Posted by: steveonfilm | December 16, 2008

Re: High Concept Film Ideas

The definition of what constitutes a “high concept film” in my recent post was a bit lacking, and I think Dusty hit it spot on when he mentioned in the comments that it was “a bit broad.”

Fortunately, Dusty added in a few bullet points that I thought was worth posting properly:

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

And why is it important for writers to try and write “high concept” screenplays? Again, Dusty brings up the point that:

…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.

I think that’s a really valid point. I’m so far removed from the film industry that I wouldn’t realize this kinda thing. But in a time where Hollywood is looking for the “sure thing” and taking less chances on the “character film,” high concept is the route new writers should take if they’re trying to break in.

That brings me to the two ideas I’ve been tinkering with over the past few weeks. One is the murder/mystery that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. The other is something a bit bigger that deals with…well, the fate of the world, and would fall more into the action adventure category.

Here’s how each breaks down in TV Guide style…

Murder/Mystery Idea
A woman is murdered, cut into pieces, and hidden in a storage trunk just outside the city limits of a small town. A young detective must navigate through the towns quirky citizens to piece together the clues needed to solve the murder.

Action/Adventure Idea
An angel, angry with how humans are acting in heaven, comes to Earth with a plan to kill all humans and prevent their souls from entering heaven. It’s up to a half-angel, a reluctant priest, and an alcoholic detective to stop him.

Now, the murder/mystery story has been really easy for me to put together. I’ve already got the main beats of the story down, the characters, how it ends, and the main twists. All I’ve got left to do is flesh out a few of the sub-plots, how one of the twists plays out, and the overall setting. The small town setting I’ve got in mind is more “Steel Magnolias” than, say, “Raising Arizona.” Sure, it’s rural, but only a 30 minute drive to the closest city.

The action/adventure story is something I’ve been molding together for the last few months. The half-angel idea was something I stumbled upon when perusing Wikipedia, and this idea popped into my head. It has some minor elements that are similar to “The Prophecy,” but the story is completely different. There is heavy angel an demon stuff… some pretty supernatural elements, and a slight twist of creatures more powerful than anything currently living on our planet. The feeling of the movie is more “Constantine” than, say, “Hellboy,” with a side of “Michael” thrown in.

I’m not sure which way to go. I’ll likely finish outlining the murder/mystery regardless, since the story is fun, and I’ve never done a murder/mystery story before. But something about the action/adventure idea I can’t get out of my head, and haven’t been able to for weeks.

I’m not sure if either of these are “high concept” enough, but for now it’s all I’ve got without digging back into the vault for other ideas.




  1. First so you know I wasn’t discounting your thoughts in the previous blog, so I hope I didn’t come across that way, but high concept is so important for a new non-discovered writer and thought I’d give it a little more definition.

    As far as your ideas go, the Action/Adventure idea is fairly high concept…mid-range. Think Kevin Smith’s Dogma. You certainly don’t want a repeat of that. However, to make it more high concept, how about the Prince of Darkness is so fed up with humans that he comes out of hell retirement to really throw humans into an inferno and has a heyday randomly destroying mankind, and the only “Thing” that can save mankind is an angel from heaven, but if he leaves heaven, he’ll never be allowed to go back. And he can’t do it on his, own, he needs the help of a human boy. Hmmm. That sounds like fun and opens the door for many, many different options. Just a thought, but you get what I mean by high concept now? It’s not enough that there are 3 people who are gonna need to pull together to stop this angel…there has to be a twist that is fresh and not seen before. Or something that just popped in my head was maybe Saint Peter, hardened by giving people the verdict of whether or not people can enter heaven starts sending people to the wrong place as a joke. All chaos ensues.

    Oh well, you’ve got some work ahead of you, but I’m glad to hear you’re exercising the brain. Keep it up.

    Your Murder/mystery idea would be interesting if it is a character driven script. If the characters are quirky and original, and the clues are unique, and the town is a character within itself, then it becomes something fresh…but if not, then it is a basic concept. You need to amp it up a bit, give it more bite. I can’t honestly think of anything that might jump at the audience at the moment, sorry am tired.

  2. Nah, I didn’t think you were discouraging my thought. I looked at it as constructive input!

    Problem with doing a two sentence summary is that you can’t really show “high concept.”

    I think you’d be pleasantly surprised to see the “big picture” for the action/adventure thing. It’s sort of close to what you mention, but without the boy.

    As for the murder/mystery, you were pretty spot on with the town being a bit of a character in and of itself. The mayor, coroner, sheriff, detective (main character), bug exterminator, lawn maintenance guy, and homecoming queen each bring something to the table. But the more I tinker with it, the more it moves into “black comedy,” territory, and less in the spirit of “No Country for Old Men.”

    There was one other idea I had… deals with a serial killer. A detective put on the case gets more and more disturbed by each death they discover. Until he’s faced with the possibility that the serial killer he’s been chasing, might in fact be himself.

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