Sunday, August 05, 2007

Riffing on High Concept

Sidney Williams had a recent blog post on high concept. My writers' group has discussed high concept repeatedly, because that seems to be the best way to pitch books as well as scripts nowadays. It's a term that started in the movie industry and has spread to publishing.

In brief, as Wikipedia defines it,
The plot of a high concept movie is easily understood by audiences, and can often be described in a sentence or two, and succinctly summarized by the movie's title. ... Often high concept movies are pitched as combinations of existing high concept movies, or unique twists on existing titles. ... High concept movies often have themes which tie into an area of popular fascination and have a ready-built foundation of subsidiary issues and ever-ramifying facts that can feed the marketing machine, from magazine articles to weblog chatter, on levels ranging from the superficial to the intellectually or factually exhaustive.
Some of the high concept movies Wikipedia lists are Beverly Hills Cop, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Speed, Star Wars, and Jaws.

On the other hand, screenwriter Steve Kaire defines high concept differently. To him, it's not just a story that can be pitched in one sentence; nor is it one film crossed with another film. In "High Concept Defined Once and For All," an article at the Writers Store website, Kaire says,
Story ideas, treatments and screenplays can all have High Concept premises. But only High Concept projects can be sold from a pitch because they are pitch driven. Non-High Concept projects can't be sold from a pitch because they are execution driven. They have to be read to be appreciated and their appeal isn't obvious by merely running a logline past someone.
According to Kaire, there are five requirements for a high-concept story: (1) The premise should be original and unique; (2) The premise has to have mass audience appeal; (3) The pitch has to be story-specific; (4) The potential must be obvious; and (5) The pitch should be one to three sentences long.

Sidney Williams made several funny high-concept story suggestions in his blog. For example,
North by Northwest meets The Seventh Seal. (Think about it: Death in a crop duster chasing Cary Grant.)

Play along at home if you like and stop chuckling. This is how Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man came about. Curt Siodmak was joking around about movie titles at the Universal commissary one day and wound up with an assignment.
In the comments on Sidney's blog, the ever-inventive Charles Gramlich made some hilarious suggestions, including "Wayne Allen Sallee Versus Stewart Sternberg"--which is the topic of Sidney's followup blog post, "Manly Concepts"--including Sidney's verrrry funnny version of a poster for movie of same. (FMI, see Wayne's blog, Frankenstein 1959 and Stewart's blog, House of Sternberg.)

A real-life example of high concept, and how it can sell your manuscript, is exhibited by a new book coming out this week. According to USA Today, first-time author Patricia Wood pitched her book Lottery as "Forrest Gump wins Powerball," and bingo! she hit the jackpot with a six-figure deal.

Now that's high-concept.


cs harris said...

Ah, yes; so easy to spot when someone else thinks of it, but so hard to think up oneself!

Charles Gramlich said...

When I first heard the term "high concept" I interpreted it to mean high as in "exalted" or "elevated." Maybe something literary or sublime. Man was I an idiot.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

my old agent had us write
'log lines.' this was about ten years ago. he defined it the saw way high concept is now, predator meets terminator in a theme park. that gump wins lotto book kind of annoys me, but what the hell. now, high concept to me is forrest gump writing if i did it instead of oj. pardon my lower case here, i'm working a double-shift at the print shop; charles and/or sid can explain my cramped position right now. its so hot here, i'm thinking of printer themed films...the last print shop on the left, the bindery under the stairs, don't be afraid of the docucolor 8000, when a client calls...sorry to be so chatty the first time out. come visit my blog, i'll keep checking back and good luck with your writing.

Sidney said...

A new one's just hit me, seeing Charles with his bike and knowing how he loves Robert E. Howard: "Conan ON WHEELS."

Has that been done?

Thanks for the mention. Great post.

Sphinx Ink said...

C.S., it's like many other things in life--one of those "take my advice--I'm not using it" things.

Charles, you weren't an idiot--just idealistic. Still thinking in terms of chivalry, old-fashioned honor and courage, etc., as borne out by your love for swordsman heroes.

Wayne, sounds like your agent was a canny guy. A couple of days ago I discovered ON THE LOT, a reality TV program for aspiring filmmakers that has viewers send in log lines, which the contestants have to turn into brief videos. Your idea of "Forrest Gump writes IF I DID IT" might be a good sell. Heh heh.

Sidney, I love CONAN ON WHEELS. Great role for Charles....

Thank you all for commenting.