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5 Keys to a High Concept

 

If you work in film, you’ve most likely heard the phrase “high concept.” This is Hollywood’s ultimate buzz phrase, the Holy Grail for producers. It’s so important, 99% of producers will make a deal with a writer who has a genuine high concept, even if their writing is terrible.

Why? Because it’s easy to sell a high concept, and unless a producer can sell a film, it’s useless. Writing can always be improved, fresh drafts written… but if a high concept isn’t there to begin with, the script probably isn’t marketable.

not marketable

So now that you know how important a high concept is, how do you get one?

Below are 5 keys for creating your own high concept:

I-m-not-weird-I-m-unique

  1. It has to be unique (without being weird).

 

There’s a fine line between unique and weird. A true high concept needs to be something never seen before. However, it can’t be a case of “We’ve never seen chimps roller skating in space, so that’s a high concept.” It has to be a unique idea that’s both interesting and conventional enough to achieve #2 on this list, which is:

big audience

  1. It has to appeal to a wide audience.

 

Again, a high concept has to be marketable. To be marketable, it needs a clear and wide audience. Could you have a unique concept about an 80-year-old woman in a rest home? Yes, but it probably wouldn’t appeal to many people. That’s not to say you couldn’t make a great niche film – but, by definition, it wouldn’t be a high concept.

When it comes to audience, clearly aim for ONE of the 4 quadrants: men over 25, men under 25, women over 25, women under 25.

get it

  1. You must be able to say the idea in one line and have the listener “get it.”

 

Again, it’s about marketability. To pitch a film, you need a logline: one sentence that sums up your story. If you have a true high concept, that one sentence gives the listener a very clear idea of the movie, from start to finish. If someone in the industry asks what your film is about, and you need a full minute to explain, it’s not a high concept. If you can say it in one sentence and see their eyes light up, it is.

high vs. low

  1. Use a genre other than drama.

 

High concepts are almost never dramas. That’s because dramas are more about execution than they are about concept. In essence, they are the epitome of a “low concept:” a story more concerned with subtlety and character development.

Try to think of a successful drama in the past ten years that was a hit. Most at least partially fall under another genre, like comedy. If you think of a recent hit that was pure drama, chances are, its logline doesn’t sound very unique, even though its execution was great. Dramas are generally serious and/or depressing. That doesn’t make for an exciting-sounding idea that has producers come running.

hook

  1. You need a story – not just a hook!

 

If you come up with an amazing ‘hook’ – a cool idea that’s not yet a story – people will be interested. But a hook by itself isn’t enough to be a high concept. It’s only the beginning of one.

To really flesh it out into a high concept, it needs some kind of story. For instance, the movie Saw was a huge hit and a high concept. But the logline couldn’t say: “A serial killer makes victims torture themselves to survive.” Ok, it’s interesting, it’s a great hook… but it’s also vague. Where does it go from there?

Look what happens when it changes to: “After two men wake to find themselves chained in a filthy basement, they realize they’ve been kidnapped by a gruesome serial killer and will have to torture themselves if they want to live.” Now it’s a high concept! We can see the whole story: beginning (waking up), middle (figuring out they were kidnapped by a serial killer and what he wants them to do), and end (deciding whether or not they’ll torture themselves). The genre is a clear horror/thriller, and it’s also clear that this will work for a wide audience. A producer can sell this.

money

Now that you know how to create a real high concept, start brainstorming ideas! A concept that fits all of the above criteria isn’t easy to come by, but if you do – it’s money in the bank.

What movies did you think were genuine high concepts? Let us know in the comments!

Blog by: Sara McDermott Jain

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Alumni Spotlight: Joe Rodman

 

When Joe Rodman first entered the Digital Film Academy, he planned to become a director. It was only through the hands-on experience he got filmmaking that he realized his true calling was editing. “I fell in love with editing. You get to really see the story take shape in the editing room,” he says.

It’s a realization that has served him well. Since graduating from the Advanced Digital Filmmaking program in June 2015, Rodman’s editing has opened up multiple career opportunities – including work on the 59-minute film Grave-Digger, a selection of the upcoming 2016 Madrid Film Festival and recent award-winner for Best Supporting Actor at France’s Nice Film Festival.

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Rodman also received a standing ovation for his work at the film’s premiere in Tribeca.

The film was shot using four different cameras, including the DFA’s Red camera, courtesy of Rodman. (The school’s policy of allowing students free lifetime access to equipment after their graduation helps them land jobs and get more experience, and also benefits their employers.)

red 2

Rodman knew early on that he wanted to have a career in film. While in high school, he began shooting  1 to 2 minute films, his favorite of which remains Starbound, a Star Wars parody shot entirely with a green screen. He also became certified in Adobe Premiere CS6 and mastered After Effects. After graduating and having a brief summer job at the Sagamore on Lake George, he continued his film education at the DFA.

In Rodman’s words, “coming (to the DFA) opened my eyes to so much more.” In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of cinematography, he also learned about screenwriting, film budgeting, scheduling a shoot, and sound. Perhaps his most painful lesson came when, while shooting his thesis film, he didn’t bother to slate – AKA, click those sticks together at the beginning of each take. The end result was hours spent trying to sync his image and sound.

slate

“It was painful, but the benefit is – I’ll never skip slating again!” he jokes.

At least he found a silver lining in the people he worked with on the film, particularly fellow students Lindsay Watson and A.J. Rodin. Watson was Rodman’s 1st A.C. and Rodin, his Director of Photography. “They were my left and right hand,” Rodman says.

It was also while shooting his thesis film that Rodman connected with Chris Cohen, the actor who would land the lead role in Rodman’s short and later write, direct, and star in Grave-Digger. The two developed a great working relationship, and Rodman lived with Cohen and his girlfriend for a month at the beach while editing the movie.

Grave digger image

“I didn’t care about going to the beach at all,” he laughs. “In fact, I didn’t go once. I was so engrossed in the editing process.”

The film was actually Rodman’s first time using Avid to edit.

Rodman always has a film job in the works. As a consultant at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, he shot two weeks’ worth of conferences. Until recently, he was completing an internship with Emmy Award-winning producer Linda Yellen, where he edited the trailer for The Last Film Festival, the final film of the late Dennis Hopper. He also worked on the feature film Broken Ones, which had a budget of $200,000.

dennishopper lff

Next up on his list? A trip to Madrid, to see Grave-Digger at the Madrid Film Festival… but knowing Rodman, this won’t be an excuse for a vacation.

 

Blog by: Sara McDermott Jain

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