Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why readers pass: concept

Last week, I wrote about why readers might pass based on character. Today let's delve into concept.

"High-concept" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. Basically, it means a unique and exciting hook/premise that makes people go, "I want to see that!" INCEPTION is high-concept. ORDINARY PEOPLE is not. These days, it seems like every script needs to be high-concept to sell, unless someone like Leonardo DiCaprio is attached (though I guess it's worth noting that Leo tends to do pretty high-concept projects anyway). Sometimes I kind of sigh when I watch 80s & 90s movies like CLUELESS or THE BREAKFAST CLUB, because I'm not sure if they'd ever get made today.

Not every movie is high-concept, and certainly not every high-concept movie is good or successful. But as a new writer, you'll make life much easier for yourself - and guard yourself against a pass from a reader like me - if your premise is interesting and original. Amazing writing (dialogue, characters, etc.) will often get a Consider from me even without a big concept...but ideally you want people to think your ideas themselves are compelling. Also, you may not knock it out of the park with your execution in your first few scripts. You will likely need the excitement of your premise to open the door. Great concepts with mediocre execution get Considered more often than mediocre concepts with great execution.

One of the biggest mistakes that writers make in choosing a concept is failing to do some research to find out what else is out there. Remember that for every movie in theaters, there are dozens of scripts floating around Hollywood that mine similar territory. If I say "road trip," you can probably name movies like ROAD TRIP, DUE DATE, COLLEGE ROAD TRIP and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. But are you aware of all the road trip scripts in development? DESPERADOS? ASS BACKWARDS? BEST BUDS? What may seem like an original idea to you might be something that producers and executives have seen many times before. Try to follow projects in development through the trades or blogs like Go Into the Story. Keep your industry friends abreast of what you're working on so that they can tell you when they come across similar things.

Something that often comes to mind when I read a script is: "Why would anyone want to see this movie?" Every writer is attracted to something about an idea. Maybe you want to explore the complexity of loss, or you think your taxidermist uncle is fascinating, or you really want to tell the world about the time you got stabbed at the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell. But have you thought about why your idea might be interesting to other people? Have you considered whether you could get people to pay money and sit in a theater to watch it unfold? Try pitching your ideas to your friends and seeing how they respond. Do their eyes light up with interest? Do they start asking you questions? And on a more commercial level - is this something that could appeal to men AND women, young people AND old people (the famous "four quadrants")? Not every script is a four-quadrant movie, but if I feel like a movie will have a hard time attracting enough people, I usually pass.

Remember that different companies are looking for different things. A reader at one company might be told to pass on scripts that can't sell internationally. Another might be told to pass on concepts that require high budgets. Like the Bitter Script Reader has said, readers must serve their clients. You might be tempted to try and please the greatest number of clients..but be warned that this could result in a mediocre script. I don't think it's a good idea to become obsessed with concepts, trends or "whatever will sell." Just because R-rated comedies are doing well right now doesn't necessarily mean that you should write one, especially if what you write best are contained thrillers. I've read a lot of scripts that had great concepts but lacked a soul, voice, point of view and/or any kind of statement about life or the world. Be true to your voice. Ideally, you can find something you're really passionate about and frame it in a high-concept, commercial way. One more thing: be careful that your quest to be high-concept doesn't result in something too ridiculous or over-the-top. Aliens are cool. Zombies are cool. Boats are cool. But we probably don't need a zombie apocalypse on the sea of a distant planet.

Instead of "high-concept," maybe we should all just think about the words "interesting" and "compelling." Is your premise interesting? Also - is it clear, and established quickly? Can I write it in a simple logline? I once covered a script that was set in a kind of futuristic dystopia with confusing rules, meandering plots and no main character. I had trouble even summarizing the concept - and that meant a big PASS.

Sometimes I also see scripts that start out strong, but then miss out on opportunities to really milk their concepts. Are you going as big as you can? Do you have fun twists and complications?

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1 comment:

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Our blogs are doing that synchronicity thing again...

Funny you should bring up The Breakfast Club in that context. A year or so ago I asserted that if it were made today, it wouldn't be seen as a teen comedy but rather as a little indie drama that might get released in a few hundred theaters rather than several thousand.

Then again, Hughes might have sold "5 teens stuck in detention" as a "contained thriller" and get it a wider release.

I feel like Clueless would still stand a chance. I just hope that if it was made today it wouldn't be raunched up.