THE “DEATH” OF HIGH CONCEPT
All of the above dances around a term that many people in Hollywood hate: high concept. The term was made famous by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner in their heyday as young gurus running Disney.
To them it meant just what we’ve been discussing here – making the movie easier to see – and they came up with a long run of successful high concept movies. All you had to do was look at the one-sheet (another name for the poster) and you knew “What is it?” for Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Like most fashionable terms it’s now out to say your project is high concept. The death of high concept has been proclaimed many times. But like a lot of what I’m going to discuss throughout this book, I care less about what is au currant and more about what works and what is simple common sense.
In my opinion, thinking “high concept”, thinking about “What is it?” is just good manners, common courtesy if you will. It’s a way to put yourself in the shoes of the customer, the person who’s paying good money, including parking and a babysitter, to come and see your film. And don’t kid yourself, as brilliant as these two visionaries are, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg didn’t invent high concept, it’s been around from the beginning.
Think about every Preston Sturges movie hit from the 1940s – Christmas In July, Hail the Conquering Hero, Lady Eve, even Sullivan’s Travels – all high concept ideas that drew people into theatres based on the logline and poster.
Think about every Alfred Hitchcock thriller ever made – Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho.
Just mentioning these movies to a true fan evokes the pitch and the poster of each story. And check out those titles. All of them, across the board, certainly say what it is and they do so in a way that’s not on the nose or stupid (well, Psycho is potentially lame, but we’ll let him off the hook on that one – it’s Hitchcock, after all).
The point is that if someone gives you static about your high concept idea, just smile and know that clearly and creatively presenting a better “What is it?” to a potential audience – no matter who they are or what position they occupy in the chain – never goes out of fashion. I defy those who think this is a game for salesmen and not filmmakers to come up with a better title than Legally Blonde. And as we will see in the next chapter, we’re only at the beginning of finding ways to put yourself in the shoes of the moviegoer.
And that is what we should all be doing more of.