Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Big Idea, Part 3: What is "High Concept" Anyway?

So let’s say that great writing is 90% based on execution and only 10% based on the quality of the idea. That still means that either is useless without the other—at least if you’re trying to sell a spec script. Once you’re in, you can do choose to do endless rewrite work on other people’s scripts, where the last 10% is no longer your concern. But the only way to get there is with a great spec, which has to begin with a great idea.

It’s telling that so many professional writers –the same ones that insist that good ideas are a dime a dozen- quickly get addicted to rewrite work and stop churning out specs entirely. Ideas may be 10%, but they’re the hardest 10%.

So what is a “good idea” in this marketplace? Everybody knows the answer: it has to be “high concept”. But nobody seems to know what that means. In fact, the meaning has massively changed over the years. It used to mean “highly conceptual”: a movie with a wild, unique hard-to-explain story idea: 2001, Who Framed Roger Rabbitt, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception etc… A big idea.
Then it flipped almost entirely. Now it refers to a unique but very simple idea. Something that you’ve never seen done before but you instantly get the idea and the appeal, just by reading the title or seeing the poster: Horrible Bosses, Date Night, Limitless, Unstoppable.The explanation is that few people want to buy a script that is “execution dependent”. The one-line summary of The King’s Speech, for instance, sounds like a terrible movie, but the moviemakers cared passionately about this odd story and made a great little movie out it. Nevertheless, the financiers took a huge risk. Instead of starting out with an asset (an appealing logline) they started out with a liability (an unappealing logline). Every step of the line, they had to explain to potential directors, actors, distributors: “We know it doesn’t sound very interesting, but if we do a good job we can make it really interesting.” That’s a hard job.

The lure of the “high concept” logline is that you can do the opposite: start with an initial idea that is so damn interesting that you can flub the execution and everybody will still come to see it. This has been Hollywood’s goal for years. This is why they try more and more to pre-sell movies to audiences before critics ever get to see them. Who cares what the critics say? This idea is so good that it’s execution-independent! You’ll want to see it even if it’s crappy.

But this is an impossible dream. Take a perfect logline like Time Capsule, add bad execution, and you get Knowing. Nothing is execution-independent. No idea is good enough to factor quality out of the equation. In the end, good ideas and good executions are both necessary, but why is that combo so hard? More tomorrow...


James Kennedy said...

Matt! You skipped part 3 -- went straight from 2 to 4! Now that you get tens of thousands of visitors a day, THIS IS NOT A MISTAKE YOU CAN AFFORD TO MAKE.

Matt Bird said...

I was told there would be no math.

James Kennedy said...

And now that you've corrected it, my comment makes no sense. It's like the Ministry of Truth over there.

sean1 said...

Great series this week, Matt.