Hollywood High Concept

Studios today are producing, for the most part, two kinds of films. One type is pre-established franchises (comic books, TV series, famous novels, toys, such as Star Wars, Captain America, and The Hunger Games. The other type is high-concept scripts that are either conceived of in-house by executives, producers, managers, and agents who know what the market responds to — or by “spec” screenwriters determined to break the bank.
Writing even the greatest screenplay that isn’t high concept is choosing either the indie path or willful self-indulgence.
Dealing with “high concept” is one of the most challenging and frustrating tasks of the Hollywood writer, agent, or producer; reducing the story to a compelling logline is what high concept is all about. As a former academic not prepared for a world focused on marketing, it took me years to realize that the term “high concept” means almost its opposite. It means “simple concept,” as in Fatal Attraction: An innocent smile at a party turns a married man’s life upside down and put his family in mortal jeopardy.
Sometimes a title is its own high concept, as with Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel Gone with the Wind, the extended logline of which would be: “Against the backdrop of the great Civil War, a narcissistic Southern beauty obsessed with idyllic love struggles to reconstruct her life and finds that her true love is closer than she thinks.”
High concept is a story that will compel the broadest audiences to watch the movie after hearing a pitch of only a few, or sometimes even one, word(s):

Sleepless in Seattle
Unwanted Attentions
How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days
American Sniper
Four Weddings and a Funeral
San Andreas
Black Hawk Down
Panic Room
Runaway Bride
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead
Home Alone
Cabin Fever
Die Hard

Ex Machina

These examples of high concept are pitched by their very titles. It’s enough to hear the title—and know that Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson star—to compel audiences to the box office for Anger Management. 
Die Hard on a boat,” was allegedly the logline line that led to the sale of Steven Seagall’s Under Siege.
Titles like The Fisher King, Seven Days in May, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Shipping News may be evocative, but do not express a high concept that will instantly lure audiences. Though such titles may get lucky and become successful movies, in today’s blockbuster market they’d be swimming upstream.
Nothing is more important to marketing your story than a “high concept logline” that makes it immediately stand out from all those stories that are subtle, nuanced, and difficult to pitch, and that depend entirely upon “execution.” Here are some more examples that have led my companies or others to sales:
• “Jurassic Shark!” (the two-word description given AEI client Steve Alten’s Meg by ICM-agent Jeff Robinov, who spearheaded a “preempt” from Disney for $1.1 million; the story was then re-sold to Newline, and then to Warner Brothers)

• When the most obnoxious guy in the world realizes he’s become an asshole on a false premise, he makes a list of all the people he’s wronged and sets out to repay them one by one. (John Scott Shepherd’s Henry’s List of Wrongs, sold to New Line Pictures for $1.6 million).

Life or Something Like It: An ambitious and self-involved reporter is sparked into action to change the pattern of her life when she interviews a street-psychic who tells her that her life is meaningless—and that she’s going to die—soon.
The Madam’s Family: The true “Canal Street Brothel” story of three generations of madams and their battle against persecution by the FBI.

The Lost Valentine: A man and woman find the love of their lifetimes when they’re brought together to memorialize the bittersweet story of a doomed World War II pilot and the wife who promised to wait forever for his return.
Consider these further examples, grouped by “genre”:
A woman or a family in jeopardy
The Shallows: While riding the waves at a remote beach, a young surfer finds herself injured and stranded just twenty miles from shore on a buoy—as a great white shark begins stalking her.
Room: After being abducted, abused, and imprisoned for seven years in a small windowless room a mother devises a bold escape plan.
An ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances
The Danish Girl: What happens if the husband you adore needs to be a woman?
Woman in Gold: Six decades after World War II, a Jewish octogenarian begins a quest to reclaim the artwork confiscated from her family by the Nazis and now proudly celebrated by the Austrian government—including a famed Gustav Klimt masterpiece.
Men on a mission
Saving Private Ryan: US soldiers try to save their comrade who’s stationed behind enemy lines.

Bridge of Spies: At the height of the Cold War in 1960, the downing of an American spy plane and the pilot’s subsequent capture by the Soviets draws Brooklyn attorney James Donovan into the middle of an intense effort to secure the aviator’s release.
Man against nature
The Martian: He was left behind—on Mars.
The Revenant: A frontiersman fights for survival after being mauled by a grizzly and left for dead by his own hunting team.
Man or woman against the system
Spotlight: A Boston news team sets out to expose numerous cases of child molestation and cover up on the part of the local Catholic Archdiocese.
Concussion: A pathologist uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions and comes up against the corporate power of the NFL.

People Vs. Larry Flynt: A pornography publisher becomes the unlikely defender of free speech.
Class Action: A female attorney finds that her nemesis is her own father, and must choose between her corporate client and justice.

A woman escaping from something or someone she loves.

The Perfect Guy: After breaking up with her boyfriend, a professional woman gets involved with a man who seems almost too good to be true.

Enough: On the run from an abusive husband, a young mother begins to train herself to fight back.

