What does high concept mean? The term ‘high concept’ is thrown around in film circles with reckless abandon but the true meaning is often misused or misconstrued. In this post, we will define high concept, debunk many of the misconceptions around the term, and look at some examples. And we’ll let you know how you can tell if your own project is high concept or not.
What is High Concept in Film
First, let’s define high concept in film
We will start by defining precisely what a high concept film is, then we will clarify what it isn't. If you encounter any other unfamiliar terms, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a great resource for looking things up.
HIGH CONCEPT DEFINITION
What is high concept in film?
A high concept film is a premise-driven film with a unique, compelling, and attention-grabbing hook that sets it apart from similar films. The high concept label is primarily used in pitching. This idea is also used with literature and TV as well but is most important when applied to feature films.
High Concept Characteristics:
- Applies to film, TV, and literature
- Most important when pitching
- Has a unique quality that makes it stand out
High Concept Definition
What high concept is NOT
There are many misconceptions surrounding the term ‘high concept.’ The true meaning of the label can be a bit tricky to pin down. Which leads to quite a lot of confusion and disagreement over the way the term is used. This video does a good job of clarifying this term and its meaning.
Allow us to clear up these misconceptions by debunking common, incorrect definitions of ‘high concept.’ One common explanation of a high concept film is that it can be summed up in a single sentence. While this is mostly true, that is not a unique trait of high concept films.
Condensing the gist of a story into a single sentence is what is known as a logline. And every single film that gets made can be condensed into a logline. For more information, check out our guide to writing loglines that producers won’t pass on.
Another common explanation you may find when looking for an answer to the question, “what does high concept mean?” is that it is when one film is crossed with another in an X meets Y formula. Again, this is not true.
Similar to a logline, the X meets Y formula is a pitching technique, not what defines a high concept film. Describing your high school-set comedy as Superbad meets Lady Bird does not make it a high concept premise.
High Concept Meaning
How to know if your idea is high concept
With so much confusion out there, how can you tell if your script idea is high concept or not? Whether or not a film is high concept comes down to the premise. High concept status is assigned based on big ideas and a high level of originality. These films tend to be big and flashy, though there are exceptions.
A high concept film is always intriguing and attention-grabbing right from the premise. If a film is fresh and compelling in just a few words without the entire script needing to be read, that is a surefire sign of a high concept premise. These premises can take a familiar storyline and inject it with a unique hook.
Beyond being unique, a high concept film must also have broad audience appeal. Since the high-concept label applies most directly when pitching, a large potential viewership is mandatory.
To be clear, low-concept films are not bad by any stretch of the imagination. But they are typically harder to pitch and often take longer to get off the ground if going through the traditional studio system.
High Concept Movies
High concept film examples
High concept films tend to dominate at the box office, so many of the largest films that come to mind are likely these movies. Let’s look at a few examples across different genres.
Almost all of Christopher Nolan’s best movies have been high concept films. His recent movie, Tenet, is arguably an example of a concept taken too far to the point of dwarfing the story and characters. The concept weakened the overall film despite impressive, large-scale set-pieces.
Groundhog Day, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are all examples of comedy-dramas with high-concept premises. Charlie Kaufman’s best movies have all explored high concepts from his unique point of view. See how Eternal Sunshine mastered the meet-cute.
The Matrix is a great example of a high concept film in the action and sci-fi genres. Take a look at the Matrix screenplay to see where the high concept was born. Don’t Breathe brings a high-concept premise to the familiar home-invasion sub-genre of the horror genre. For an explanation of additional sub-genres, be sure to peruse our ultimate guide to movie genres.
The idea of an FBI agent trying to catch a serial killer is a low-concept premise. But, if you add in the fact that the FBI agent needs to work with a captive serial killer in order to catch another serial killer, the story then becomes high concept. The Silence of the Lambs is both a high-concept novel and film.
How to Write a Killer Logline
Now that you know what it means for a premise to be high concept, it’s a great time to learn how to perfect a logline that producer’s won’t pass on. High-concept films are pitch driven, so if you have a great idea, don’t squander it with a weak pitch. Learn how to craft a great logline, up next.