High Concept is a Hollywood term that’s been misunderstood and used incorrectly more than any other. Ask writers how they would define it, and most will say it’s any project that can be pitched in one sentence. “A boy searching for his lost dog” is one sentence, but it’s not even close to being High Concept.

The premise or logline is the core of High Concept. The premise is a condensed summary of what your story is about. My definition of High Concept is comprised of five requirements. They are in descending order of importance. Numbers one and two are the most difficult requirements to meet. But meeting only several of the requirements is not enough. All five requirements must be met for success in achieving the all-important “slam dunk” project.

Requirement 1: YOUR PREMISE MUST BE ORIGINAL
A logline is generally one to five sentences with the average at around three. Therefore, you have to pitch your material in a compressed, economical manner, which captures the essence of your story and highlights its originality. Writers should practice pitching their work by boiling down their story into only one sentence regardless if their story is High Concept or not.

In seeking originality, we are not talking about reinventing the wheel. We can take traditional subject matter that’s been done before and add a hook to it, which then qualifies the material as original. There have been dozens of films which covered the subject area of kidnapping. In the comedy, Ruthless People” Danny Devito plays a wealthy man whose wife, played by Bette Midler, gets kidnapped. Challenging convention, Devito refuses to pay the ransom, because he hates his wife and sees this as the opportunity he’s been waiting for to finally get rid of her. Now, the bungling kidnappers are stuck with an impossible woman with whom they have no idea what to do. It’s that unique hook that makes this a High Concept film.

Requirement 2: YOUR STORY HAS TO HAVE WIDE AUDIENCE APPEAL
It’s possible to meet Requirement #1 by creating an original story that’s never been done before with an appeal that exists only in the mind of the writer who created it. For example: a man who thinks everyone in the world is out to get him and refuses to leave his home ever again, does not meet this requirement. While it’s true that it’s never been done before, who cares? Wide audience appeal means that virtually everyone you pitch your story to would pay ten dollars to see your movie first run. It’s the difference between writing for your own enjoyment and writing to sell.

Requirement 3: YOUR PITCH HAS TO BE STORY SPECIFIC
Within your pitch, you have to have specific details which make your story different. Let’s take the bank robbing plot. If you came up with a story about three people who want to rob a bank by digging a tunnel underneath it, the response would be, “So what?” A twist on that genre is the old James Bond classic, Goldfinger. The pitch would be, “What if a villain interested in world domination decided he was going to bankrupt the U.S. economy by robbing Fort Knox of all its gold.” Now that’s not only unique, but it contains specifics within the pitch that are not generic.

Requirement 4: THE POTENTIAL IS OBVIOUS
If you’re pitching a comedy, then the potential for humor should be obvious within your pitch. People should smile or laugh when you tell it. If you’re pitching an action movie, the listener should be able to imagine the action scenes in his head as your pitching. I sold a screenplay to Interscope called, Worst Case Scenario. It was an action thriller about a government think tank that comes up with worst case terrorist and disaster scenarios. Its most brilliant member turns traitor and plans to pull off the worst terrorist act in American history using all the inside information he’s gathered. The potential for action, thrills, and big set pieces is obvious to anyone who hears that pitch.

Requirement 5: YOUR PITCH SHOULD BE SHORT
Most pitches should 1 to 3 sentences long, five maximum. You are not telling what happens in Acts 1, 2, and 3. You are giving the essence of your story.

I’ve had thousands of projects pitched to me in over 20 years. Writers mistakenly think that the longer the pitch, the better the story. No one wants to listen to a rambling pitch that goes on and on without any direction or focus. When you’re pitching, you are telling what your story is about, not what happens in the story. The reactions you want to hear when you pitch is “Wow! Why didn’t I think of that?” or “Why hasn’t somebody made that movie before?” When the faces in the room light-up after you deliver your pitch, you know you’ve got them. That’s the sought after “slam dunk.” That is what High Concept is all about.

Watch for Steve on Screenwriting the first Thursday of the month.

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2 Comments

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  1. Hank Isaac 9 years ago

    I believe http://highconceptscreenwriting.com/ is the working link for Steve’s site – no leading “www”.

  2. Debra Eckerling 9 years ago

    Thanks, Hank. Tried to change it on the site, but WP is being persnickety. Appreciate your link until I am able to fix!

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