Sleeping with the Enemy: A young woman fakes her own death in an attempt to escape her nightmarish marriage, but discovers it’s impossible to elude her controlling husband.
Filmmakers long to spot in our onslaught of daily email queries a high concept logline that makes a story out of universal—

• human emotions: fear, love, hate, envy, etc.
• deadly sins: anger, greed, lust, etc.
• plot motivators: betrayal, vengeance, discovery, rebirth, survival, etc.
• virtues: loyalty, faith, responsibility, etc.
—and embodies those elements in characters we can care about, relate to, and root for to shape an “original story” that feels both fresh and relevant to today’s global market.
If you can do that, and your writing effectively expresses your vision, you’re only steps away from recognition in the toughest story marketplace of all.
Excerpt from my forthcoming Sell Your Story to Hollywood, at http://www.realfasthollywooddeal.com

The Writer's Digest Guest Post: How to Design Your Novel For Film Adaptation

Mid-career novelists seeking representation complain that none of their books have been made into films. At any given moment, we in Los Angeles have literally stacks of novels from New York publishers on our desks. Going through them to find the ones that might make motion pictures or television movies, we—and other producers, managers, and agents—are constantly running into the same problems:

atchity-ebookken-atchity-featuredThis guest post is by writer/editor/literary manager/producer Ken Atchity. Atchity has made hundreds of film and television deals for storytellers wanting their books to be films–including movies, series, and reality shows–since he began producing in 1987 after retiring from his tenured professorship at Occidental College. Also, as literary manager his authors have logged nearly twenty New York Times bestsellers. His own most recent novels are The Messiah Matrix and Brae Mackenzie. Dr. Atchity is also the creator of the free on-demand webinar presentation “Sell Your Story to Hollywood” for aspiring storytellers available at realfasthollywooddeal.com.

Common Problems in Novel-To-Film Adaptation

  • “There’s no third act…it just trickles out.”
  • “There are way too many characters and it’s not clear till page 200 who the protagonist is.”
  • “I can’t relate to anyone in the book.”
  • “At the end, the antagonist lays out the entire plot to the protagonist.”
  • “There’s not enough action.” Not just action but dramatic action.
  • “There’s nothing new here. This concept has been used to death.”/“We don’t know who to root for.”
  • “The whole thing is overly contrived.”
  • “There’s no dialogue, so we don’t know what the character sounds like.”
  • “There’s no high concept here or a new way into a familiar concept. How do we pitch this?”
  • “There’s no real pacing.”
  • “The protagonist is reactive instead of proactive.”
  • “At the end of the day, I have no idea what this story is ”
  • “The main character is 80, and speaks only Latvian.”
  • “There are no set pieces.”
Of course anyone with the mind of a researcher can list a film or two that got made despite one of these objections. But for novelists who are frustrated at not getting their books made into films that should be small consolation and is, practically speaking, a futile observation. Yes, you might get lucky and find a famous Bulgarian director, who’s fascinated with the angst of octogenarians, studied pacing with John Sales or Jim Jarmusch, and loves ambiguous endings.

But if you regard your career as a business instead of a quixotic crusade, you should be planning your novel at the drawing board to make it appealing to filmmakers.


Characters are the most important element of the story and should generate the action, the setting, and the point of view. Your job as a writer is to give us insight into each and every character in your story, no matter how evil or virtuous his or her actions may be. Characters are the heart of the drama.
    1. Give us a strong protagonist whose motivation and mission shape the action and who, good or bad, is eminently relatable—and who’s in the “star age range” of 35-50 (where at any given moment twenty male stars reside, and maybe ten female stars; a star being a name that can set up the film by his attachment to it).
    2. Make sure a dramatist looking at your book will clearly see three well-defined acts: act one (the setup), act two (rhythmic development, rising and falling action), and act three (climax leading to conclusive ending).
    3. Express your character’s personality in dialogue that distinguishes him, and makes him a role a star would die to play.
    4. Make sure your story has a clear-cut dramatic premise, e.g., unbridled ambition leads to self-destruction or you can’t go home again.
Have someone in the film industry read your synopsis or treatment before you commit to writing the novel.

Revise accordingly.

Though I’ve observed the phenomena for several decades now, it still surprises me that even bestselling novelists, even the ones who complain that no one has made a film from their books yet, don’t write novels dramatic enough to lend themselves easily to mainstream film. It’s a well-known, but lamentable, phenomenon in publishing that, with very few exceptions, the more books a novelist sells the less critical his publisher’s editors are of his work. So time and again we read novels that start out well, roar along to the halfway point, then peter off into the bogs of continuous character development or action resolution.

A publisher invests between $25,000 and $100,000 or more in publishing your novel. A low-budget feature film from a major Hollywood studio today costs at least $50 million. There is, from a business point of view, no comparison. Risking $50 million means the critical factor is raised as high as can be imagined when your book hits the “story department”—much higher than the critical factor of even the biggest publishers. Hollywood studies what audiences want by keeping track, in box office dollars, cents, and surveys–what they respond best to.

If you want to add film to your profit centers as a novelist, it would behoove you to study what makes films work. Disdaining Hollywood may be a fashionable defense for writers who haven’t gotten either rich or famous from it, but it’s not productive in furthering your cinematic career or building your retirement fund.

Read more 

brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
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Damn it, I did have genius Saxe. It just took me fifty-five years to find out. I suppose I was too busy working to notice it before.

—William Faulkner, to his editor Saxe Commins