(Note from the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, Jacob Stuart) High Concept. What is it, and how important is it? Spielberg says 95% of scripts are bought purely on concept.
In the past 2 years at Screenwriting Staffing, my team and I average around 40 “script searches” for clients a month. That’s almost 1,000 screenplay requests in 2 years. But only 10% of the loglines that come through from writers would I ACTUALLY consider “High Concept”. So the question is, are the scripts actually “High Concept”, but the writer has failed to summarize his/her screenplay in 1-2 sentences? Or, is the script actually “Low Concept”, but the script is done brilliantly and originally in the actual execution of the script?
My point is: regardless of how good your script is, the script MUST first be requested by a producer. And in order to achieve that, especially from newer screenwriters, you have to hook them with your “pitch” – a VERY short logline.
So I caught up with longtime Screenwriting Staffing member Rob Tobin. For those of you who don’t know Rob, here is a quick intro:
Rob’s Iraq War screenplay “The Freedom Café” is in development with Northern Star Pictures, and is scheduled to shoot in 2015.
Rob will be included in the book “The Top 50 Indie Writers In The World” by Del Weston, Theresa Weston, and Nabi Zee, scheduled for release in mid-2015.
At the 2014 Action on Film awards, Rob won the prestigious Award for Excellence in Dramatic Writing, was runner-up for the Writer of the Year award, and won Best Screenplay in the Alternative/Social category. This was in addition to 7 nominations and 5 Official Selections.
Rob also co-wrote “Broken,” one of ten films accepted into the 2014 semifinals of the PGA’s exclusive “Make Your Mark” film competition in which the winning film gets shown during the 2015 Oscars.
Rob is a published novelist, non-fiction book author, former motion picture development executive, author of two well-known screenwriting books, and frequent guest speaker and panelist at film festivals and writing conferences in the States, Canada and Europe.
Rob co-wrote the $25 million international political thriller “Vengeance” on assignment for producer Chris Xavier of Origen Productions. “Vengeance” is currently fully funded and in pre-production in Singapore, and is scheduled to shoot in India, Singapore, Russia, Austria and Greece.
Rob wrote the Iraq War drama “The Camel Wars” on assignment, which legendary director John McTiernan (“Die Hard,” “Predator” “Hunt for Red October”) attached himself to direct before Mr. McTiernan’s legal problems sidelined him.
Rob was a contributing writer on the English language Indian thriller “Dam 999,” which was released by Warner Brothers in 2011 and shortlisted for a 2012 Best Picture Oscar.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Once and for all, can you summarize the meaning of “High Concept”?
Rob Tobin: A high concept story is one that can be easily and quickly pitched in a one-sentence logline that captures the listener’s attention and makes the listener want to know what happens next.
So, “boy meets girl” is low concept, because we’ve been there, seen that. “Boy meets girl on the maiden voyage of the Titanic,” is high concept (at least it was at the time the film was produced).
“A space alien lands on Earth” is old hat. “A little boy finds a space alien hiding in his closet” is/was high concept.
“A top contender gets to fight for the championship” is ho-hum. “A down-and out club fighter gets a shot at the championship” is/was high concept.
“A dishonest lawyer is magically forced to always tell the truth.” “A little boy wakes up in an adult’s body.” Quickly conveyed, easy to remember and repeat.
Here’s a quick test: if you can’t quickly recite your script’s logline smoothly and without any hesitation, in one sentence, and without any practice… your script may not be high concept. “Well, uh… there’s this guy…” is not high concept. “A badly wounded policeman becomes a half robot, half human super cop” is high concept.
High concept is often surprising, taking us in one direction and then forcing us in a completely new , unexpected direction. There is often contradiction and even irony in high concept: a lawyer forced to tell the truth; a down and out fighter who gets to fight for the championship; a little boy who has to help an advanced space alien get home; young romance blooming aboard a tragically doomed ocean liner.
There is, however, danger is in relying so heavily on high concept that you forget about the proper execution of that concept. As well, some of the greatest scripts ever written are “low concept.” Scripts such as “Steel Magnolias” or “Postcards from the Edge” are hard to pitch because they’re relatively low concept, but they are great scripts.
As well, remember that even low concept scripts have to be pitched, so it’s even more important to write a strong logline for low concept projects, using active words, and conveying the essence of the story in an exciting way. “An overprotective mother tries to convince her sick daughter not to risk her life to have a child of her own.” It’s not high concept, but it’s strong, and dramatic, with obvious conflict, and it makes us want to know how it turns out. So, the lower the concept, the stronger the logline has to be.
Finally, High Concept is relative: once done, it’s no longer high concept. Write a script about a young couple falling in love on a doomed ship today, and it won’t be considered high concept. A little boy finding an alien, or a club fighter getting a shot at the title – no longer high concept, simply because they’re no longer unique, fresh or surprising.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Can a script still be labeled as “High Concept” if the premise has already been done before? i.e., boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back…
Rob Tobin: No. Unless there is an additional twist. So, “Rocky’s” been done – to death. But, the same concept, “A club fighter gets to fight for the championship,” can become “A club fighter gets to fight for the championship… against a seemingly invulnerable alien warrior, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.” A new take could lead to high concept.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: If the writer’s story is 100% original, will that qualify the script automatically as “High Concept”?
