This sounds redundant, doesn’t it? Of course they’re trying to make movies we want to see. Why would they purposely make movies we don’t want to see? Isn’t that why there are so many franchises, comic book movies and YA series?
That’s where they’re messing up. They’re doing it backwards. Don’t look for things you think we already want to see. Think of movies that MAKE us want to see them. There’s a built in audience for comic book movies or books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games but while fans rush out opening day, the rest of us can wait for Blu-ray or even cable or maybe never get around to it.
This is where high concept comes from. Back before everything was a franchise, Hollywood thought of ideas so catchy that we had to come see what they were all about. “Die Hard in a…” was a great high concept for a while until they used every single location. What if John Travolta and Nicolas Cage switched faces, and we played it all straight? Point Break, surfing skydiving bank robbers. These ideas are so crazy you just had to see how they turned out. The fact that Homer Simpson could call Speed “The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down” shows how simple and gripping that premise was.
But those are the big hits. The ones that didn’t work were still trying so hard that they’re fun to see even when they don’t work. This is obviously a risk, and Hollywood is risk-averse. If you try a high concept nobody wants to see, you lose big. They’d rather stick with a dependable middle ground than swing for the fences, but I’m hoping there are enough bold filmmakers, producers and studios out there that they can take the risks no one else is taking, and we’ll all reap the rewards of awesome movies to see and money to make for them.
The Glory Days Of High Concept Movies
High concept surely existed since the beginning of film, or even earlier since the beginning of drama. Silent movies were high concept, the studio system was high concept, but I grew up during the Golden Age of high concept. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood would make movies with premises so strong they could be summarized in one line.
Action movies had big high concepts. The Terminator, killer robot from the future. Predator, Arnold fights an alien. The Running Man, game show to the death. Die Hard was such a high concept it became the definition for other high concepts, one man vs. terrorists in one location. Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, My Stepmother Is An Alien, Teen Wolf, Adventures in Babysitting, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, they tell you what they’re about in the title! Highlander was such a high concept it didn’t even make sense!
A few of those high concepts survived. We’re still getting new Star Wars, James Bonds and Jurassic Parks. The Fast and Furiouses will think of new adventures that require fast cars. We can occasionally get a new one like stranding Matt Damon on Mars when it’s a book first, but the emphasis now seems to be “don’t make the idea too crazy or some people won’t want to see it.”
Buddy movies were high concept. 48 Hours, a cop and a convict, or Lethal Weapon, a suicidal supercop with a by the books partner. Now we get Ice Cube and Kevin Hart. I guess the hook is that Ice Cube will be annoyed by Hart. Kevin Hart and The Rock may be a bit more of a gimmick, and perhaps those combos are dependent on who is famous at the time. At least in the ‘90s we had Chris Tucker to pair with Jackie Chan.
The high concept didn’t have to be that wild. The Mighty Ducks/Major League were just The Bad News Bears with a different sport. The Bodyguard was high concept, protecting a superstar you fall in love with. Field of Dreams was a pretty high concept. In the Line of Fire, a JFK Secret Serviceman in the ‘90s and a very personal relationship with the assassin. Witness, a city cop with the Amish. Indecent Proposal was a high concept so shocking I don’t even know if they could do it today.
High concept went in waves too. There were two disaster movie waves, in the ‘70s and ‘90s. The ’90s wave produced Volcano, which went further than just a disaster. It wasn’t just a volcano but a volcano in LA! Even though it came second and lost the great Volcano battle, it was way more awesome than Dante’s Peak.
Erotic Thrillers exhausted all the different ways a movie could combine sex and violence: From Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, Unlawful Entry and The Crush. There were a few cryogenic high concepts too from Late For Dinner and Forever Young to Demolition Man and Austin Powers.
Groundhog Day, The Truman Show and The Matrix were hits because the premise was so intriguing, and they were good. But the point of my thesis is that even the bad or unpopular ones were worth having made because they were memorable. There were a few skydiving action movies after Point Break, like Terminal Velocity and Drop Zone. Money Train was fun with transit cops in subway action. I wanted F/X to be good because the idea of a special effects artist solving a mystery was so compelling.
We also had a lot less exposition back then. Movies now stop every 10 minutes to explain what’s happening. High concept movies were simple enough that you didn’t have to explain what was happening. It was obvious. Well, The Matrix started explaining a lot. It’s debatable how much needed to be clarified. Although, robots that turn into cars should be clear enough. Not sure why the Transformers movies need to be so complicated. ‘80s and ‘90s movies didn’t care if it made sense and they were more fun for it.
When We Lost High Concept
It’s surely more complicated than this, but trying to pinpoint where high concept got muddled, the early ‘00s seem to be a turning point. Part of it was that seemingly high concepts got so overstuffed they were watered down.
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is such a high concept it’s right there in the title. But they couldn’t just do Kate Hudson trying to lose a guy, they had to give Matthew McConaughey a bet so they both have something. Compare this to the high concept rom-coms of the ‘90s. Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, While You Were Sleeping were just one thing.
Pirates of the Caribbean had a catchy high concept and character, then went overboard on backstories and convoluted plots in the sequels. Alien Vs. Predator had everything we wanted to see in the title, but it had to muddy itself with human explorers and this ridiculous world building of an underground pyramid. The sequel at least got right to aliens and predators fighting each other, and killing all the people who got in the way. Life of Pi was a great adventure story but it’s also a philosophical metaphor about religion. What if I just wanted to see a tiger on a raft?
The popularity of comic book movies watered down the high concept too. When they started making Batman and Superman movies, it was because those were the most popular characters and people wanted to see them. Even the obscure ones like The Crow and The Shadow had some high concept hooks of resurrection or telepathy.
Once we finally saw Spider-Man swing through New York City on webs, everything else became the next character in line to get their own movie. They each had their own high concept to be sure, be it The Hulk’s anger, Iron Man’s inventions or The Punisher’s amorality, and as I mentioned in the franchise Freditorial, teaming them up certainly made it a high concept even.
But the Marvel movies, and now the DC ones, are such a continuum that each entry feels less like a high concept and more like just another entry. It’s a new way of cinematic storytelling that is still developing and interesting in its own right, but it is less high concept. The Marvel movies don’t always force the characters to do something. They just add a new character to the mix or take a popular story from the comics. Civil War was an event. Age of Ultron was more just today’s problem.
Franchises can be high concept but a lot of them are doing it backwards. They’re trying so hard to give us things we already like they’re not creating compelling things. The Fast and the Furious is able to give the franchise just enough of a twist each time with a new character who genuinely changes the dynamic (The Rock, Statham) or a new mission. Fans seem to prefer it when the James Bond and Mission: Impossible sequels got personal rather than just another mission. Personally, I’d rather see new gadgets and villains than learn about 007 or Ethan Hunt’s family.
The emergence of CGI technology has seemingly reduced high concept. While the T-1000 or ability to create dinosaurs made ‘90s movies high concept, now it’s just a matter of course. Just because you can CGI anything doesn’t mean seeing it is an event. You still need to come up with an idea worth CGIing.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in CGI isn’t enough. The modernization should have been about what are teenage mutant ninja turtles in 2016. Seeing Transformers exist was a breakthrough but in the sequels they’ve just turned into very expensive Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
That’s what made most of the Harry Potter movies fall flat for me. They had all the magic in the world, but since they could create anything and paint it in CGI, it didn’t feel like anything was actually being created, as opposed to, say, Labyrinth where every scene was something they had to figure out how to pull off.
Star Powered High Concept Movies
The high concept could be based on a star. Beverly Hills Cop, sick Eddie Murphy on snooty rich folks. Twins only works because they picked Schwarzenegger and De Vito but boy does it. And Kindergarten Cop, Arnold and toddlers. Back to School was Rodney in college, but also a middle aged man in college. I guess Old School tried to modernize that. Billy Madison went further back to elementary school.
Christian Slater as a cop was high concept. Kuffs wasn’t a hit but for fans of the spokesperson for Generation X, it represents a unique angle that wouldn’t be the same with any other star. Speaking of Jack Nicholson, Wolf might have been equally high concept if it was De Niro or Pacino but the point was it had to be some highly respected actor wolfing out.
“Jim Carey can’t lie” or “Jim Carey is God” are high concepts taken exponentially higher by the fact that it’s Jim Carey and not any other comedian. “Steve Carell builds an ark” was more of a stretch.
While certain comedians may seem like high concepts in and of themselves, let’s not mistake a standard vehicle for a high concept. Will Ferrell as an anchor, a NASCAR driver or a step brother is more of a vehicle, and those movies play more on the riffing in individual scenes than the premise. Likewise, all those Pauly Shore vehicles weren’t that high concept. Maybe In The Army Now and Jury Duty were medium concepts.
The emergence of ensembles has made the performers more of the show than the concept. This can coexist with pure high concepts, but it seems these ensembles are shifting focus away from the high concepts. The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a very high concept, but moving on that ensemble became more and more about the banter, no matter the situation. Knocked Up was a fairly standard premise, but the draw was to see the Apatow group dealing with it. Funny People too was a personal crisis in the world of comedians, and This Is 40 was just those characters dealing with middle age.
The Hangover was a solid high concept that squandered its good will with the sequels. For the record, I liked Hangover II, although maybe seeing different groups of characters go through the Hangover formula would have appealed more to audiences.
Inexpensive High Concept
A lot of my examples were very expensive movies that lost money. That’s what the studios are trying to avoid and that’s why we’re seeing less high concept movies, and even well-tested properties are playing it safe. I get that you don’t spend $50 million plus ($100s in today’s dollars) on untested concept anymore but the great thing about high concepts is they don’t have to be expensive.
