The greatest movie ideas are high concept. That’s what they say. Then, they waffle a definition of what high concept means. The discussion ends soon thereafter.
What Is High Concept?
True high concept ideas make a ton of money at the box office. So you want to know how to come up with that high concept, right? Well let’s start with the definition of the thing.
A high concept idea is an idea that is high concept.
We didn’t get very far, clearly.
It sounds like the guy who tells you to just tell a good story.
Some will claim that a particular idea is high concept, while others dispute it. A look at the box office results of so-called high concept movies will only add to the confusion.
Being John Malkovich was really high concept, right?
A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of movie star John Malkovich.
Truly original! Don’t you want to see that? Well, it only did $22m worldwide.
A title like Mars Needs Moms may smell like high concept, but despite its $150m production budget, it is known as one of the biggest flops. Oh, and speaking of Mars… Remember John Carter?
People have written about high concept that it has mass audience appeal, and that you immediately see the potential.
Most filmmakers looking for production money will try to tell you that their movie has mass appeal. Every writer sees the potential in their script. Then, how do you set the benchmark? Go out on the street and ask everyone?
Another problem with high concept is that it dates easily. Bruce Almighty worked fine, but Evan Almighty bombed. In their time, Top Gun, Jaws and Die Hard were big high concept movies. Today, they’re still solid movies, but … high concept??
I think we should put the high concept discussion aside for a moment. It’s not getting us anywhere.
Let’s take a more tangible approach.
The Holy Trinity
Successful concepts start from a clear, simple and original event, something we had never seen in movies before. Next follows a clear action to be taken by the character(s) in response to this event.
You may be able to sell such a concept with just this event and action to an audience, without focusing on the character too much. However, it is impossible to properly assess, let alone develop your idea without having a razor sharp idea of your central character.
After all, before you can distinguish between events (what happens to a character) and actions (what a character does), you need to establish who exactly the character is through whose eyes we look at the story (the POV).
I want you to read that sentence again, because it is at the core of what I’m trying to say.
Done? Okay, let’s look at the other two key components.
Event: In Groundhog Day, Phil gets stuck in a time loop, Back To The Future teleports Marty back to the time when his parents were his age, and Snakes On A Plane … you get it.
The educated will have noticed that the Event is in fact the story’s Inciting Incident, or Call To Adventure.
Action: In Finding Nemo, Marlin has to cross an ocean to save his son, and the heroes in Jurassic Park have to fight a T-Rex. These actions constitute most of the movie’s runtime, or all of what we call Act Two (and some of Act Three).
Character, Event, Action
You need both a major event and a clear action for your concept to work. Getting stuck in the same day (Groundhog Day) is a cool event, but the character needs a goal for the story to move forward. And because we don’t know how the spell can be broken, a new clear goal is introduced: to get the girl.
Back To The Future has both a highly original event (being transported to 1955), and two solid actions/goals for Marty: to get his parents together, and return to 1985. Snakes On A Plane IS the Event, or more specifically: the discovery of the snakes. The action/goal couldn’t be clearer: to survive and contain/kill them.
The story of Finding Nemo really starts when Nemo is taken by the divers (the event), and the movie’s action is in the title. Again, it can’t be any clearer. In Jurassic Park, once the T-Rex gets out (the event), we know the movie will only be over when our heroes make it off the island alive (the action/goal).
Let’s divert for a second before getting to our conclusion.
Snakes and stakes
You may have learned that there need to be high stakes. True. However, in the strongest concepts the stakes are implied. Snakes on a plane means all passengers could die, as there’s nowhere to run.
In Gravity, there’s no need to explain that Ryan (Bullock) will face a horrible fate if she keeps falling to earth. We don’t need to clarify that Thelma and Louise will spend life in jail if they’re caught, or that Don Cobb in Inception will be miserable if he never gets to see his kids again – or spend eternity in limbo.
Often you will have both positive and negative stakes. In other words, the main character will gain something from achieving the goal (Cobb will see his kids) or they will lose something if they don’t (his freedom: he’ll be stuck in limbo).
And don’t be mistaken: a positive stake is only positive if they didn’t have it at the start of the movie.
The Third Element
When you come up with an idea, it is rarely fully shaped, containing all three elements. So even before you launch into development of the story, let alone the script, you need to lock in character, event and action.
Some people prefer diving into a draft, and figuring it out as they go along, but this approach may take a lot longer than is necessary.
Let’s see if you get the point. Look at the following random ideas, and figure out what they are lacking.
- a girl wakes up with a third eye that allows her to see 5 seconds into the future
- a firefighter must contain all patients in a hospital, or a deadly virus will end the world
- new science shows that mankind has only 60 days to turn around global warming
Here is how these ideas rate in terms of the three required elements:
- There is a character and an event, but no action. What will the heroine DO with her gift? That’s the Action.
- We have a character and an action, but we don’t know how the situation originated. What is the Event?
- There’s a major event, and a (somewhat vague) action, but there is no Character.
Needless to say that the characters in example 1 and 2, are fairly nondescript. By brainstorming these characters in further detail, you may find the missing third element. Or vice versa: once you have found the missing third part, this may help you build a meatier character.
You Must Remember This
The bottom line is that none of the three ideas above qualify as valid movie concepts, let alone high concept. This is exactly why Being John Malkovich failed. The only strong part of that concept was the event. I have seen the movie twice, and I can’t even remember what the main action was, if any… I remember that the POV shifted a few times.
Not every idea with these 3 components is necessarily high concept, but you’ll find that every high concept does have them. So this allows you to eliminate – or improve what you have.
Different writers have different approaches, but I recommend that before you consider a concept for development, your first job would be to make sure your idea contains all three elements: character, event and action.
Once you pass this test, let the discussion begin about how great your idea really is.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.