on defining "high concept"

high concept movie
Every so often I see a conversation about “high concept” films or screenplays that goes something like this:

“That was a high concept film.”

“High concept? It was a bunch of explosions and giant robots! What’s so high concept about that?

“That’s poster-child high concept. By definition.”

“No, high concept means a concept with high aspirations… concepts with a higher calling.”

“High concept” does sound like it’d be more applicable to The Seventh Seal than to 2012. And those who lament Hollywood’s penchant for 90 minute action-figure commercials based on video games from the ’70’s might resent the apparent hijacking of the term to mean its exact opposite, somehow projecting value on the valueless by virtue of its semantic favoritism. But it is what it is… the term is firmly embedded in the lexicon of the industry, and now means precisely the opposite of what it sounds like it means.

So I dug up some old notes I’d written a few years ago, and thought I ‘d repost it here, to sort of bubble it back up to the top of the conversation. A few of the links are no longer any good, but you’ll get the point.



A quick Google search turns up:

“A high concept is a one sentence description of a story idea. In Robert Kosberg’s “The Bottom Line of High Concept” chapter in his book, How To Sell Your Idea to Hollywood, he credits the idea of high concept to Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. They created the term when they were young executives at ABC in the late sixties working to promote TV Movies. Diller and Eisner had to devise a way to grab attention in a TV Guide listing with just one or two lines. That’s how the term high concept originated. To capture an audience, that one sentence had to convey just how exciting, sexy, provocative, and entertaining the movie was going to be for them to watch.” The Mega Hit Movies – excerpt from “The Bottom Line of High Concept

“Most of you probably know what “High Concept” means, but for those of you who don’t: High Concept is STORY as star. The central idea of the script is exciting, fascinating, intriguing, and different. High Concept films can usually be summed up in a single sentence or a single image. In this case, “High” does not mean “High Brow” or “High Intelligence”, nor does it mean something that only sounds good when you’re stoned. “High” means big, exciting, larger than life. A small, personal idea may not attract the mass audience that a film requires. We need stories with exciting ideas…” Script Secrets

“Anyone who has ever wondered about the reasoning behind formulaic mainstream films will learn probably more than they wanted to know in this academic examination of high-concept films. Although popularly thought of as films that can be summarized in one sentence, Wyatt, a former market-research analyst for the film industry, defines high concept as “a product differentiated through the emphasis on style in production and through the integration of the film with its marketing.” The author contends that these economically motivated products (films like Flashdance, Top Gun, Batman and Grease) form the most significant strain in motion pictures of the last 20 years.” review of High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Texas Film Studies Series)

“High Concept?” That’s an idea born thirty years ago, when made-for-TV movies were in their infancy and the industry learned that the most significant difference between these and the traditional feature films was that there was no time for word-of-mouth to sell them. And so “High Concept” came to Hollywood. Plots had to be easy to describe, very compelling, and thus easy to sell. This meant easy-to-sell everywhere– by word-of-mouth with the audiences, by the sales and marketing executives, by the studio executives to the producers, and (very important, this) by the scriptwriters making their pitches to bored studio executives. Remember– easy to describe and very compelling, or, as my accomplished friend put it: “imaginative and wild and simple.” So, fundamentally, “High Concept” is a marketing term. A High Concept is one a knowledgeable Hollywood executive with a chequebook will find fantastically irresistible to his target audience.” Absolute Write

“I took the road less traveled — I fell in with the “high concept” crowd. Those are the people who don’t write scripts, instead creating commercially sellable log lines which can be sold over a phone call or pitch session… There shouldn’t be a lot of explaining to do on your part. A story about a man going through a tough divorce who ultimately reconciles with his wife and returns to his family is not “high concept.” It’s neither fresh nor is there any obvious potential. A story about a guy who wakes up one morning to discover that a tiny alien is living in his head is “high concept.” ” HollywoodLitSales – Steve Kaire has set up 7 deals at the major studios and is an expert on the high-concept pitch.

“What does the term “high concept” mean in the film business? It’s simply a term used to describe a script or a film that a person can easily understand after hearing just a few words. Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs define “high concept” in their book Screenplay: Writing the Picture as “a movie’s premise or storyline that is easily reduced to a simple and appealing one liner. Jennifer Lerch in her book, 500 Ways To Beat The Hollywood Script Reader tells us that we want to shoot for high concept scripts because they sell. She says, “A high-concept screenplay can be sold without lengthy explanation by the Hollywood Reader or the Executive Reader.” In addition, Ms. Lerch, a Hollywood Reader herself, says that readers refer to those stories that have a catchy idea and broad appeal as high concept. One thing is certain, a high concept script will sell before a low concept script. For example, Liar, Liar, a script in which a lawyer has to tell the truth for 24 hours was said to be an easy sell. Most blockbuster films (those big action movies that generally come out in the summer) are high concept. Think Terminator, Con Air, Air Force One, Die Hard, etc. But not all high concept movies are big blockbuster-type movies. Movies like The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, and Goodfellas are high concept, but not blockbuster.” ScreenTalk Mag (link now dead)

“Wyatt argues that ‘high concept’ accounts for a specific form of market driven filmmaking which peaked between 1983 and 1986 but includes films as diverse as Flashdance (1983), The Natural (1984), Robin Hood: prince of thieves (1991) and Wayne’s World (1992). The book addresses film style, large-scale changes in market structure, specific marketing tactics and finally proposes striking affinities between this mode of filmmaking and contemporary market research models. Wyatt’s stated goal seems worthy: ‘the project addresses the initially curious supposition that Grease, along with Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), is of much greater significance to American film history than the critically and institutionally recognized films of the period … (p. 22).” from a review of High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (link now dead)

“The Film Council has awarded cash to four young scriptwriters who pitched their thriller, horror or comedy movie ideas in 25 words or less. Many successful Hollywood films, including Steven Spielberg’s jaws and the Oscar-winning historical epic Gladiator, were pitched in this manner. Studios call the device ‘high concept’.” BBC 2003

Yup, “The Industry” sees “High Concept” as a term that means formulaic, easy to pitch, easy to sell… “Aliens invade Earth on the Fourth of July”. “Robots that look like cars┬ábring their war to Earth”. “An adventurer brings a pissed off mummy back to life”.

But “High Concept” doesn’t have to mean “devoid of value”. As writers we can choose to write really really good High Concept stories, or really really lousy High Concept stories. Take it as a challenge… take your thoughtful, complex characters and put them in a High Concept situation and see what happens. What if you got the assignment to write the screen adaptation of Ms. Pacman? What would you do to bring humanity and pathos (or whatever high falutin’ things it is you want to write) to the little yellow round lady?

Sometimes it’s just those kinds of challenges that really test our mettle.

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One thought on “on defining "high concept"

  1. Diana says:

    This article is really excellent. Not only does it go right to the point, but explains all the convolutions. No wonder I was so confused. High Concept means low concept and must be easy to sell or explain, that doesn’t mean that it cannot also have a high concept or a higher calling.

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