by William C. Martell

A great idea is the most important part of any movie, and the least expensive part. Coming up with a great idea or a bland idea costs exactly the same. It takes the same amount of time to write the scripts, it costs the same amount for the producers to make photocopies of the scripts. But successful low budget films NEED great ideas. Concepts so earth shattering and exciting that you will see the movie despite the no-star cast. The producer knows he won't have a $20 million star or a big FX budget, so he's looking for a high concept script that an audience will want to see on the idea alone.

Not all high concept ideas will work on limited budgets. If your idea REQUIRES special effects or large scale stunt sequences, it's probably better suited to a big Hollywood studio film. But what if you live in Europe, and have no Hollywood connections? How can a European film hope to compete with those big budget Hollywood films in the international marketplace? We need to find great ideas that can be made on a limited budget. Exciting ideas that won't bust your budget.


Last month we looked at ways to generate high concept ideas by changing a story element; but the minute we decide to set THE SEARCHERS in outer space we've busted the budget. It's great to have Ethan and young Martin searching the galaxy for the little girl kidnapped by aliens, except it'll cost millions for all of those special effects. Instead we want to find a wild, imaginative idea that's more down to earth. That's not a contradiction!

We're looking for high concept ideas that take place HERE and NOW - present day in a location that exists that a producer can rent inexpensively. Instead of dropping in a high concept LOCATION or TIME PERIOD (like "the future"), we're going to change other elements of our archetype story. The location for our SEARCHERS story is London, the time is present day... but we're going to change the Red Indians into VAMPIRES. A gang of vampires has raided an entire neighborhood, put the bite on all of the residents and kidnapped a 12 year old girl. The only survivor of the attack teams with his vampire hunter uncle Ethan to rescue the girl before she's been turned into a vampire. That gives the story a great ticking clock, a deadline. If they miss the deadline and she's become a vampire, will Ethan kill her? We can even up the stakes by making the girl the daughter of a divorced Duchess, if you like.

The key to a high concept on a limited budget is NOT to go to an alien world, but to bring the alien to OUR world. This is actually more frightening - we might expect monsters to attack us on Mars, but we're supposed to be safe in our own homes.

"Alien" doesn't just mean little green men, it can be anything unusual. SPLASH takes a Mermaid from the sea and drops her into Manhattan... where Tom Hanks falls in love with her. The story takes place here and now, but the love interest is from another world... Madison is a fish out of water who must eventually return to the sea (deadline). KATE & LEOPOLD is a romantic comedy that takes an elegant gentleman from the Victorian era and drops him into modern Manhattan where Meg Ryan falls madly in love with him... but he must return to his own time or history will be derailed (deadline). SPLASH and KATE & LEOPOLD are "cousins" - they take the same story archetype and change an element, becoming very different high concept stories.


We also need to consider the high concept character we've dropped into our story that takes place here and now. If the character is a special effect, we probably can't afford it. Partnering Whoopi Goldberg with a Dinosaur Detective is high concept AND high budget. We're looking for characters that require minimal special effects - Madison in SPLASH only has fins when she's in the water, for 98% of the film she has legs and requires no special effects at all. In THE HIDDEN the alien is a shape-shifter who transforms from one cast member to another (mostly Claudia Christian). In THE TERMINATOR the killer android looks just like Ah-nuld and instead of taking place in the future, the film takes place in present day L.A.

Androids, shape-shifters, vampires, warlocks and wizards, zombies, people from other time periods... all of these are just actors. Most of the time no special effects or creature make up is needed! If your idea concerns a mermaid or werewolf or panther-woman, make sure the character is in human form most of the time. One cool special effects scene probably isn't going to bust the budget, but make sure the story isn't all special effects. Low budget producer Val Lewton made some of the creepiest horror films of the mid-1940s (CAT PEOPLE, LEOPARD MAN, ISLE OF THE DEAD, CURSE OF THE DEMON) with almost no special effects at all.


Another method of generating budget friendly high concept ideas is to use interesting locations that you have access to. Before writing EL MARIACHI Robert Rodriguez made a list of all the cool things he had access to. If you have a school bus, you can use it in your chase scene. If you have access to a castle, that can be the "Here" which increases the kind of stories you can come up with. Depending on the size of your cast, you might even be able to afford the costumes so that "Now" isn't a concern. I'm always on the look out for interesting but inexpensive locations. My BLIND TRUST script was written to be filmed at a huge 1700s hacienda owned by the city of Los Angeles. My SKY HIGH script was written to use a 727 jet owned by a college that is very inexpensive to rent. This extends to cast size, costumes, and props - write your script around things you have access to, or can be rented inexpensively. If your story requires a cast of thousands, or space suits, or an elephant you'd better know where you can get one cheap!

Having a great high concept doesn't mean a high budget. With a little imagination you can come up with a story idea amazing enough to compete with those big budget Hollywood films, but made for a fraction of the cost.


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