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There are a limited number of themes that capture our collective imagination. In the end, all stories boil down to a handful of universal conflicts: life and death, good and evil, right and wrong, freedom and imprisonment, love and hate, and so on. In a sense, we're telling the same stories over and over again. But audiences quickly tire of repetition. They want fresh takes on ancient human dilemmas.
That's why producers insist on stories that are "unique but familiar." They want films that grab an audience's attention within the first 10 pages and hold it until fade out.
It's in our nature to respond to original stories with compelling heroes and exciting conflicts—what we storytellers call a "strong concept." Shakespeare's plays (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth) are based on strong concepts, as are many Greek tragedies (Oedipus Rex), operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Aida, Carmen), and countless novels (Pride and Prejudice, The Firm).
The strongest concept of all is a high concept. According to producer Hal Croasmun, a high concept has three essential components:
• The concept can be told in a single sentence that helps you immediately imagine the entire movie.
• The concept is unique in a significant way.
• The concept appeals to a wide audience.
The more original and appealing the idea, the higher the concept. "On a high concept scale of 1-10, you'll need a 7 if you want a chance of selling to Hollywood and a 9 or 10 if you want Hollywood to embrace you," says Croasmun.
The crew of a deep-space mining ship is trapped on board with an extraterrestrial monster: Alien. Between the title and a one-sentence pitch, we see the whole movie. Its life-and-death conflict is universal (familiar), but it's expressed in a fresh way (unique).
Why is it essential that the pitch be brief? Because executives hear hundreds, if not thousands, of pitches each year. If you can paint a vivid picture with only a few words, your idea will stand out. The person you pitched it to will remember it easily and will be able to pitch it to his boss, and so on through the chain of command. If your idea is difficult to explain, it'll be hard to visualize and remember.
In some circles, high concept has developed a bad reputation as nothing but a marketing gimmick. But, as you can see by the plays and novels I mentioned above, strong concepts have been around forever. Hollywood only took the idea one step further. And, truth be told, good high-concept movies make pots of money.
No matter what kind of story you strive to write—huge high-concept blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean or more intimate stories that are not high concept like Little Miss Sunshine—understanding what makes a strong concept is essential. If your script is original and has a great concept, it will be in demand.