it of course but just try SELLING it. That was my point… Plain and simple.

      And you are absolutely correct… If you can’t deliver, there is no point in writing either a high concept OR a low concept.

      You said: You can’t say “just have this ONE thing down pat and you’re going to be successful in this business.”

      I NEVER SAID THAT.

      Again, you’ve completely MISUNDERSTOOD the post. I say write what you want anytime you want. Write with passion. Write what compels you. Having said that? A WELL-WRITTEN HIGH CONCEPT spec is always going to SELL faster than a low concept spec script. “IF” you can implement a high concept into your spec, your chances of making a sale are simply better. If you don’t care about making a sale, no worries. There are PLENTY of US out HERE that don’t need the competition.

      You can ALWAYS write and make that low concept spec once you’re soundly in the game. Nobody ever said to NEVER write ANYTHING but a high concept. LOL.

      You said: “Spec scripts are way more important than a stupid movie aimed to make money. A spec script is flexing your own artistic flair, not having to work for a producer giving you notes.”

      Say WHAT? A spec script is a screenplay written on speculation that you HOPE will SELL. Notes are INEVITABLE unless of course you’re making the film yourself… Even then? You might want notes from SOMEBODY worth a shit to give notes.

      You said: “Star Wars was a spec script for crying out loud. So don’t dismiss, or minimize, or even bastardize them.”

      LOLOLOL. Star Wars is HIGH CONCEPT. You’re making MY POINT FOR ME.

      You said: “Don’t put all your eggs in one “high concept” basket.”

      Agreed. And? I never said to do that.

      *YAWN*

      Unk

      1. Unknown ScreenwriterUnknown Screenwriter Post author

        OOPS. By the way…

        I forgot to mention that both Translation and Breathless got made because both directors were already in the business.

        Having said that… Breathless has NOTHING to do with films made in America which is what I’m talking about. Different times. Different films. Different COUNTRIES. Back then? It was the WILD WILD WEST and you could get away with a lot that just won’t fucking fly today.

        For instance… I LOVE PULP FICTION. It’s a GREAT FILM in my humble opinion. And? Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, write that film as a spec TODAY and try to sell it. Quentin Tarantino is a genius. I am the first to admit to that. But a genius with A LITTLE LUCK. LOL.

        Nothing wrong with a little luck.

        Unk

  3. ramonjlongiii

    Thanks for the article! By high concept, you seem to mean a 10,000 foot view of the story in the most general and abstract terms, like: “Rogue soldier infiltrates space empire’s intelligence service in order to blow up a strategic location, except our hero has no idea who his true employer really is and what their ultimate motives may be.”

    Then, when you ask: “Is your spec script wrapped around a high concept?,” I interpret this to mean is that high-level overview of the film the kernel of inspiration from which one grows and crafts the rest of the story’s development.

    Thanks again for this great feature.

    Regards,
    -Ramon

    1. Unknown ScreenwriterUnknown Screenwriter Post author

      I do… Especially when it comes to pitching. The idea is to tell people in the industry as little as possible but ENOUGH so that they GET IT WITHOUT any other explanation. They themselves, will FILL IN THE BLANKS of the story after you’ve given them your logline.

      As for your second question…

      Exactly.

      Unk

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