HOLLYWOOD INK-SLINGER ANDREW OYE: ONCE AND FOR ALL, ‘HIGH CONCEPT’ IS A NOUN NOT AN ADJECTIVE
BY ANDREW OYE
Attention, fellow screenwriters, storytellers, and film and TV producers. Ready for a game-changing, industry-shifting announcement? Okay, maybe not so much. But here it is anyway: High Concept is a Noun Not An Adjective.
A broad comedy. A contemporary thriller. An inspirational animation. This is how we describe the attributes of a movie or TV project.
A woman goes on a journey. A man lands in danger. A family rediscovers love. This is how we explain the high concept of a story.
See the difference? Adjectives describe. A high concept explains.
Yet, in Hollywood circles, the term “high concept” is often used as a descriptive adjective – an all-encompassing synonym or a catch-all euphemism – for the genre, budget and/or single-sentence “pitchability” of a project.
In its somewhat thorny use as an adjective, “high concept” (as in: “Send me a high-concept movie or TV script I can sell.”) is identified by some of savvy Hollywood as a special, rare but powerful and highly desired species of project that:
1) Falls into specific genres likely to yield instant (“high”) commerciality or viewership
2) Has a big budget, i.e., a “high” price tag that’s easy to sell to “fast-food” audiences
3) Can be pitched and/or marketed in a single sentence (at a “high” rate of speed?)
However, in my estimation, the term “high concept” ought not automatically designate a project as Action, Comedy, Horror, Thriller, Science Fiction or Drama. That is what genre categories do. High concept ought not suddenly signify budget nor predict box-office tally or TV viewership. That is what receipts and ratings are for. And high concept ought not easily classify a project as “easy to sell.” That is where story hooks, casting choices and marketing campaigns come into play.
Granted, the concept employed in a project affects and is affected by all of the above; nevertheless, for the more accurate use of “high concept” as a noun – a literary device not marketing slang – we ought not ask: “Is the project high concept?” We ought to ask: “What is the project’s high concept?”
Plainly stated, the “high concept” is the “big idea” or “main idea” or “central idea.” In my opinion, it is more closely linked to premise. Although some refer to it as the conceit, while others have even used theme in its place. However, the main idea of a story can be utilized to explore multiple themes across the span of a film or TV episode/series.
At the center of this debate is the infamous “logline.” Writers and producers market and sell motion-picture screenplays and TV scripts with a logline: a brief pitch of a story (preferably in a single sentence, as is commonly stated). To my point, a logline is essentially an equation that combines a story’s high concept and its hook.
Reconsider the “high concept as adjective” criteria: province, price or pitchability. My view? Every story, regardless of breed, budget or blockbuster potential, should be pitchable in a single sentence. Easy as ABC. (Or, as I have also coined it: H2O.)
A (Who?) + B (Does What?) + C (Why, Where, When, How, or Then What?)
A) Someone or something
B) Does or experiences something
C) For some reason; under a specific circumstance; in a certain manner; or before a major consequence
The A and B combine to form the basic (or high) concept. The C adds the special hook that sets one story apart from all others that are, or could be, based on the same aforementioned basic (or high) concept.
So, a studio executive says: “Pitch me your story.” Your response? Open with a descriptive adjective and genre. Explain with a high concept. And close with a hook.
“It is a broad comedy. A woman goes on a journey but realizes it is the end of the world.”
“It is a contemporary thriller. A man lands in danger when he realizes it is the end of the world.”
“It is an inspirational animation. A family rediscovers love after they realize it is the end of the world.”
Note: Spice up any pitch and impress any buyer by adding: “It is the end of the world.” Kidding. On a serious note: Adding details to a make a story unique can “flesh out” a logline pitch. What kind of woman makes this comedy hysterical? A neurotic, slow-lane driver. How does the man land in danger? He makes a bad business deal. Where does the family rediscover love? At a baby-animal petting zoo.
The H2O Equation: High Concept + Hook = Optimal Pitch
(Oh, and call your 2 H’s whatever you want. He says to-may-to. She says to-mah-to):
The Heart + The Heat
The Subject + The Sell
The Thrust + The Twist
The Gut + The Gimmick
The Core/Crux + The Catch
The Fundamental Facts + The Flavorful Frosting
In summation, the logline communicates The Big Idea + The Big Deal. The answer to: “Who’s here, and what happens?” + The answer to: “Why does it matter, or why should I care?”
Admittedly, in a world where art meets commerce, artists must speak like buyers and sellers. Perhaps that juncture is where the term “high concept” makes its shift from noun to adjective, when we shift from story shapers to story shoppers? On my stance of “high concept as literary tool,” I hear you: “Want to talk literary mumbo jumbo? Go to a book club discussion. This is showbiz, kid. Sell me.”
If you will indulge me for a moment, I say: The high concept is the skeletal frame on which we build the flesh of a meaty story to then hang the flashy garments of a (insert actual adjectives here – humorous, intriguing, touching) hook.
Setting aside all concerns of categorization, cost or a catchy tagline’s effect on audience turnout, at its most hardboiled, distilled, bottom line, the “high concept” answers: “What is the story about, at its core?”
The high concept is (or ought to be) simple to extract from any story – select a noun and a verb. The hook represents the creative challenge – find an approach to distinguish your story and, in turn, to sell it.
Perhaps switching out the word “high” with “basic” in the term “high concept” perplexes those who use it as an adjective. Not surprisingly, most associate the word “high” with something elevated, grander or bigger than “basic.” Yet, alternating the words emphasizes my point: The “high concept” is an intrinsic (read: basic) element of a story, as opposed to a categorical descriptor for a brand of instant-winner movie or TV project.
After all, what would be the alternative to a “high-concept story?” Who would intentionally set out to write or pitch a “low-concept story?” Who would voluntarily apply that term as an adjective to describe their project? Sort of a buzzkill from the opening gate, no?
Does it not seem more plausible that the majority of writers and producers set out to write and pitch a (insert an actual adjective here – scary, funny, thrilling) story that takes a high (read: basic) concept and expands it to explore themes (insert propositions or notions here) using a particular angle (insert hook here)? The result could be anything. A quiet, independent-film-festival-worthy, sweepingly dramatic saga with lots of crying and emotions. OR, a loud, commercial-driven, widely released, fast-paced, blood-pumping action movie with lots of cussing and explosions.
If it helps, think of stories like people. It all starts with what is on the inside. Pretty outside? A bonus. The next time you pitch a project, remember, the high concept is what it is made of, not what it looks like. Want to know the soul of your story? Pick a high concept. Want to deck its hot body in designer threads to sell it? Take your pick of adjectives, you savvy story designer. Adjectives describe. High concepts define.
Ultimately, I acknowledge this is simply my opinion in the soup of semantics, and I accept that others may view this subject differently. How does your soup taste? We can agree to disagree and respect each other, while focusing on what is important – telling (and filling up on) delicious stories. Mmm.
Andrew Oye is a Hollywood screenwriter, producer, director, playwright and novelist. A media-sports-entertainment company CEO, the Vanderbilt University graduate earned a Masters in Communications-Journalism from Stanford University.