by Michael Ferris and Adam Sellers
To break into the business, it's not enough to be a great screenwriter anymore. You have to be a great screenwriter AND write high concept scripts. And while there is a better chance of selling a script because it's high concept, that's not the reason to write a commercial spec.
It used to be that "writing samples" were screenplays that were low concept but brilliantly executed. Writers like Allan Loeb wrote dramas like Things We Lost in the Fire that led to the studio assignments that kick started his career (say what you will about how his scripts translated to the screen, as they've definitely been a disappointment to fans of his writing).
Those days are falling behind us, and the question on every industry mind while reading an unknown writer’s spec is "can this guy/gal actually write commercial movies?" If you don’t answer that with a high concept writing sample, then your uphill battle just got even bigger - despite being able to garner interest with your well written low concept material.
Whereas before, when Loeb got paid studio assignments off the back of his indie scripts, nowadays what ends up happening is writers are asked to do “free drafts” in order to prove they’ve got the mettle to write blockbusters.
As if writing draft after draft for free isn’t bad enough, because it’s usually based on someone else’s idea, you have no rights to the material and most likely end up with just another writing sample when it's all said and done.
As I discuss in greater depth in the upcoming March 2011 edition of Script Magazine, what's true right now in this tough spec market is just an exaggeration of what's always been true. To sell your first script it better be great technically, and it better have a Big Idea.
So let's get to the meat of this.
What is "High Concept"?
Many times High Concept is described as being able to be put the story into a TV Guide one sentence format. That we can easily see or visualize what the entire movie might be like from just a one sentence description. For instance "When a zombie apocalypse takes hold of the RMS Titanic, the first voyage becomes it's last". As many of you know, that could also be the type of logline I strongly suggest writing - that punchy one sentence that grabs anyone who reads it. Others talk about the “Mash up” descriptions like “It’s Titanic meets 28 Days Later”.
First, let me put high concept into perspective from an industry standpoint. A commercial idea is one that as soon as it comes to you, your first thought is “How in the world has a corporate owned studio that takes zero risks NOT made a movie like this yet?" That sounds silly, but your litmus test should be if you think a corporate fat cat, who doesn’t give a fig about story, would hear your idea and place a 100 million dollar bet on it. Because even "low budget" studio movies are costing way more than 100 million once you add up P&A costs, this should be your bare minimum test to see if your script has a chance at being bought.
Alas, format and litmus tests does not a concept make. So while "TV Guide capsule" or "mash-ups" might be a great starting point for what High Concept actually is, and while it's good to have some sort of quick test for yourself when you come up with an idea, let's dig a little deeper.
BIG EXPLOSIONS ALL YOU NEED?
Let me start by saying that simply having big explosions does not equal "High Concept". A high concept script doesn't need explosions to be classified as such, though many Big Idea scripts have them. No, it's not a big explosions, but big SET PIECES. You see, while maybe 50% of big idea scripts have an "explosion" type scene, 100% of them have set pieces - and they are either big, interesting, or both.
A prime example of a screenplay that has elaborate and interesting set pieces, but no explosions and little violence is one of my favorite recent movies: The Hangover. The Hangover, much like Wedding Crashers, has easily definable set pieces (in comedies they're played for humor, rather than tension) that are sprinkled throughout the movie, and are integrated into the story in a believable enough way to keep the plot moving forward. The Mike Tyson set piece. The morning after set piece (with accompanying Tiger). And on and on.
In action movies, the set pieces are easier to pick out, as they are played for excitement or tension. Most of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a classic example, especially the first act.
In recent years, due to technology and CGI, set pieces have become more elaborate and interesting. With the imagination being the limit of what can end up on screen, the recent trend has caused both wonder (Avatar), and silliness (several Pirates of the Caribbean set pieces come to mind). There is a tendency lately to 'go big or go home' with some of the set pieces in today's scripts, which leads to over the top, fantastical things hitting theaters. As the Pirates franchise is one of the biggest grossing in the world, with some of the silliest set pieces, don't shy away from over the top . Soon there will be no such thing.
