Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
Paraphrasing leads to errors. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the Hollywood producer who said—and yeah, I’m paraphrasing here—it is better to have a killer concept executed poorly than a mediocre concept executed well. At the Studio level, a bad script can be rewritten ten times over. But the concept… the concept is king.
The term “High Concept” is outdated, but the notion of a monster hook that can be delivered in a single pitch line is seriously relevant. Look at the movies the Studios deliver to us--- sequels and prequels, the Marvel Universe, classic mythology repackaged, CG mash ups, branded entertainment…
Character-driven scripts don't often make it into the tent of the Studios. Freshmen in business school know about the KISS sales model (Keep It Simple, Stupid) or the concept of GTWTWS (Give Them What They Want, Stupid!) Margo Robbie in blue-hair and shorts as Harley Quinn? Release those racy pics early, get the buzz working.
So how do you know if your script idea has a monster concept? You should be able to pitch it—in a single line.
Imagine the meeting at Paramount. You walk in, shake hands with the Development Executives, and get down to cases. The money guys stare at you, looking distracted, bored. “So, what you got?”
You look back without even a disdainful smile, and utter these words:
“SNAKES…ON A PLANE.”
The Execs go asses over heels backwards in their $400 buck black 9000 Series ergonomic chairs! “Yeah, we’ll get Samuel Jackson as the lead, get an airplane up to 33,000 feet, no escape, let loose about a thousand snakes on defenseless passengers…”
They pick themselves off the floor, and leap into action! They pull out the checkbook now now NOW! You’re not to talk to ANYONE else about this idea!
You foolishly remind them: “But it’s just an idea. I don’t have the script written yet!” ‘Who cares?!” they say. "The concept is gold!"
The actual story plays almost as filler: “While practicing motocross in Hawaii, Sean Jones witnesses the brutal murder of an important American prosecutor by the powerful mobster Eddie Kim. He is protected and persuaded by the FBI agent Neville Flynn to testify against Eddie in Los Angeles. They embark in the red-eye Flight 121 of Pacific Air, occupying the entire first-class. However, Eddie dispatches hundred of different species of snakes airborne with a time operated device in the luggage to release the snakes in the flight with the intent of crashing the plane. Neville and the passengers have to struggle with the snakes to survive.” (IMDB)
See what I mean? You could write ten different story lines to get those people up in the plane. It doesn’t matter. The key—in Studio-think—is the concept. SNAKES ON A PLANE!
I’d love to tell you how it feels to send a Studio Executive ass over heels after hearing one of my pitches. Alas, I’ve never accomplished it. And I don’t mind admitting it. Starting out as a poet and playwright, my mind never concocted much beyond eminently NON-commercial, deeply felt “character-driven” stories. I try to imagine what it would be like, to be bowling and trying to spare a 7-10 split, or shopping for asparagus while listening to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Big Wheels”…and suddenly, it comes upon you! The monster concept!
I like William Martell’s thoughts on this subject: “If you can't get millions of people to stand in line on the opening weekend to see the IDEA, your brilliant screenplay is dead. The IDEA for your screenplay needs to be worth millions… A bomb on a city bus will go off if the bus travels under 55 mph... and rush hour has just begun! A boy makes a wish to become big and wakes up to find that he's a full-grown adult... with the mind of a kid. A boy and girl from rival gangs fall in love in the middle of a gang war. If you can't distill your story into thirty words or less with an exciting central idea, you have a hard sell.”
So what’s the secret? How do you go about finding the concept? C'mon, if I had that formula would I be type-typing this to you? At least I admit it!
What I can do recommend is that you look for consistencies in those movies that have this magical formula. Good versus Evil usually puts asses in the seats. So does putting your characters in Ordinary Man--Extraordinary Situation. Like an asteroid the size of Texas about to end all life on Earth, or a giant sea lizard type-thing attacking New York City, or cloned dinosaurs running riot in the year 2000, or a remote control that stops time, or a remote control that sends two modern-day kids back into a world called Pleasantville.
Big themes that work for the widest audience also work. You know, the usual: Lost Love, War, Fear, Life And Death, Family, And Honor.
It’s a bright, guilty Michael Bay world. Poster Boy of High-Concept. Just look at the man’s IMDB directing profile for a definition of this style:
2014 Transformers: Age of Extinction
2011 Transformers: Dark of the Moon
2009 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
2005 The Island
2003 Bad Boys II
2001 Pearl Harbor
1996 The Rock
Know Thyself. Are these the movies you write? If they are, L.A is your place. Here are a few more classic Monster Concept movies:
• PHONE BOOTH
A man threatened by a sniper is trapped in a phone booth.
Larry Cohen originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1960s. Hitchcock loved the idea but couldn’t figure out how to keep the film’s lead character stuck in a phone booth, so the idea was put on hold. In the 90s, Cohen revisited his original treatment, and thought up the idea of the man being threatened by a sniper. Jim Carrey, Will Smith and Mel Gibson were attached at various stages during its development, but it took Colin Farrell to get the film into production.
• COWBOYS AND ALIENS
“A spaceship arrives in Arizona, 1873, to take over the Earth. A posse of cowboys and natives are all that stand in their way.”
Another crappy movie. You get the feeling that the powers-that-be almost feed this dreck into a computer…CG genre mashup (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer anybody?) Go back and find every Brothers Grimm story, Hans Christen Anderson fable, or Greek myth and mash it up with Zombies, Superheros or Vampires. This isn’t you writing something you have to write. This is you paying rent, trying to get on the board, and if the movie makes nine-figure millions like Cowboys And Aliens, maybe have film students around the country screaming about what crap your movie is while you lounge in a Bel Air pool, taking meetings as your agent and manager grab their pieces and eagerly bargain on the price for you to write the sequel.
• LIAR, LIAR
A fast track lawyer can't lie for 24 hours due to his son's birthday wish.
Sure, you’ll need to come up with a thousand gags for Jim Carrey, and yeah, the semblance of a story. So what? The apparent simplicity of A high concept idea is just that—apparent. How does one train their mind to pursue these epically simple billion dollar ideas? Great question. Answer: ?
Teddy Bear comes alive—teaching a man to overcome responsibility issues, even if it means the end of their lifelong relationship.
Poor Mark Walhberg, has to step up and marry Mila Kunis (tough one!) while abandoning his lifelong furry pal, Ted. Seth MacFarlane, funniest biped alive, made that year’s top 10 grossing movies, 500+ million dollar comedy. Let’s be honest…what’s worth 500 million isn’t some dude trying to decide if he wants to marry Mila Kunis or not—it’s the monster hook of a Teddy Bear coming alive and spitting out expletives. Who the f*&% thinks this stuff up?! Create the concept, crush the nasty pop-culture gags, maybe you’ll find yourself hosting the Oscars.
Michael Newman is a hard working family man, who must please his boss, in order to get promoted. He wishes for a remote in which he can control his life. A remote in which he can do anything, including muting, skipping and dubbing his life. He sees this as a good idea, until the remote goes horribly wrong.”(IMBD)
Crappy movie, yep. But when’s the last time you were waiting on your Brooklyn-bound 5 train and you thought—A remote control that stops time! A thing has value in our Capitalistic system is what makes money for its producers. A simple idea, well executed, could be worth a fortune.
How will you know it?
You know it by its scarcity. It’s something anyone could have thought of, but you were the first to actually do so.
You know, like the Chia Pet.
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- 5 Tips to Turn Your Script Into a High Concept Idea
- Writer's Edge: The Best High Concept Idea Ever