High concept films are a certain type of film that tends to be driven by a central, easy to grasp concept rather than the characters and their relationships. Many big-budget box-office blockbusters are classed as high concept.
High concept films are apparently beloved by studio executives because they present a concept for a film that is easy to convey and understand, and therefore, sell. One of the most famous examples of a high concept film is Jurassic Park:
– A theme park, filled with living dinosaurs, suffers a security failure and the dinosaurs escape.
Within that simple one line description your mind is running; you can picture scenes, you can imagine action, peril, excitement, you might be able to envisage a logo or a poster, and if you’re particularly craven, you might even be able to envisage a range of action figures, lunch boxes and birth control products (“Make sure life doesn’t find a way – Tyranodoms”).By contrast, low concept films tend to have a less obvious or harder to convey premise. They tend to be stories driven by characters and relationships, something that is hard to summarise and sell easily. Characters in high concept films are usually broadly drawn and their values and motivations are often clear from the outset. They exist simply to serve the plot, or the concept. If you’re unsure about things, ask yourself; if the dinosaurs/aliens/time travel were taken out of the film and the characters were in an everyday situation, would you get a compelling story out of them?
How else can you spot a high concept film aside from the types of characters? A good first indicator is; does it present a “what if?” scenario:
- What if giant monsters started attacking cities and Earth built giant robots to fight them? – Pacific Rim
- What if a bus had a bomb on it that would blow up if the bus went slower than 50mph? – Speed
- What if Zack Snyder wasn’t a complete fucking hack? – Real Life
These “What if?” scenarios are similar to analogies, but analogies use them primarily to explore contemporary issues in an alternate setting. For example, Animal Farm has the “what if?” scenario of animals running the farm, but this is used to explore issues of the time, namely the failures of Communist revolutions. Jurassic Park on the other hand does not explore much more than ‘what if dinosaurs in an amusement park ran amok?’
As mentioned, high concept is supposedly loved by studios and marketers because the concepts easily lend themselves to titles, logos, posters, etc… They’re seen as easier to sell.
However, they have also picked up a bad rep for being dumb, superficial and increasingly gimmicky. A prime example is Snakes On A Plane:
Exec: “What’s it about?”
Producer: “Snakes are loose on a plane.”
Exec: “What’s the poster?”
Producer: “Snakes wrapped around a plane.”
Exec: “How do we sell it?”
Producer: “We tell people there are snakes on a plane.”
Exec: “And what’s it called?”
Producer: “Samuel L. Jackson’s Wild Reptile Ride.”
However, there is nothing in the rules that says ‘High Concept = Low Quality’. Films like Jaws and Jurassic Park are clearly high concept, and they’re great films. High concept is not a snide judgement, or terse review, it’s just a style of cinema and approach to storytelling. In fact much of the work of one of the most commercially and critically successful directors around right now, Christopher Nolan, falls into the high concept camp. And that’s fine!
- A man with amnesia finds his wife’s killer by leaving himself clues – Memento
- People go into other people’s dreams to steal ideas – Inception
- Batman fights a big guy but loses and ends up in the desert and the big guy wants to destroy Gotham and, oh fuck it, it’s a shit plot – The Dark Knight Rises
The characters in these films have little depth and the relationships between them tend to be quite lightweight. But they’re still good films because they have strong concepts that drive the films on.
In fact, a high concept approach, where you don’t place all the weight of the film on your characters and their relationships, can be useful for ambitious and bold filmmakers of a certain bent. By placing a concept at the core of the film, you can tackle ideas in general ways and present arguments or possibilities clearly, without characters getting in the way with their blasted ‘feelings’, distracting the audience from your clever points. Using Jurassic Park as an example again, how clear would the message about the dangers of genetic modification been if the main focus of the film had been a love triangle between Sam Neil, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum?
Some people think that any film can be high concept, that it’s all in the description. Take the deeply existential and emotionally driven Synecdoche, New York, and just describe it as, “A writer tries to realise his dream production by building a life-size replica of New York in a warehouse.” Boom, high concept! Right? Wrong. That’s simply creating a very short partial synopsis to try and hook someone’s attention. That’s just marketing. What you’ve just described isn’t the core of the film, unlike what we saw with the Jurassic Park tagline.
High concept isn’t about marketing, it’s about the concept. The clue is in the name.
It’s not just about truncating your synopses or envisaging a poster. It’s not something you apply to a story after it’s written. It’s something integral. It’s there at the start and is on every page.
As with most things related to story categorisation, high concept is hard to define in black and white. For most of the criteria you could assign to it, there will still be films that don’t quite fit the bill 100%. But here’s a general four-point guide to spotting a high concept film:
- Is the central premise some sort of “what if?” scenario?
- Can the core of the film be summarised in a short sentence?
- Are relationships and characters secondary to the concept?
- Did Tony Scott direct it?
If you answered yes to three or more of those questions, then you’ve got yourself a high concept film, buddy!