CAUTION: While I advocate letting your imagination go crazy when writing set pieces, it damn well better fit perfectly with the story, characters, and theme. If it doesn't, going over the top will have a very detrimental effect on your material.
WHAT DO SEQUELS, REMAKES, and ADAPTATIONS HAVE IN COMMON?
It's important to study what the top grossing films are for a number of reasons, as if you pick out the data you'll find some very interesting trends. For instance, the percentage of them with underdog stories is stupendous. If you really want to get deep into what makes a high grossing movie, I'll share some data with you in another column soon.
So taking a look at the top 100 grossing movies list, you'll see an over abundance of Sequels, remakes, and adaptations. What do they have in common? Well, the obvious being that they all have a built in audience - thus garnering less risk for the studio. Sequels have a guaranteed 60% return on their original counterpart, so if the original made some mad dough, well...you get the picture. But for the purposes of writing a script, what is the one thing to pull out? We know and care about the characters.
While writing an original spec, obviously you can't stick Peter Parker in there as your lead - BUT, you can write a character that feels real - like a piece of ourselves or someone we know, and once you've gotten us to care about this character (masters of craft can get us caring in just a few pages), PUT YOUR ANTAGONIST IN DANGER. Now, obviously, it doesn't have to be literal danger. In The Hangover the clock was ticking for them to find the groom and get him to the wedding ("danger' of missing the wedding).
If you can get us to care and identify with the protagonist (usually, the easiest way is to make him an obvious underdog) and pit him/her up against a much bigger and insurmountable force, then you're halfway home. The Pilot for Glee is the easiest example, as that sh*t was FULL of underdogs. You could swing a baton and hit a handful of them, and the obvious ticking clock of their club getting disbanded at any time, while dealing with a huge roadblock of a villain (Sue Sylvester)...you get the picture. It's a popular and commercial show because it's easy to root for an underdog, and it's easy to have big set pieces and big goosebumpy moments with a room full of underdogs and their peppy little subplots. What else does a high concept, sellable script have?
Does Your Movie Suffer from "How in the Hell are They Going to Get Out of THAT?" Syndrome?
If you look at the top 5 grossing movies of all time, you will see that all of these suffer hugely from this wonderful disease. How are these primitive blue people going to beat a massively overpowering technologically powered army? How are the hobbits and wizards and elves going to beat a massive army of Orcs and the most evil mofo any world has ever seen? How are the toys going to escape from the prison that is Sunnyside Day Care and a strawberry smelling Mafia don cuddly bear? Etc. etc. etc.
Harry Potter, one of the highest grossing intellectual properties ever, pits a lowly boy against an evil so powerful, no one dares utter His name. Those novels and books are FULL of impossible to imagine how in the hell they get out of this one scenarios. Coupled with a underdog we care about and an "unbeatable" villain, and you get about a gazillion bajillion (actual gross numbers) dollars.
If you can couple your big set pieces with your "How in the shizz are they getting out of this one?" set ups, you're way WAY way ahead of the game.
SIMPLE PLOTTING - FANTASTIC LAYERING
99% of the biggest commercial movies have simple plots. I'm not even going to touch Inception, although an argument could be made that if you take away all the window dressing, it too has a simple plot.
That may also seem strange to you, since I mentioned the Pirates franchise as one of my examples. In fact, even Pirates movies have simple plots, they just present it in a big, exciting, visual way that just takes way too many twists and turns (they've got to fill up 2.5+ hours somehow, right?).
Speed is a good example. A bomb is on a bus. They have to keep it above 55mph no matter what. That's it. It’s basically Die Hard on a bus. It’s simple, you can see the whole thing in your head. It also happens to be one of the best Die Hard on/ in a __________ movies out there. But what makes it interesting is the layers added on top of that. A love story. A backstory with the partner. A backstory with the bombmaker himself. Etc. etc. etc.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a super simple setup. A dull marriage is shaken up when a couple discovers that both their spouses are assassins and they have become each other’s next target. That idea implies the whole tone of the bored couple and the charge they get out of rediscovering each other. But then you have the layers on top of that so it's not just a simple A to B movie. It takes turns and twists. In many ways, it isn’t that dissimilar from True Lies, another high concept action/ comedy.
