What makes people go to the movies? Briefly: stars, spectacle and story. If your movie stars Jim Carrey or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, a certain number of people will turn out to see it come what may. There are also (a few) star directors like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, and star “properties” like Batman or Harry Potter. Put that name or that face or that logo on the poster and you’ve already sold your first million tickets.

Next comes spectacle. If you can promise a rollercoaster ride, if you can promise jawdropping images, if you can dazzle your audience, you’ll pack ‘em in. Spectacle has meant different things in different eras: from Fred Astaire’s flashing feet, to the stunts and carchases of the 60s and 70s, to the CGI wonders of the 90s, and now it means Bourne-style “realism” more often than not. Advertising these things is not quite so easy, but you can certainly depict them on posters and they make good clips for TV shows and wonderful trailers.

Lastly comes story. A movie lacking stars and low on spectacle may nevertheless find an audience if the story is compelling – but how do you sell the story? You can’t give all the details away, so you have to just give a piece of it and hope that will be enough. The bigger a piece you have to give, the harder it is to communicate that simply and easily in the marketing. And that’s why High Concept is such a winner. High Concept means that your basic story idea can be a) summed up in a single short sentence, b) sounds exciting and c) has never been done before. High concept means a movie with no stars and no spectacle can still be sold on its story, and a movie with stars and/or spectacle has a third marketing route to help ensure that all that money spent on stars and spectacle won’t be wasted.

So, it’s easy to see why high concept is the darling of the money guys, and a millstone around the neck of a struggling screenwriter. I want to tell this intricate, complicated, heartfelt, truthful moving story. I don’t want it reduced to half-a-dozen snappy words. Well, maybe you should.

Conventional screenwriting wisdom breaks screen stories into three acts, and my feeling is that this is nothing more than reflecting an innate quality of stories, which in turn reflects an innate way in which human beings process information. A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It needs a set-up, a crisis and a resolution. The most prescriptive screenwriting manuals will give you page count targets for these things, and again they generally make sense for typical stories. If your screenplay is 120 pages and it takes you a lot more than 30 pages to set your story up, your story is all set-up and no action. If your major climax comes more than about 15 pages before the end, your story will feel like it fizzles out.

So, if you have an idea for a story, very often you know how to start it, so those first 20-30 pages can almost write themselves. And either you know how the story will end, or you know you won’t know how it ends until you get there, so in either case there’s no point worrying about those last 10-20 pages. Act one – no problem. Act three – no problems. It’s the 90 odd pages of act two that come in between, that’s your problem.

And that’s the real value of high concept.

A high concept idea gives you act two.

Let’s briefly compare two well-known supposedly high concept films: Tootsie and Indecent Proposal. Both films made money, because both were sold on their starpower and their high concept, but Tootsie made quite a lot more (adjusted for inflation) and was a critical success, whereas Indecent Proposal was critically derided and is now largely forgotten.

Let’s look at their high concept pitches. Tootsie: An actor with a reputation for being difficult to work with dresses up as a woman to land a role. Indecent Proposal: A billionaire offers a married couple a million dollars for one night spent with the wife. Do each of these fulfil the criteria outlined above? Both can be summed up in a single sentence. Both sound exciting, variously bringing with them secrecy, ambition, sex, money and power. And both are reasonably unique; if anything, Indecent Proposal is fresher, since cross-dressing comedies have long existed.

What then is the difference? The difference is that the Tootsie high concept gives you act two. But the high concept in Indecent Proposal isn’t really a high concept at all. It’s a high set up. When you put the face or name of big stars on the poster, you’re promising exciting performances. When you advertise the spectacle of your movie, you’re promising exciting visuals. When you use your high concept to sell your movie, you’re promising exciting situations. What exciting situations are you promised by the logline of Indecent Proposal? None. It’s a single moral dilemma, which can only really be resolved in one way or the movie really would die.

So, it plods through an interminably long act one, finally getting Demi Moore on board Robert Redford’s yacht after an awful lot of talking, and then finally getting them into bed together (although we don’t actually see this). And then the consequences of this are… not much. Demi Moore wavers rather pathetically between Harrelson and Redford, there’s some dull talk about foreclosures, finally Harrelson gives away the million bucks and Moore comes back to him. The story lacks structure and feels arbitrary.

Now, look at Tootsie. This too spends a while getting Hoffman to the point where shaving his legs and putting on a dress is a viable option, and is working towards the moment when his true identity will be revealed (at which point the film will be over) but once she/he lands the part, the set-up itself gives you the following situations…

·         Sustaining the charade in the dressing rooms

·         Trying to pursue a romance with another actress who doesn’t know he’s really a man

·         Dealing with the advances of sexist men

·         Dealing with the sincere advances of genuinely nice men

·         Seeing the world from a female perspective and questioning his own behaviour towards women

The high concept gives you the whole of act two, which is what a high concept should do for a screenwriter. If it helps someone else later down the line to sell your screenplay, or even – glory be! – gets audiences to come and see your movie, great. But as a screenwriter, value those ideas which give you act two. Because act two is a bitch.

Ask yourself of each sequence: could this sequence exist in any other movie? When you have an idea for a movie, ask yourself: what unique sequences does this idea give me? If the answers are “no” and “lots”, you may be on to a winner.

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