2009 has seen a boom at the box office.
And it’s been a lesson for anyone interested in what “high concept” means.
The movies that have done well satisfy everything we imply by this term. Take a look at the $100 million+ hits (all except one which just opened) that have “surprised” so many since January 1.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Taken, Monsters vs. Aliens, Fast and Furious and17 Again are movies that have different tones, fall into different genres and target audiences — but also have a lot in common:
Original ideas — Some screenwriter, or team thereof, sat down and thought it up. And though Fast and Furious is the fourth in the franchise, it too started life as an original not based on any other source.
Says “what it is” — These movies each tell us in the poster and the title what each movie is “about.”
Easy to explain — Whether we like the idea or not, each has a premise we can pitch.
The term “high concept” is still unclear to me. I first heard it in relation to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney in the early ’80s. The term meant that such a movie was “easy to see” and understand from its poster. And one thing I think “high concept” has is what I coach filmmakers about:
Primal — Bruce Snyder, Distribution President at Fox, used this very word in a recent interview to help explain why Taken was a hit. Someone took my daughter. I have to get her back. “Primal.” Got it.
Fresh — “Die Hard in a Mall.” That’s my pitch for Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Creators gave us “the same thing only different,” just when I thought the last Die Hard in a ________ movie had been made. Guess again.
Two Worlds in Collision — It’s there in the title of Monsters vs. Aliens. One thing that catches our attention as an audience is conflict. The bigger the better. And when we see worlds in collision, best!
During my first trip to the UK (my third trip to London is coming up and my weekend is selling out fast), I saw that the BBC had a website that allowed viewers to listen to the albums of “100 Unsigned Rock Bands.” So when I dipped into the list, “dropping the needle” on song after song, what was I listening for?
I was listening for a ‘hook” — something that made me want to keep listening! We can learn a lot from this and from “High Concept.” No matter what our story, we have to start by getting attention. The means of getting our stories out there is easy — but will anybody “drop the needle” on us — and stay?
Our job is to make sure they do by creating concepts we can tell, that intrigue, that “travel” because their themes are universal. For studios, writers, and creators who love “high concept,” it is our time to shine.
p.s. One of the movies I saw recently that I liked a lot was Fighting, produced by Kevin Misher. Really interesting performances by Terrence Howard and Channing Tatum, and several standout cameo roles. What’s the pitch? It’s Rocky for the millennium, with a little bit of Midnight Cowboy thrown in. Good stuff.