Typing Faster

August 5, 2009

Is Your Idea High Concept?

Filed under: Craft, Marketing, Pitching — petertypingfaster @ 9:00 am

If you’re a writer you’ve heard those two words bandied around an awful lot. Everyone wants “high concept ideas.” Unfortunately a lot of people don’t have a clue what high concept actually means (to be fair, it can be fairly nebulous).

But if there’s one thing I learned from working in development for a couple years, there’s nothing that’ll piss off a development monkey faster than someone promising a high concept pitch, and then delivering anything but.

So, without further ado, I offer some helpful tips for anyone who’s struggling to figure out whether or not their idea qualifies as “high concept.”

1. Can you pitch it in a sentence?
When producers or studios say they’re looking for ‘high concept’ ideas, this is essentially what they mean. They want an idea that can be neatly encapsulated and sold in a 10 second sound bite. If it takes you twenty minutes to explain your idea, it’s not high concept.

You should be able to tell what the movie or show is going to be about based on the logline.

2. Is your idea original?
A strong writer can pitch practically anything in a sentence, but to qualify as high concept it also has to be original. Take, for example, the following logline.

A just divorced man must learn to care for his son on his own, and then must fight in court to keep custody of him.

Pretty clear what the movie’s about, right? Would any of us say it’s particularly original? Maybe it was in 1979, because that’s the one sentence logline for Kramer vs. Kramer.

To be high concept you need a unique twist on a familiar story.

3. Does it have mass appeal?
There’s no point writing a story only your immediate family would want to see. While your idea has to be original, it can’t be too original. This is why most high concept pitches take a story that we’re already familiar with, and add a new twist to it.

4. Is the potential obvious?
If you’re pitching a comedy, then it should be obvious where the laughs are coming from. If you’re pitching a horror, it should be obvious where the scares are going to come from.

Let’s take a look at an example of something that got made, and something that’s going to be made shortly:

Example the first: Snakes on a Plane.

  1. Can you pitch it in a sentence? Hell, the title’s the pitch!
  2. Is it original? It’s a combination (cheesy disaster movie + spoof) that we hadn’t seen prior to 2006, so I’m going to say yes.
  3. Does it have mass appeal? Well, it doubled its’ production budget, so I’m going to say yes.
  4. Is the potential obvious? Again, the title pretty much says it all in my book.

The second example I wanted to bring up is a movie that I don’t even know the title of, I’ve only heard the pitch, and frankly it’s a brilliant pitch:

Example the second: Agoraphobe in a Haunted House.

  1. Again, a brilliant, short pitch. You know exactly what that movie’s about based on those five words.
  2. Is it original? I’d certainly say so.
  3. Mass appeal? Horror movies always have mass appeal.
  4. Obvious potential? A fresh twist on the classic haunted house tale that doesn’t involve loads of gore? Yea-huh.

At the end of the day “high concept” is actually pretty easy to define, and it’s obvious why people are so desperate for these kind of ideas. The hardest part isn’t defining what constitutes a high concept idea, but coming up with the damn idea in the first place.

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