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The Best High Concept Idea Ever?

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This week I stumbled across a ScriptMag.com post called The Best High Concept Idea Ever.

With that lofty claim right in the title and a final sentence that reads, “Why the studios never produced the script is a testament to their stupidity,” I wondered if the author was serious.

I’m still not sure. (Can he be serious?) But let’s take a look at the pitch and see if the claims are true.

First, what is High Concept?

What high concept means is that something is easy to pitch because the entertainment hook is in the concept itself.

Meaning, what’s appealing about that movie is right there in the idea. The concept clearly promises a specific type of entertaining action. Like in the movie Big, a classic “high concept” movie pitch:

A young boy wishes to be “big” and wakes up in a grown man’s body.

What entertaining action are we promised? An adult man running around with the brain of a 12-year-old.

You’ll often hear “high concept” described as something that can be pitched in one or two sentences. That means it must not be difficult to explain or describe.

But just because something is easily pitchable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that interesting of an idea, which is another quality most people mean when they use the term “high concept.”

High concept is both instantly gettable and intriguing. There’s something recognizable or even familiar about it (instantly gettable), but it also offers something new and fresh, an original twist we haven’t seen before (intriguing).

High concept is usually also meant to impart that the idea is commercial and has broad appeal.

To sum up: “high concept” is a compelling idea that can be described in few words, conveys its appeal immediately, and attracts a wide audience.

Alright, so that’s what we’re aiming for. Let’s get to the Best High Concept Idea Ever and see if it delivers.

Here’s the author’s pitch

TOP TEN – Thriller

“What if a serial killer who ranks number ten on the FBI’s Most Wanted list wants to become number one. So he decides to kill the other criminals who are ranked numbers one to nine. The FBI finds out about his plans and inserts one of its agents as number eight on the list.”

Initial reactions?

On first glance, there is something intriguing about this idea. I like serial killer stories as much as the next person, and this concept gives the killer a clear and easy-to-grasp motivation and nicely sets up some story parameters. He’s working his way up the list and there’s a built-in endpoint.

I’d prefer if the pitch featured the protagonist a bit more prominently. He (or she) feels sort of tacked on at the end. And that’s a red flag because now I’m confused if this script is focused on the serial killer and his goal, or if the FBI agent is the true protagonist.

The author says the agent is the hero. But if that’s true, why aren’t we telling the pitch from their point of view? That weakens the pitch and makes me think the author hasn’t thought this through.

Does it fulfill the qualities of High Concept?

Easy to pitch?

Yes. The author conveyed it in three sentences, and I’m pretty sure he could have done it in less.

Is the entertainment hook clear and built into the concept?

While the pitch may be easy to understand, I’d say the idea is not actually as strong as the author thinks it is. (It is certainly not The Best.) And I’ll tell you why:

I’ve mentioned writer sleight-of-hand before. It’s when something is written to sound catchy, but the underlying idea doesn’t hold up. That’s what’s going on with this author’s concept.

In this case, the sleight-of-hand is making it sound like there’s a strong hook when there isn’t. As it’s pitched, it seems like this is what we’re getting:

  • Serial killer bumping off other criminals – interesting, though pretty familiar.
  • Serial killer bumping them off in order to climb to number one – that’s a fresh spin.

Sounds good so far – what’s the problem?

The problem is that’s not really the movie. And if it is, it’s not going to make for a very compelling story. That’s just one criminal killing a bunch of other criminals. If they’re the 10 worst criminals in the country, we can assume they’re not the most sympathetic characters. There’s no one to root for there.

But that doesn’t really matter, because – again – that’s not the movie.

What’s the movie?

As the author said, the agent is the hero and provides the personal stakes. So the movie is about the FBI agent, who goes undercover as #8 to stop the serial killer from his mission.

What does that look like? What are we really watching?

It’s not like the agent is going to actually commit a bunch of crimes and live the life of a #8 criminal, right? So we’re watching them… pretend to plan some crimes? Act like they’re on the run from the law? What does a #8 criminal do?

I suspect the 10 Most Wanted are pretty much living under the radar and trying not to get caught.

But we don’t know for sure, because it’s not in the pitch. Why isn’t it? If the protagonist is doing something – especially if it’s interesting – tell us what it is! Because that IS the movie.

What makes this idea appealing?

Remember, a high concept idea tells us what specific type of entertaining action we’ll be watching. In this pitch, I can’t tell what I’m being promised.

This pitch isn’t really high concept because the entertainment hook isn’t in the concept itself. I don’t know what the entertainment hook is. It’s not watching a serial killer knock off 9 other criminals (because that’s not compelling). It’s not whatever the protagonist is doing (because we don’t know what that is). So what is it?

Contrast this with The Silence of the Lambs, in which an FBI trainee has to work with a notorious psychopath in order to catch a serial killer. That’s an entertainment hook.

I know what I’m watching (and who the protagonist is) and I’m intrigued.

Now, maybe we can believe that the agent in the Best High Concept Idea Ever has to navigate a seedy, criminal-filled world in order to become bait for the serial killer… That might be interesting. But that’s not mentioned in the pitch. So it’s not an integral part of the concept. It’s not a hook.

Back to our High Concept criteria –

Is the concept instantly gettable and intriguing?

No. If you take a hard look at it – and evaluate it the way you might if you were considering spending millions of dollars on it – it doesn’t hold up.

That’s not to say the idea couldn’t become something compelling. The pitch does get that initial spark of interest – “Oh, I’ve never seen a villain with that plan before…

But the pitch stops there and doesn’t convey a full concept, high or regular. I’d be inclined to side with those “stupid” studios and pass on this project. (Or maybe, if I liked the writer and really wanted a serial killer movie on my slate, to develop the idea further and see if we could shore up the weaknesses.)

But what do YOU think? Put on your producer hat and tell me if you’re buying this pitch. 

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