Have you ever been trying to pitch or come up with a new spec idea and been stumped? There are times where I find it hard to describe the story I am telling and to contextualize it for other people.
This gets even more complicated when I chase the ever-elusive "High-Concept Idea."
But what is a high-concept idea? What does it mean, what are examples, and how can you pitch in a way where Hollywood sees your passion project as high-concept?
In today's post, we'll analyze this term and see the limits of what it can do, and how to utilize it at the right times.
Let's dig in.
What Does 'High-Concept Idea' Mean?
Check out this video from Film Courage for an in-depth explanation.
The term refers to a way you'd explain an idea to a producer or an executive. A high-concept idea is based on a “what-if” premise, and it has to be pitched in one to three sentences, so it's easy to understand.
These ideas tend to result in blockbuster ideas, like "What if scientists learned how to clone dinosaurs for a theme park, but they escaped?" Sometimes, they can be distilled down to their titles, like Snakes on a Plane or Godzilla versus Kong.
They should be easy to replicate or retell to people, have the ability to be understood globally, and hold familiar concepts. These ideas also don't usually have much subtext. Things like Star Trek are about a spaceship traveling the galaxy, gathering information, and spreading tolerance. Or even Planet of the Apes, which is about social tolerance and discrimination.
High-concept ideas tend to be an original twist, adaptation, or blend of ideas that have been successful in the past and can be reinvented by your voice.
High-Concept versus Low-Concept
Where a high-concept idea focuses more on the plot, a low-concept idea is more concerned with character development. Yes, you can blend both of them very well, but when you're pitching you want to lean into what you think will sell.
If you're pitching Manchester By the Sea, that's a low concept. It's about people dealing with grief and guilt while balancing their complicated lives. Pacific Rim is a high concept—it's about a rift in the earth that releases giant alien beasts, and the robots we build to fight them off.
Make sense? Let's look at a few more examples across film and television.
High-Concept Examples in Film
The 1990s were the era where high-concept ideas shined the brightest. I think it's because there was such a glut of spec scripts and original pitching being bought. Everyone in town was spreading around ideas and wanted stuff they could communicate quickly.
First up, let's look at Liar Liar. The concept here is awesome—a lying lawyer who always stretches the truth is stricken with a curse that forces him to tell the truth. You can pitch that comedy and see all the problems fall into place.
This works even with complicated ideas. Sure, The Matrix is a thoughtful science fiction movie, but at the end of the day, it's really just, "What if machines ruled the world, and everything you saw, felt, and ate were just part of a massive simulation to keep humans as slaves?"
This movie is deep and interesting, but that concept is an easy sell to people. The layers get complicated but keep that original high-concept idea at the forefront.
Lastly, let's look at Groundhog Day. This one is also easy to pitch. A guy learns about life, love, and happiness after getting stuck in the same day over and over again. Or, "What if you had to live the same day over and over again until you found true love?"
Easy to pitch, hard to execute.
High-Concept Examples in TV
We understand how this works in movies, but TV is a different beast. Usually, the concepts really focus on a way to pitch the ethos of the series. Since TV inherently focuses on building character, I like to see this as the best of both worlds when it comes to concept mash-ups.
Take an idea like Buffy, where we follow a gal trying to navigate high school as well as becoming a chosen vampire slayer.
Or what about Dead Like Me? "What if you died, and instead of going to heaven or hell, you chose to become a grim reaper?" This fun and whimsical show really lends itself to the huge worldbuilding that TV and high-concept ideas offer.
Lastly, let's talk about one of my favorite shows of all time, Pushing Daisies, which feels like the very definition of high concept. "What if you could bring people back from the dead with just a touch of the finger, but if you touched them again, they died again?" This show about a pie-maker with an unusual gift should have lasted a decade.
High-Concept Idea Generator
If you're feeling lazy, you may want a computer to help you come up with your high-concept logline. If so, check out this website. With just a few keystrokes, you can add who your characters are, where they are, and it'll spit out an idea for you to chase around.
Go have fun, but get back to writing soon.
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