MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Screenwriting Info: More on How to Write a Screenplay

High-concept and log-lines
By By Ken Atchity, Chi-Li Wong, and Mike Kuciak

If you're truly angling for the big spec sale, start dealing with reality: The studios today are producing, for far the most part, two kinds of films: pre-established franchises (comic books, TV series, famous novels, toys, etc., like "Spiderman," "Charlie's Angels," "Prey," "Power Rangers")and high-concept scripts that are either conceived of in-house by executives, producers, managers, or agents who know what the market responds to - or by spec screenplay writers determined to break the bank.

Writing even the greatest screenplay that isn't high concept is choosing either the indie path or self-indulgence, or, ideally, both. We love those scripts and those writers at AEI, but that's not what we've been asked to talk about here.

Dealing with the concept of "high concept" is one of the most challenging and frustrating tasks of the Hollywood writer, agent, or producer - and reducing the story to a log-line is what high concept is all about. As a former academic not prepared for a world focused on marketing, it took me (Atchity) years to realize that the term "high concept" means almost its opposite.

Sometimes a title is its own high concept, as with Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel Gone with the Wind, the extended log line of which would be: "Against the backdrop of the great Civil War, a narcissistic Southern beauty, obsessed with idyllic love, struggles to reconstruct her life and finds her true love is closer than she thinks."

A more accurate term for "high concept" might be "simple concept," or "a story that will compel the broadest audiences to watch it after a pitch of only a few words":

"Psycho"

"Unfaithful"

"Anger Management"

"Sleepless, in Seattle"

"Liar, Liar"

"Armageddon"

"Unwanted Attentions"

"Vertigo"

"Jaws"

"The Hunt for Red October"

"How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days"

"Four Weddings and a Funeral"

"Dumb and Dumber"

"Black Hawk Down"

"Panic Room"

"Runaway Bride"

"Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead"

"Home Alone"

"Die Hard"--

--are examples of high concepts projected by their very titles. It's enough to hear the title and know that Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson star to compel audiences to the box office for "Anger Management."

Titles like "The Fisher King," "Shallow Hal," "Seven Days in May," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "The Shipping News," as evocative as they may be are not high concept titles and, though they may be successful, generally are swimming upstream and against today's Hollywood current.

Nothing is more important to marketing your story than a "high concept log line" that makes it immediately stand out from all those stories that are subtle, nuanced, and difficult to pitch, and that depend entirely upon "execution."

Here are some examples that have led us or others to sales:

o "Jurassic Shark!" (the two-word description given AEI client Steve Alten's Meg by ICM-agent Jeff Robinov, who spearheaded a preempt from Disney for $1.1 million)
o The most obnoxious guy in the world realizes he's become an asshole on a false premise. (John Scott Shepherd's Henry's List of Wrongs, sold to New Line Pictures for $1.6 million).
o "'Die Hard' on a boat," allegedly the log-line line that led to the sale of "Under Siege."
o "Fish out of water - only she's a mermaid!" for "Splash."

The "log line" is a one-line description of the story, very much like the one-liners you would read in TV Guide ("Hollywood makes movies you can advertise on TV," says pro Joe Roth). Jaws can be advertised, visually or verbally, as "Shark bad - Kill shark!" After all, television is where you hope your work will end up eventually, so making buyers think it can fit there is the smartest first step to selling. Mike Kuciak in our office offers these examples of script AEI is currently marketing:

+ A pilot joins a Hollywood studio that fronts a secret alien-fighting command ("Studio Command" by Holly Wonder).
+ Ten years ago, an artist created a mosaic on the backs of four friends--now a ruthless collector is harvesting their skin to reassemble the artwork ("Skin Deep" by Stuart Connelly).
+ A brilliant scientist races to stop a renegade general from using her time travel device to empty the imperial Roman treasury ("War Gods" by John Robert Marlow).
+ A reluctant hitman becomes a miracle-working saint. ("Stronzo, the Good" by Paul Myers)

It's not necessary for your log line to mention character names. A strong character trait will do - with a dramatic teaser about the story. All log lines go back to that ancient storyteller's formula, "What would happen if a character like x ended up in a situation like y." Next add a specific catch word that quickly tell the reader what the story is about. Is it about love, greed, obsession murder, family turmoil? Once you're set on one or two words you can push out from there adding a few more economical adjectives and verbs to make up your long line.

* A woman or family in jeopardy?

"Cape Fear": A lawyer's family is stalked by a man he once helped put in jai

* An ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances?

"Erin Brockovich": An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city's water supply

* Men on a mission?

"Saving Private Ryan": US soldiers try to save their comrade who's stationed behind enemy lines.

"American Pie": Four teenage boys make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night.

* A man against nature?

"Castaway": A FedEx executive must transform himself physically and emotionally to survive after a crash landing on a deserted island.

"Cliffhanger": A retired mountain climber must conquer an unclimbable peak to save the survivors of a plane crash from certain death.

or the system?

"People Vs. Larry Flynt": A pornography publisher becomes the unlikely defender of free speech.


"Class Action": A female attorney finds that her nemesis is her own father, and must choose between her corporate client and justice."

* A woman escaping from something or someone she loves.

"Enough": On the run from an abusive husband, a young mother begins to train herself to fight back.

Here's what we long to see, in our daily email submissions and by mail: A high concept log line that makes a story out of one of the most universal

* human emotions: fear, love, hate, envy, etc.
* deadly sins: anger, greed, lust, etc.
* plot motivators: betrayal, vengeance, discovery, rebirth, survival, etc.
* virtues: loyalty, faith, responsibility, etc.

and incarnates that element in characters we can care about, relate to, and root for to shape an "original story" that feels both fresh and relevant to today's global market. If you can do that, and your writing equals your vision, you're only steps away from financial success and recognition on the biggest screen of all.


Ken and Chi-Li, coauthors of Writing Treatments That Sell, newly revised Los Angeles Times Hollywood Booklist bestseller (Owl Books), are partners in AEI, a literary management and motion picture production company that represents writers who are "ready for prime-time." Mike is associate manager and creative exec at AEI, and can be reached at AEI's affiliate company, The Writer's Lifeline, Inc makes writers and novelists ready for prime-time.

Click here to read more about Writing Treatments That Sell and buy it on Amazon.

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