Most high concept comedies could be reasonable budgets, if they don’t require special effects or film in extravagant locations (like the Adam Sandler movies). All Weekend at Bernie’s required was an actor to play dead. Look Who’s Talking only needed to dub voiceover for the baby, and whatever Bruce Willis charged. Sister Act only needed Whoopi Goldberg and some nuns. Revenge of the Nerds just needed some nerds and some bullies.
‘80s comedies seemed much bolder with high concepts, to the degree that they got away with Soul Man. But even less racially charged, Teen Wolf, The Secret of My Success, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and all the body swapping movies were premise driven. Now we get Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, whose premise of “crazy girls we met online” gets lost in exotic location shenanigans. Sandler actually does some high concept like Jack & Jill and Pixels, but just as often does a Grown Ups where it’s “let’s get everyone together and riff.” Ted is very high concept but requires very expensive visual effects so that defeats my point about inexpensive comedy.
Cannon Films did high concept on a budget. Their American Ninja movies were a high concept based purely on the nationality of the star. Ninjas are Japanese. How can he be an American Ninja? Naturally I’ve got to see that. (They also tried American Samurai which did not become a lucrative franchise but good on them for trying.)
The Chuck Norris movies weren’t good but they made sense. Invasion USA, Chuck stops the Russian invasion everyone was afraid of during the Cold War. Missing In Action, Chuck finds our missing Vietnam POWs (a year before Rambo saved them too!)
Millennium sort of does this now. The Expendables of course is massively expensive because they have to pay all those big name stars, plus putting together that expensive action. Criminal could have been smaller. It’s just the high concept of putting Ryan Reynolds’ mind in Kevin Costner.
I suppose we see low budget high concept more on the film festival level. Clerks was certainly “what if two clerks just talked about sex and movies all day.” Reservoir Dogs was a riff on heist gone wrong, which certainly served many crime movies well. For better or worse, The Blair Witch Project was high concept, and therefore I suppose all the found footage imitators are too. El Mariachi was a high concept and its very production was high concept. Concepts don’t get much higher than Memento.
The point is if you come up with a crazy idea, where the idea itself is the marketing hook, you can focus on selling the idea and not the intellectual property. Maybe my math doesn’t work out and this is a losing equation. I mean, I’m still championing Snakes on a Plane 10 years later.
Today’s High Concept Movies
If you’re a proven filmmaker, you can push your own high concept. James Cameron did it with Avatar. Christopher Nolan can get Inception and Interstellar greenlit, and Alfonso Cuaron with Gravity. I still implore other filmmakers to brainstorm high concepts that don’t require massive budgets.
The Purge may be our highest concept, and it’s not costly, but man, they squandered a great idea with vile, unappealing aesthetics. Limitless was a good high concept and it even worked as a TV series but they bailed on it. Looper was a good one, and like most movies now, it won its creator a job on a major franchise, which I want to see him do so I’m complicit in keeping him busy before his next high concept movie.
Taken is still a high concept, a star-based one. We wanted to see what it looked like when Liam Neeson kicked ass. Perhaps its up to foreign creators to go high concept to compete in Hollywood.
Adding the prefix Bad to anything makes it a high concept. From Bad Santa to Bad Moms, it tells us these sacred cows are going to get naughty. The prevalence of Bad Something titles shows that films have been overthinking it. Just say what it is.
Part One Of A Franchise
A high concept original should be more valuable than a stale franchise, and will likely create a new franchise. The problem with originals is not lack of brand awareness. It’s lack of concept awareness. It’s either a bland concept that’s already been done better or something so convoluted it can’t be described. When it’s right, it’s a hit. Sausage Party: animated food that swears and fucks. We get that and it sounds funny. Or The Shallows, surfer vs. shark. Even Krampus, the anti-Santa, worked.
Many high concept originals are becoming franchises. Pacific Rim was Battletech meets Godzilla, and it even underperformed but the concept is continuing. Bad Moms was a funny title, but maybe do Bad Moms 2 instead of Bad Dads. There’s enough male bad behavior movies, they don’t need this franchise too.
High concept is still not foolproof. Hardcore Henry should have been something people wanted to see: an action movie entirely in first person. Nine Lives is a high concept, but come on. Nobody wanted Oh Heavenly Cat.
You’d think the competition from TV and YouTube would make Hollywood more desperate to hook the audience but it’s done the opposite. Movies are safer and more generic. TV sure is high concept. The biggest hits are a comic books and an epic novel but 24 was the ultimate high concept. Designated Survivor is high concept. Lost was high concept.
Hollywood will always have bad ideas, and some of the worst are the most fun. What’s disappointing is all the mundane ideas that inspire no passion. There might be fewer movies from this era that are remembered. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Bourne movies and the Marvel movies will stand the test of time.
Of course there’s still room for character drama, adaptations and biographies. I’m also a fan of nostalgia so perhaps my interest in nostalgia and high concept are at odds. It’s either one or the other. Perhaps I’m just feeling nostalgic for the high concept movies that have now become the standard franchises in Hollywood. At least I still have Office Christmas Party, Passengers and Why Him? to look forward to.