One of the highest grossing screenwriters out there once told me that to try and have an "original' plot or plot structure is futile. In the thousands of years of storytelling, every plot has already been done. It's the characters, the dialogue, the story world, etc. etc. etc. that makes a movie "original" - not the plot or structure. So don't overthink it. Make it shine with great characters that spout off great dialogue in an interesting story world (again, story world can mean an everyday place - The Hangover made Vegas seem like a hypercrazy version of what it actually is, etc.).
DOES HIGH CONCEPT GUARANTEE BOX OFFICE SUCCESS?
Ironically, There’s Something About Mary was a huge commercial hit when it came out and is still regarded as a hilarious movie. It made #1 in the box office, weeks AFTER it got released because of word of mouth. But what was the idea? A guy tracks down a girl from high school to give things another try. It’s actually a very simple story and not that high concept at all. It got made because the Farrelly brothers had a track record, thus placing it under the “attached talent” category for why it got made. Ironically, a few subsequent Farrelly brothers movies with high concept met with mixed box office results.
In Shallow Hal, a superficial man is hypnotized to see only inner beauty and falls in love with an obese woman that appears as a slender Gwenyth Paltrow to him. Me, Myself, and Irene is a woman on the lam is with a man with severe split personality disorder. One is a super nice guy and the other is a diabolical sex fiend. Stuck on You is an even simpler concept: a conjoined twins buddy comedy.
So obviously writing a high concept movie does not guarantee box office success. BUT, and here's the important part - who gives a sh*t if it does? I'm just trying to teach you how to write a script that will sell. Selling your first script is the hard part - everything else is just gravy. I know many a writer with fantastic scripts that never got made, and the ones that did grossed a zillion dollars - but weren't their best work. At the end of the day, you will have all the opportunities in the world to get it right once you get your foot in the door. I'm just trying to help you get your foot firmly in there.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
Take Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. It's the 4th highest grossing movie of all time, and while it was long and had too many plot twists, the story itself was simple. If you think about it today, it's obvious why the Pirates movies were a success. But before the first one came out, people thought it was the dumbest idea anyone ever had to make that movie. What can you do with pirates? Have cannon battles back and forth? This is where set pieces for the movie, while big, were also INTERESTING and UNEXPECTED. Take the trailer for Dead Man's Chest. It doesn't have just two boats shooting cannons at each other - it emphasizes monsters, a kraken, and interesting set pieces like two characters dueling on a giant water wheel. Also notice there are at least 4 different "how in the hell are they going to get out of THAT one?" moments in the trailer - and we all know about the underdogs in the story.
In my job of helping screenwriters, it's always frustrating to read a screenplay that is proficient in all the technical aspects of writing and has an engaging story, but the concept is just missing a hook that takes the idea into the high concept stratosphere. I still send their scripts to my contacts, and while they have gotten meetings and representation, the road to actually SELLING their first script was long - precisely because they were essentially starting from square one with their well executed but low concept material.
If you can verbalize all of these concepts in just one sentence when talking about your movie, then you've come up with a high concept script. Again, think about The Hangover. The "danger is the ticking clock to get the groom to the wedding on time. The "how in the hell are they going to get out of this one" is the fact that they cant remember what they did or where their friend is. The interesting set pieces involve tigers, small Asian gangsters, and a wedding chapel, among many others. We care about the characters (particularly the dentist, who we immediately feel for in his terrible relationship). You get the picture. It doesnt have to be big huge tentpole explosion filled movies to be high concept.
I hope this gives you an idea of what to think about when sitting down to decide which movie you will write next.
As always, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions or if you need advice.
Good luck and happy writing!
Other articles in the series: