What is the Secret of a High Concept Screenplay?

High Concept, (a much-abused term,) is simply producer code for “bums-on-seats”!

According to US Script Consultant Michael Hauge, high concept films are “genre movies with one-line plot summaries, compelling enough to attract audiences with their promise of a big emotional experience”. Three very important points and all are worth keeping in mind when developing and pitching your high concept story.

It’s also been said that high concept is “the same only different”  But what is that?  “… you know comfortably original“.  What?  “Well… the audience wants to watch something new, unique, distinctive and exceptional. Something they’ve never seen before.”

What they mean, is that in this case, when we look for originality, we are not necessarily talking about reinventing the wheel. Often by changing only a few specific details, we can take a successful well-worn concept that’s been done before, and simply by giving it a new and unexpected twist; we can make the material seem original … and the audience will love it all over again.

Did I hear the words “winning formula”?

 

 

WHAT TYPE OF SCREENPLAY DO PRODUCERS BUY?

Most screenplays that do well in screenwriting competitions end up NOT being bought or made. Why?

The answer is simple; they are not the type of screenplay that a potential producer wants to make into a film. This brings to the fore the question; “What type of screenplay do producers want?” There are as many answers to that question as there are producers, but it is useful to note that what they all do NOT want, is to lose money. From this, we can deduct what they do want, which is a paying audience… and that brings us back to the term high concept.

Keep in mind that “A high concept isn’t so stupid that everyone gets it, it is so universal that everybody gets it.”

 

 

WHAT EXACTLY IS HIGH CONCEPT?

High concept in its’ simplest form translates into “mass audience appeal”.

  • Those who know will tell you that the more explanation a concept needs, the less chance it is high concept. You must be able to pitch the concept in a short succinct sentence that has a great hook. Think “Snakes on a Plane”. (Many of the best high concept films have titles that could actually be the pitch for the film – think “The 40 Year Old Virgin”.)
  • High concept stories place more emphasis on the outer journey of the protagonist than it does on character and the inner journey. That outer journey must be a tangible, visible and physical goal. (Stop the train, save the girl, win the fight, etc.) AND we must see tangible, visible and physical obstacles in the protagonist’s way as they struggle to reach their goal.
  • Very often high concept films have exceptionally high stakes. (Save the world, stop the assassination of the president, etc.)
  • With very few exceptions, high concept requires an obvious and very present ticking clock, and the entire story from start to finish takes place over a very short period of time. (A few days… and sometimes only hours.)
  • If there was a recipe for high concept the cauldron would contain varying amounts of (among others) the following themes; love, hate, power, greed, revenge, jealousy, escapes and justice – all concepts that transcend race, place and period.
  • The concept itself should be the star of the film.
  • High concept is NOT reliant on a “high” budget or cast. But it must translate into ticket sales.

 

 

EXECUTION IS EVERYTHING

Of course, once you’ve nailed down a high concept idea you aren’t even halfway there. Now you have to translate the high concept into a high-quality screenplay. When doing that, remember the basics of writing a screenplay, things like format, spelling, delivering on the genre promise, premise, etc.

 

IDEA GENERATOR

Here is a starter pack of a few ideas that you can use to quickly craft your own high concept story. You’ll recognise the stories; now fool around with some of the details till you find a new twist. (I suggest you start by looking at changing some or all of the following; the genre, the setting or location, the gender, race and age of the characters, the relationship between the characters, and the characters’ professions.)

 

 

  • An ex-secret service assassin goes on one last mission.
  • A family gathers for a reunion.
  • Two strangers find an abandoned suitcase full of cash
  • A retired detective opens an old murder case.
  • Four men/women/donkeys go on a wild trip to Las Vegas/Europe/a Tropical Island.
  • Two guys are forced to go on a road trip together.
  • A deadly virus threatens to destroy life on Earth.
  • A boxer gets badly beaten up in the ring but wins the fight because he is stubborn and courageous.
  • A man is convicted for a murder he didn’t commit and sent to jail, but his lawyer doesn’t give up and uncovers the identity of the actual murderer.
  • A young rookie is partnered with an older cop.
  • Old friends in desperate need of money rob a bank

SOME EXAMPLES OF HIGH CONCEPT TITLES

Snakes on a Plane

An F.B.I. Agent takes on a plane full of deadly venomous snakes, deliberately released to kill a witness being flown from Honolulu to Los Angeles to testify against a mob boss.

 

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Goaded by his buddies, a nerdy guy who’s never “done the deed” only finds the pressure mounting when he meets and falls for a single mother.

 

 

Liar Liar

A fast-track lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish after he disappoints his son for the last time.

 

Bad Moms

When three overworked and under-appreciated moms are pushed beyond their limits, they ditch their conventional responsibilities for a jolt of long overdue freedom, fun and comedic self-indulgence.

 

Big

After wishing to be made big, a teenage boy wakes the next morning to find himself mysteriously in the body of an adult.

 

Richard the Scribe

Richard is a Producer-Writer-Director that works in television, feature films, documentaries and the theatre. His experience in genre is as wide and varied as the diverse styles you will find across his body of work. He is the founder and show runner at Scribe Writers Room.
Richard the Scribe

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