Posted by: steveonfilm | December 14, 2008

In Search Of…. High Concept Screenplay Ideas

For my next project I’ve been tasked by my friend Ryley with writing a high concept screenplay. Preferably, something in the horror or action/caper category.

The term high concept is relatively new to me.

By looking at the term itself one might be mislead to think it would be something that’s big, grandiose, complicated, and groundbreaking. After all, there are certain connotations that come along when the word high is used as a qualifier to describe something. High society. High art. High functioning.

But the truth is, high concept means the complete opposite. A wikipedia article sums it up rather well:

“A movie described as being ‘high concept’ is considered easy to sell to a wide audience because it delivers upon an easy to grasp idea that is original, interesting, colorful, and sometimes humorous.”

This doesn’t mean that “high concept” has to be generic. It just means that the overall idea is something with broad based appeal.

I’m sure there are plenty of writers out there who scoff at the idea of “high concept” film. They probably consider it beneath them. Akin to writing commercial jingles. Listening to pop music. Whatever.

I don’t. To me it’s just getting a perspective on reality. It’s like the entrepreneur who decides they wants to start a business that’s “the next big thing.” Then, one year later that business has folded. And the they’re left trying to figure out why their idea didn’t work, yet the Asian owned dry cleaners, or Arab owned liquor store is still fine and dandy.

(Yes, those two are stereo types, but trust me when I say I don’t mean either of them with a negative connotation.)

The reason? Rule number one of business, do what works. If the goal is to own your own business, don’t try to do “the next big thing”, do what works. Dry cleaners work. As do nail salons. And liquor stores. In my examples, the Asians and Arabs weren’t out to do the next big thing, they wanted their own business, so they did what worked. After you’ve got that foundation laid, branch out into some other areas, but don’t do that until you’ve built up your core foundation.

In other words, play the odds.

Sure, there are exceptions. There always are. But most businesses fail. The ones that don’t usually are just doing something that’s already been proven to work. Odds are stacked against “the next big thing,” so if you’re not out to change the world, why go against the odds?

I look at writing as a business venture, a second career, hence the title of the blog. I don’t want to change film making. I’m not even really interested in making my mark on film. Leaving a legacy. That sort of stuff. I just want to write for a living.

Do I want to be adventurous with a screenplay? Sure! I’ve got plenty of ideas that could be “the next big thing.” But I don’t need to do that now. I’m interested in setting up the foundation of my business. And that means taking the tried and true route of writing a “high concept” screenplay.

Which leads me to the title of my post, “In search of… high concept screenplay ideas.” I’ve been thinking over the last few days about how to go about selecting the story I want to write. I’ve got plenty of stuff. Ideas all over the place. But since I’m going to be spending the next two to three months working on this, I don’t want it to be something that I give up on half way through because I’ve lost interest with the story.

I’d like to do a horror movie, but while tinkering with ideas I keep finding myself falling into the same overused concepts we’ve already seen on film the last few years. Zombies. Vampires. Zombie vampires. Stuff like that.

I have a group of ideas that revolve around heaven/hell, angels/demons, and life/afterlife, but they’re very premature. I’ve got to massage them a bit before I can turn them into anything story wise.

I’ve also got some ideas on action/caper/crime flicks that I’ve got to massage as well. A few of these are further long than my horror stuff, but even still far away from anything I can put down on the page yet.

There is a certain challenge to making something good, but yet keeping it “dumb” enough that it will have broad appeal. I’ve always found this balancing act fascinating.

How do other writers go about finding stories they can adapt into something “high concept?” Do you refuse to write it? How do you approach it? What works for you?




  1. Well, first off I have to say something about writing before I comment on high concept. What I usually think is a good idea, most of the time, dies before it ever gets written. Mostly because I felt like at some point within the confines of outlining I run out of story…interesting story. It’s easy to cough up a hairball and form a coat, but will that coat keep me warm? Hmmm…doubt it. So as far as writing goes, pick an idea you have a lot of passion, or atleast a lot of interest in working on because it is high concept. Now let’s discuss high concept because your definition was a bit broad.

    ET is my favorite high concept movie. I can see the writer now saying, “I wanna write a movie about a space ship that crash lands on earth and a group of kids find him and try to help him get back home.” I can see the chaos unfolding before its ever written! It’s high concept because at that time it had never been done (nor since) and its a highly unlikely incidence. And that’s another thing about high concept ideas…most people won’t try and repeat them because they are so amazingly different, it could never be repeated.

    The basic guidelines for high concept stories are:
    1 – easily understood
    2 – can be said in a sentence or two
    3 – provocative and big
    4 – can stand on its own legs without stars attached
    5 – fresh and highly marketable
    6 – provides a new twist on an old idea

    I recently saw an interesting movie based on the comic “30 Days of Night”. The most fascinating thing about this movie was it was about vampires who go to Alaska to feed on people because up there there’s 30 days of night. Duh. What a simple concept, but NO ONE HAD COME OUT WITH IT. So simple, so easy to understand, a different twist on an old concept (vampires need to stay out of sunlight). That’s high concept. Another example is BIG. A kid makes a wish to be a grown up at a carnival fair and wakes up the next day in an adult’s body. Wow, what a great concept. My mind instantly asks a hundred questions all pointing to what happens next. That’s what you want your concept to do. Or how about an arsonist who is incredibly lonely and bored meets a friend one day who convinces him to go off the deep end and start up their own fraternity of chaos makers through organizing fight clubs across the United States, oh, and the main character? He’s schizophrenic. Or maybe let’s make a movie about a man who buys an island and sets up a theme park revolving around real life dinosaurs. Ouch. Should have thought of that one too. Well, you get the idea.

    I thrive to write the high concept idea. In fact, I have learned over time most agents and execs are dying for that next high concept because they want something different, and don’t give NEW writers much of a chance without high concept involved. If you have a track record as a great writer, they trust the more “Coming of Age” stories, or the more common ideas because they trust you can pull it off, but if you’re new, high concept is the way to go. Unfortunately no matter how great the idea is sometimes, the concept doesn’t always generate an audience, but that’s always gonna be an obstacle you might face.

    So a friend of mine and I played this “High concept” texting game where he’d come up with a high concept idea and text it to me, and I would do the same to him. It had to be about one thing specifically though, like soccer, or football, or cars, or deer or, whatever. I’d give him the topic, and he’d have a day or two to come up with the concept. Short and sweet, two sentence ideas to spark some interest. Its simple and helps generate thought.

    Good luck on your concept. I am interested to see what you come up with.

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