The single most in-demand quality of a script is for it to be “high concept.” But what does that really mean?
That demand comes from producers, directors, financiers, studios and, most importantly, the audience. Yet I find it extraordinary that I’ve never seen a satisfactorily clear definition of “high concept,” or a good working method for achieving it repeatedly.
A typical reason for getting a pass on a project is that the fundamental idea didn’t have a strong-enough “hook” or a “high concept.” But if you ask the person who just rejected your hard work what you could do to improve it, they often have no idea. All they ever provide are those same vague words—”hook,” “high concept,” “it’s not grabbing me,” “it needs another level,” and the like. In other words, they know it’s not interesting enough to them, but not how to direct the filmmaker to improve it.
When we make films that don’t end up connecting with an audience, we sometimes have a tendency to blame the audience. I don’t believe in that perspective. I know I can prove why there are some films that should never have been made in the first place. My principle covers both character-driven and plot-driven stories, and it works whether you make a Hollywood or an indie film.
When I tell people this theory, some try to disprove it by citing examples of successful films that weren’t high concept. Sure, many great movies are not high concept, but in those cases the cast and filmmakers often leveraged their own past successes as a means of getting a greenlight, as well as finding an audience. If you have that currency of reputation to spend on getting your movie made, spend it. If not, you better figure out a way to make people sit up and take notice based solely on the idea itself.
I must properly credit Levan Bakhia, my dear friend, producing partner and director of our first film together, Landmine Goes Click. He shared the fundamentals of this theory with me—a theory he developed over two years. When he told it to me, it was like lightning striking. I have never used another method for developing story since. Over the last two and a half years, Bakhia and I have worked on dozens of concepts. We have built a treasure trove of high concept films that we plan to bring to you. Through that process, we’ve continued to add to and refine that theory.
There are four main components needed to create a high-concept story:
1. Build a puzzle that you want to solve.
Think of a book of puzzles: mazes and other visual mind benders. Remember how these books always have solutions in the back pages? Imagine flipping such a book open to one of the first few pages and seeing a puzzle. It’s very simple. In fact, it’s so simple that you can see the solution right away. Boring. This is not a puzzle you want to solve.
Now, flip to the advanced puzzles. If you look at them and feel they’re so complicated and ornate that you don’t care what the solution is, you’re in the same situation as above. Bored, but for the opposite reason. Ultimately, neither is a puzzle you care to invest the time to solve. (This is not to say we don’t love complex puzzles. Of course we do. I mean overly labyrinthine and convoluted.)
It’s the third, middle kind of puzzle, the one you could actually picture yourself in, that intrigues us the most. That’s the kind that makes you want to attempt it, or flip to the solution page in the back of the book. That solution is the movie.
When you’re testing your concept, use this standard of measure to grades your story’s level of intrigue and attractiveness.
2. Give your character a clear and specific goal.
This goal must not be abstract. “To find love.” “To gain self-respect.” “To make a father proud.” These are all abstract. They may be a side effect of achieving the goal, but they shouldn’t be the goal as proposed in your concept pitch. Despite the fact that survival stories are often high concept, “to survive” is not a good goal, either. It’s too general. I assume that all characters (except the suicidal) have an inherent desire to survive, just as I do.
You have to show a very specific thing that must be achieved. Consider physical goals: “To build a bridge.” “To catch a killer.” “To get off an armed landmine.” These will all result in the character surviving, yes, but the character now also has something to actually do.
3. The obstacle must be clear and specific.
Let me to put my money where my mouth is. Here’s the logline for my new psychological thriller, Landmine Goes Click:
“Trapped standing on an armed landmine, an American tourist is forced to watch helplessly while his girlfriend is terrorized and brutally assaulted.”
If the protagonist could get off the landmine, he would not only survive that deadly predicament but also be in a position to save the girl. Pretty specific. There’s also the emergence of an opponent here. Not only is there a physical obstacle, there’s a personified bad guy who is hurting the hero. Hopefully this illustrates the value of being clear and specific about the obstacle.
4. Don’t solve the puzzle in the logline.
This is an incredibly common mistake. Don’t show your hand. Don’t reveal how the hero might solve his problem. If you find yourself doing that, ask yourself if your puzzle is actually intriguing enough. If it can’t stand on its own and needs hints at how it’s solved to create a hook, I doubt you’ve got a high-concept idea.
Again, you can find exceptions to this rule, but I’m trying to give you the highest probability for achieving genuine intrigue with the concept alone. If your logline tells us how the hero is going to solve his problem, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
This brings us to another consideration: negative versus positive propositions. A negative proposition is when the hero is faced with a problem. A positive proposition is where the hero is given something at the beginning that solves his problem. Negative propositions are my preference. I’m not saying positive propositions don’t work, but the most effective puzzle you can propose is one in which the listener hears it and says to himself or herself, “That’s a tricky situation and I wish I knew how to get out of it.”
Thrillers are generally negative propositions. Comedies seem to use positive propositions more often. With that in mind, let’s compare two comedies.
Wedding Crashers is a positive proposition: Two guys find the secret to a never-ending good time. In order for it to intrigue, we needed the promise of two very likeable guys taking us to fantastic parties filled with bouncy girls and having fun in ways only Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn can do. Could other actors have done it? Sure. But it helped a lot that these two were cast. The film was about fun.
The Hangover is a negative proposition: the best man wakes up with no memory of what was clearly an epically insane night and has to find the lost groom. I myself have found myself in many 10 a.m. whodunnits, only to realize, as my memory gradually returned, that I, in fact, am the one who had “done it.” This is a puzzle that could happen to me. That’s what creates the intrigue.
So there it is: a working theory of high concept that’s learnable and repeatable. And repeat it you must. You have to use it to get good at it. You’ll need to develop maybe 10 concepts before you get the hang of it. You could also take a short cut and analyze existing stories—both high- and low-concept—for practice. That will get your head around it sooner.
Think of it as a filter that you run ideas through. If a particular idea is unable to pass through one of the stages, keep working on it until it can. If it simply won’t make it, drop it and come up with something else. This system has a fantastic side benefit: It quickly allows you to evaluate ideas and move on without committing huge amounts of time. In order to succeed in this business, the well of your creativity must be deep.
There is no point in trying to convince people that your idea is good. The longer the explanation, the less likely it is to work. When you deliver that one-sentence pitch, the reaction in their eyes says it all. MM
Adrian Colussi is the screenwriter of Landmine Goes Click, which opened in theaters on November 6, 2015, and on VOD/Digital November 10, 2015, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures .