The 7 Vital Steps to Developing a Great High Concept Movie

Turn Your Loose Story Ideas into a High Concept Movie in 7 Steps

 

What is a “high concept” movie? What do movie producers and executives look for in a high concept? And how do you turn a logline into a high concept to begin with?

Screenwriters are constantly searching for movie ideas Hollywood producers want to buy.

In turn, that’s where writing a good premise, or “high concept,” become valuable.

A high concept is a captivating premise (or logline) to a movie that generates audience appeal without attached elements, such as critic reviews or casting.

Furthermore, a High Concept conveys 3 basic elements at its core.

  • Character.
  • Conflict.
  • Desire.

TITANICA seventeen-year-old aristocrat falls in love with a poor artist aboard the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic.

  • Character – 17yr old aristocrat (Rose).
  • Conflict – Titanic sinks.
  • Desire – Gain the love of a poor artist (Jack).

The 3 elements are shown clearly in this one line without needing to be stated directly.

However, executives, and producers see much more than just a combination of words. As a result, the high concept they’re looking for conveys —

  • A relevant theme.
  • A compelling story plot.
  • Indelible conflict.
  • An empathetical protagonist to take us along the journey.

So how do you turn your story idea into one that could be defined as high concept. We’re going to look at 7 steps for transforming your one-line premise into an attractive high concept.

Moreover, these 7 steps will:

  1. Serve as a guide in revising your high concept premise.
  2. Assist in developing your story’s beat sheet / outline to properly execute your concept.

1. Brainstorm Story Ideas!

First, a common pitfall in a screenwriter‘s journey is failing to brainstorm all the possibilities of an idea.

Often, writers get caught in the momentum of an inspired idea.

Of the 99 out of 100 screenplays that can’t be recommended, 90 fall apart in one very basic way: the story concept sucks.

-Michael Huage, “Writing Screenplays that Sell”

It’s essential to uncover your idea’s TRUE marketing and creative potential. To that end, here are 2 tips that can help…

 

Tip #1: Create a High Concept Wishlist

First, list any and every idea you want to see on screen. Doing so without reservation will allow you to discover your own originality and passions.

For example, you may come up with a premise or simply a vision.

  • If you love comedies, you might think of a disastrous past relationship.
  • Maybe you love fantasy and have always imagined a mystical winter journey.
  • Or you’re a gamer who’d love to see a video game character come to life in a science fiction movie.

Ultimately, 2 things will happen.

  1. You’ll discover what’s most compelling to you.
  2. You’ll have genuinely welcomed originality and your own writer’s voice.

Next, let’s refine your premise one step further.

Tip #2: Ask “What if…?”

The purpose of asking “What if…” is to discover what’s possible. It leads you back to your own creative imagination. It also leads to an idea that may be appealing to your audience.

To understand this process, let’s use Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT.

Because MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS came out recently, Rian has the challenging task of creating a fresh murder mystery movie with an original twist.

Here’s what his approach in asking “What if…” may have looked like.

  • What if a murder mystery had to do with a dysfunctional upper class family?
    • And what if the detective investigating the death employs the family’s maid as his assistant?
      • What if the maid has a hispanic origin, and threatens the household’s wealth by inheriting the deceased’s will?
        • What if this murder mystery became a microcosm of social class in America?

These exact “what ifs…?” may not have been Rian’s exact method. But his thoughtful, relevant themes of immigration and social class greatly strengthened KNIVES OUT’s potential.

Combine your brainstorming with these tips to refine your high concept too.

2. Research for High Concept Potential

Now, you might already have a premise line in mind.

However, conducting a thorough research is the next step in revising your logline.

Research material could include:

  1. Newsworthy events / Cultural trends.
  2. Script acquisitions.
  3. Movies produced or in pre-development.

Take Netflix Original, THE TWO POPES, for example.

Without current cultural and political trends, it would be difficult to envision THE TWO POPES being such a high concept film. An exploration of the future of the Catholic Church, however, proves timely.

  • LOGLINE: Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict and the liberal future Pope Francis must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.

The same was true for, THE MATRIX, which was grounded in technological and theoretical research about simulated worlds.

  • LOGLINE: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

No matter the context (or genre), relevance of the subject matter contributes greatly towards a movie’s high concept appeal.

Researching relevant movies

In the same fashion, researching movies in production and in pre-development is equally important. Not only are you provided with similar movies that found success, but also, leverage for pitching too.

For instance, take Evan Daugherty’s journey in writing SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN.

  • Daugherty spent nearly 10 years writing it without ever selling it!
  • However, in 2010, ALICE IN WONDERLAND was produced by Joe Roth from Roth Films.
  • The movie’s commercial success provided a green light for live action-adventure fairy tale twists.
  • Subsequently, Daugherty reapproached his agent with the script.
  • As a result, Daugherty’s script sold for $3 million – subpar plot, yet a high concept.

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN: In a twist to the fairy tale, the Huntsman ordered to take Snow White into the woods to be killed winds up becoming her protector and mentor in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen —

To imitate Daugherty’s accomplishment is unlikely.

However, his METHOD of research and timing is a process any writer can leverage.

Research Tools

Here are some sites that will help you along your research process. Use these to find movies in pre-development and scripts newly acquired by companies.

Additionally, find movies that had box office success similar to your story idea. For instance, here are a couple sites that can help:

REMEMBER: As you research, revise your high concept premise. It will further ensure that your idea is relevant based on its sub-genre or cultural trends.

3. Identify High Concept Challenges

Producers and executives are great at identifying inherent problems within the concept of the movie.

Address your movie’s potential flaws and you’ll find two main benefits —

  1. It keeps you one step ahead of the executives before they give you that note.
  2. You overcome writing problems you would otherwise have encountered (say, in Act 2).

Common challenges to be aware of include:

  • Introducing many characters.
  • Developing believable characters / character arc.
  • Portraying past events without confusing the story.
  • Having an active protagonist, not passive.
  • Conveying a clear and relevant theme.

To understand how writers meet these challenges, consider —

Aaron Sorkin’s STEVE JOBS

Sorkin faces the dilemma of writing a passive story for a character whose name is well known.

In this situation, how does Sorkin still hook the audience?

  • He provides Steve Jobs with a fatal flaw (an inability to care about others).
  • Embeds a believable character arc (his evolving relationship with his daughter).
  • Gives external conflict (Wife’s need of support, his CEO and Apple’s Board, his colleagues).

LOGLINE: Steve Jobs takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution, to paint a portrait of the man at its epicenter. The story unfolds backstage at three iconic product launches, ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac.

On its own, this logline might NOT possess enough commercial potential for executives and producers. If anything it sounds, more like a documentary. So what worked?

  • Aaron Sorkin’s name (obviously).
  • However, Sorkin still has to pitch the concept.
    • Additionally, he has to make it original enough to stand out from JOBS two years earlier (2013).
    • And we might not know what that pitch looked like.
  • Nevertheless, the concept is broad enough to possess several juicy elements. It’s the character arcs, conflict, and flaws that makes STEVE JOBS interesting to watch.

Revise the high concept after fixing your potential problems to accurately reflect your story.

Step 4: Unique Storytelling Method

The “method” refers to how your story is told, and can provide originality for generic, familiar stories (ex: Historical WWII drama).

For example, let’s look at DUNKIRK.

DUNKIRK focuses on the escape of 400,000 allied soldiers from the beaches of France. The possibilities of methods it could have been told in, however, are immense.

So what are possible methods Christopher Nolan could have taken to tell his story? He could’ve —

  • Followed a single protagonist, with his own backstory or wound.
  • Based the story on two protagonists (much like 1917 does).
  • Developed a retrieval movie based on the fishermen who risked their lives to save the soldiers.

Rather, Nolan’s method for developing DUNKIRK was based on three different perspectives – Land (soldiers), Sea (fishermen) and Air (Pilots).

In turn, Nolan was able to tell another WWII movie through a unique and original method.

MORE STORYTELLING “METHOD” EXAMPLES

  • EX MACHINA LOGLINE – A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I.

Method – A programmer plots an AI robot’s escape over the course of a week through a series of experimental interviews.

  • 1917 LOGLINE: Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Method: Track the journey of 2 soldiers over the course of 2 days.

STOP! Refer back to the STEVE JOBS logline above. Can you spot its embedded method?

  • Notice how the method of “three iconic product launches” gets integrated within the logline.

In short, by having a clear method, agents and producers can clearly envision your story. In effect, it increases your script’s high concept potential as well.

5. Character and Conflict

In addition, after arming yourself with research and addressing story problems, select a compelling protagonist and conflict.

SELECTING YOUR HERO / PROTAGONIST

Ask yourself, “Who is the most compelling character?” Here’s a check list of qualities to keep in mind for choosing your protagonist.

  • EMPATHY (based on danger, likability, internal conflict).
  • ORIGINALITY (possessing traits that go against cliche).
  • INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL MOTIVATION.
  • Faces overwhelming internal and external CONFLICT.

If your protagonist meets all these marks, congratulations! Include this character in your high concept premise line.

Otherwise, further develop your protagonist or choose a new one.

It’s not necessary to include the name of your character. Rather, include a brief, captivating description:

CONFLICT

Your hero’s conflict boils down to this one blurb:

Your Protagonist / Hero FIGHTS your antagonist / villain FOR a desire.

Keep your conflict and motivation simple, whilst promising rising and climatic action.

Moreover, most movies boil down to these external motivations which conflict can be originated from…

Having a simple conflict that promises rising action allows executives, agents, and producers to clearly envision your high concept movie right at the premise line.

Step 6: Promise a Compelling Character Arc

A story concept that promises a powerful character can greatly increase your story’s marketability and creative appeal.

For instance, take a look at JOKER as a recent example.

Logline: In Gotham City, mentally troubled comedian Arthur Fleck is disregarded and mistreated by society. He then embarks on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime. This path brings him face-to-face with his alter-ego: the Joker.

Audiences flocked to see JOKER. And not just because he’s a favorite comic book character. Rather, because the character arc from “lonely comedian” to the “Joker” is a compelling transformation.

To find your story’s compelling character arc, identify your hero’s…

  1. WEAKNESS (usually the first 10 pages),
  2. CHANGE (positive or negative in your story’s aftermath),
  3. ACTION (sequence of events that drive’s your hero’s arc).

Joker High Concept

Step 7: Audience Appeal

Once you have a premise, AFTER CONTINUOUSLY REVISING, only one step remains —

That is, test your high concept’s audience appeal.

Ask around around your social circle. By all means, ask family and close friends too. By the same token, if you know anyone in the industry (actor, executive, manager) ask them!

You can do this in a totally natural way. If someone asks you what your movie is about, does your response provoke an interested reaction?

Practice telling people what your movie is about in an easy, pithy way. This will help refine the core elements and hooks of your idea.

You might ask, “what if somebody steals my idea?” It’s a scary feeling. 3 things to note —

  1. The chances of someone stealing your fully formulated idea with its conflict, character desires (and the steps you’ve taken from this guide)…is highly unlikely.
  2. The only way gauge audience interest is by asking.
  3. Write a treatment and have it copyrighted by the US Copyright Office ($35) or WGA ($20).

In Conclusion

In short, no specific step can promise a high concept movie. What these steps do guarantee, is an added advantage to selling a high concept.

Additionally, developing a high concept movie often requires weeks of revisions and research. Does that mean more planning and preparation before writing? Absolutely.

However, the payoff for a valuable story with marketable and creative appeal is well worth it.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Brainstorm story ideas and generate possible premise lines.
  2. Secondly, research relevant topics and movies in development/recently produced.
  3. Narrow ideas by addressing challenges/story problems
  4. Further, develop a unique method for telling your story.
  5. Check if your story promises a compelling character with rising conflict.
  6. Thereafter, revise your concept based on the promise of a compelling character arc
  7. Finally, consider your audience by inviting feedback.

Use the steps and resources listed above to give your screenplay a concept that will stand out from the crowd.

 

  • What did you think of this article? Share itLike it, give it a rating, and let us know your thoughts in the comments box further down…
  • Struggling with a script? Story analysis is what we do, all day, every day…check out our script coverage services for writers & filmmakers.  

1 thought on “The 7 Vital Steps to Developing a Great High Concept Movie”

  1. I like the direction and guidance for film-making. I like true stories and would like more information on the unique story telling method.

    I would appreciate it if you could send me this information on great movies that were true stories from books adapted into movies.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

100

Get ALL our FREE Resources

Tackle some of the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get these and much more free when you join 60,000 other filmmakers on our mailing list!

Success! Thanks for signing up, now please check all your email folders incl junk mail!

Something went wrong.

Send this to a friend