Rob Tobin: Not automatically, no. A story about a sign painter who becomes a multi millionaire by selling his signs to fast food restaurants and parlaying that money into a fortune through wise investments in hedge funds may be 100% original, but… It’s not the just originality that makes a story high concept; it’s the effect is has on the audience. Although I did not like “Titanic,” I have to say it’s perhaps the most brilliant example of high concept. It sets a traditional love story on the most famous doomed ship of all time. There is almost always a twist to high concept that intrigues us, catches us off guard, and makes us want to know more.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Can it be argued that the script’s “concept” is more important than the script’s dialogue, action, and visuals?
Rob Tobin: Absolutely not. Although high concept can help you get people to read your script, the execution will sell that script. The best script to write, in terms of commerciality, is a well executed high concept script:
“A marketing genius opens an amusement park featuring scientifically resurrected dinosaurs.” High concept, brilliantly executed, and thus one of the most successful films of all time.
However, the best script may be something like “Secrets and Lies,” or “As Good as it Gets,” which are not particularly high concept. Even a brilliant script like “Good Will Hunting,” which on the face of it is fairly high concept (A genius works as a janitor at MIT), depends almost totally on the execution, which was of course brilliant.
So no, although concept is important, it is not as important as execution. I’d much rather read (and produce) a brilliantly executed low-concept script that a poorly executed high concept script.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Why do Hollywood Executives religiously submit to the theory that a logline should only be 1-2 sentences?
Rob Tobin: It’s a test. If you can’t convey the essence of your story in one or (at most) two sentences, then it may not be structurally sound. A great one- or two-sentence logline indicates that the essence of your story is strong, and that you know what that essence is. If you don’t know your script well enough to pitch it in a sentence, then I probably won’t want to read your script.
Again, even a low concept script like “Steel Magnolias” is so well written that you can find at least the essence of it fairly easily. “An overprotective mother tries to stop her sick daughter from risking her life to have a baby of her own.” Bam. I didn’t have to think about it and it’s not even my script.
There’s also this: over the years I’ve pitched to countless producers and there’s this… glaze.. that descends over a producer’s eyes once she or he has decided that your story doesn’t interest them. You have a few seconds to catch them before that curtain descends. “A suicidally reckless cop gets partnered with an ultra cautious cop on the verge of retirement.” Bam. The producer’s going to at least ask questions. If you take three paragraphs to describe your story… maybe it’s not a story worth telling – or reading.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Because of today’s global film market, do screenwriters’ need to take into consideration the importance that a “high concept” story must NOW be universal?
Rob Tobin: To be honest, I think what’s more important is budget. Writing a mega-million dollar blockbuster script, unless on assignment, is just foolish, even if it’s “universal.” I try to “write within my means.” By that I mean that when I write a script now, I’m always conscious of how much it will cost to produce that script. I have a script in development now that the producer specifically said he chose because it is an interesting story that can be done on a small budget. I think it’s more likely you’ll find a local producer to produce your micro-budget script, than a Chinese producer to produce your $75 million actioner.
Also, to be honest, there’s this: write not what you know, but what you’d pay to see. Look, the chances of any particular writer getting her or his work produced is staggeringly small. No-one wants to hear that, especially the positive-thinking types, but… it’s true. So, since commercial success as a writer is so unlikely, why not write what you really want to write? Write it well, certainly. Learn your craft. Read what others have written. Know the industry. All good things, but… write what moves you, whether it’s “The Interview” (God help us) or “Forrest Gump.” You know what you want to see on the big screen. Write THAT.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Should a screenwriter follow the current film market and mirror their writing based off what’s “selling” and making “money”?
Rob Tobin: No. Because, as I said in my last answer, the chances of making money as a screenwriter are incredibly small. There’s something like 100,000 scripts floating around Hollywood at any given time. Maybe 300 of them will ever get made and distributed. Most of those 300 will be written by industry veterans. It’s a tough game. And, by the time you’ve seen what’s “hot,” it probably isn’t hot anymore. By the time you saw “Twilight,” it was probably too late to write a vampire script that would sell, unless it was a brilliant script AND you had contacts in the industry who could greenlight your project.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: In a few short sentences, what closing advice can you give ALL writers when it comes to writing a “High Concept” screenplay?
Rob Tobin: Execution. A high concept MIGHT get you an audience with or a read by an executive, but the execution is what will sell or sink the script. A high concept piece of crap is still a piece of crap. A low concept work of brilliance is still a work of brilliance. Try for the latter or, even better, try for a brilliantly written high concept script.
If you are looking for a spec script and/or a writer for a rewrite, polish, adaptation, or writing a full script from concept or treatment, contact Rob at: email@example.com . Writing samples and resume available upon request.