“High concept” is an expression within the entertainment industry that basically boils down to meaning ‘highly commercial.’
But what does it really mean? “High concept” indicates a few things:
1. A universal concept, whereupon every person hearing the idea will have a specific common point of reference. Successful universal concepts can be based on tropes, urban myth, social generalizations, or adages.
2. The totality of the idea can be communicated in a 10 second or less verbal pitch (i.e., one or 2 sentences)
3. An idea that is primarily concept driven, so the concept can be easily pitched and understood and the listener will have a fairly clear idea of that story’s trajectory simply based on the concept (as opposed to a story that is primarily character-driven or very obscure and difficult to pitch).
4. The genre and tone should be abundantly clear within the pitch.
I always use the example that in film school when we were confused about what was high concept and not, a manager came in and said the best high concept pitch he’d ever heard was:
“Chick grows a c**k.”
Okay, a little vulgar, but in 4 words we all know what this movie is going to be – we know it’ll be a broad comedy, gross-out chick comedy, and generally what the tone and thrust of the story will be. Four words and you know what this concept is. You’re either on board or not.
Many comedies are concept driven. Something like “Evan Almighty” was probably pitched with a, “What if Noah, like of Noah’s ark, happened today?” It’s a contemporary take on something we’re all familiar with.
It is the universal appeal here that is key – taking advantage of a concept with which the average person has a point of reference and tweaking it in a way that is fresh, smart and interesting.