by William C. Martell

Your screenplay is going to start with an idea, but not just any idea... you need one that rocks. A great idea is the least expensive part of the movie, but also the most important part of the movie. You can have the greatest dialogue, most fantastic scenes, and amazing characters of any film ever made... but the audience won't know that until AFTER they've paid their L8 and stood in line for two hours. How do you convince them to pay the L8 and stand in line in the first place? All you have is a poster and a trailer... both can't do much more than give you the basic idea behind the film. If you can't get millions of people to stand in line on the opening weekend to see the IDEA, your brilliant screenplay is dead. The IDEA for your screenplay needs to be worth millions.


Most of you probably know what "High Concept" means, but for those of you who don't: High Concept is STORY as star. The central idea of the script is exciting, fascinating, intriguing, and different. High Concept films can usually be summed up in a single sentence or a single image. In this case, "High" does not mean "High Brow" or "High Intelligence", nor does it mean something that only sounds good when you're stoned. "High" means big, exciting, larger than life. A small, personal idea may not attract the mass audience that a film requires. We need stories with exciting ideas...

A bomb on a city bus will go off if the bus travels under 55 mph... and rush hour has just begun! A boy makes a wish to become big and wakes up to find that he's a full-grown adult... with the mind of a kid. A boy and girl from rival gangs fall in love in the middle of a gang war. If you can't distill your story into thirty words or less with an exciting central idea, you have a hard sell.


A good concept should be both UNIQUE and UNIVERSAL. A high concept isn't so dumb that everyone can get it, it's so Universal that everyone understands it. Either we know what that experience feels like, or it's an experience we've all fantasized about. The weirder the idea, the more it has to be grounded in universal human emotions or behavior.

If an idea is Unique, but no one can relate to it; it's not a great idea.
If an idea is Universal, but we've seen it a million times before, it's not a great idea.

The more imaginative your idea, the more an audience will want to see it. A script about a detective who partners with an Interpol agent to track a killer is something we've seen before... but what about a detective who partners with an Interplanet agent to track an alien shape-shifter here on Earth? Or a detective who partners with a vampire cop to solve a murder amongst the bloodsuckers? Is there a police Psychic Division? A Supernatural division? A mutant division? A policeman who can talk to the animals? How about a police medium partnered with a ghost cop to solve murders? ROGER RABBIT has a human solving a crime in cartoonland. Isaac Asimov wrote a series of stories about a human cop partnered with a robot. ALIEN NATION looked at racial prejudice by partnering a bigoted human with an immigrant from outer space.


A simple way to come up with a high concept idea is to drop in a "high concept phrase". Take your story or a basic story idea and add "In Outer Space", "With An Alien", or some other high concept phrase. So your story may be HIGH NOON in outer space (OUTLAND) or HIGH NOON with an alien (Sam Irvin's OBLIVION) or HIGH NOON with a dragon (a spec sale from a couple of years ago) or HIGH NOON with wizards (Roger Corman's THE RAVEN). This may sound silly and artificial to you, but all you are really doing is taking a familiar story and changing one element... which only changes everything. Obviously if our version of HIGH NOON is against a dragon, our protagonist isn't going to be a cowboy, our story won't take place in the American west in the late 1800s. That one difference changes everything else.

What we're doing is taking the familiar and adding a twist. Taking a story that the audience understands and finding a new and imaginative way to tell it.

It's a buddy cop movie, but the buddy is a _______.
It's a romantic comedy - the reason they are star crossed is that they guy she's fallen in love with is ________.
It's a comedy about a policeman who goes undercover as a _______ to crack a crime ring.

Having a high concept is no guarantee that your script will be any good, but it will help your script sell, and help it weave its way through the mine-field of development and production. Once you come up with a great script idea, you still have to write a great script.

Two additional things to consider when you're coming up with your great script idea are the STAKES and the TIME LIMIT. What will happen if your protagonist doesn't resolve the conflict? The higher the stakes, the more interesting the idea. In TERMINATOR Sara Conners isn't just some woman, she's the woman who is going to give birth to the man who saves the human race from extinction! What is the deadline involved in resolving the conflict? The less time to solve the problem, the more interesting the idea. In MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Julia Roberts is trying to hook up with Dermot Mulroney before his wedding day... at the end of the week! Low stakes means little impact if the protagonist fails, and no deadline means he isn't in a rush to solve the problem.

Your script is going to start with a concept. A great concept. A concept everyone else wishes they'd come up with. What is YOUR story's high concept?


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