High-concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low-concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that aren't as easily summarized. The origin of the term is in dispute.
High-concept narratives are typically characterised by an overarching "what if?" scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events. Often, the most popular summer blockbuster movies are built on a high-concept idea, such as "what if we could clone dinosaurs?", as in Jurassic Park.
However, it is important to differentiate a high-concept narrative from an analogous narrative. In the case of the latter, a high-concept story may be employed to allow commentary on an implicit subtext. A prime example of this might be George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which asks, "What if we lived in a future of totalitarian government?" while simultaneously generating social comment and critique aimed at Orwell's own (real world) contemporary society. Similarly, the Gene Roddenberry sci-fi series Star Trek went beyond the high-concept storytelling of a futurist starship crew, by addressing 20th century social issues in a hypothetical and defamiliarising context.
The term is also applied, often disparagingly, to films that are pitched and developed almost entirely upon such a simply stated premise rather than standing upon complex character study, cinematography, or other strengths that relate more to the artistic execution of a production, rather than simply an engaging high-concept premise with broad appeal. Extreme examples of high-concept films are Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun, which indicate their entire premise in the title.
While nearly every production can be described in a briefly stated high-concept synopsis, a movie described as being 'high-concept' is considered easy to sell to a wide audience because it delivers upon an easy-to-grasp idea. This simple narrative can often be summed up with a single iconic image, such as the theme park logo from Jurassic Park. Along with having genre and aesthetics, high-concept films have marketing guidelines known as: "the look, the hook and the book."
- The look of the film is simply how visually appealing it is to the public, usually before its release. Jurassic Park would show the world dinosaurs as they had never been seen before.
- The hook is the story the film is trying to sell to its audience. Everyone wanted to know how dinosaurs could walk the Earth again after being extinct for 65 million years and how they would coexist with people.
- The book can be labeled as all the merchandise made to help promote the film. The merchandise in Jurassic Park was destined to sell well, with people wanting the t-shirts and lunch boxes that were shown everywhere throughout the movie, and they can be purchased at Universal Studios.
High-concept television series and movies often rely on pre-sold properties such as movie stars to build audience anticipation, and they might use cross-promotional advertising campaigns with links to a soundtrack, music videos, and licensed merchandise such as DVD box sets. They commonly apply market and test screening feedback to alter the narrative (or even, as in the case of Snakes on a Plane, the dialogue) to ensure maximum popularity. Some commercial blockbuster movies are built as star vehicles for successful music and sports personalities to enter the movie business. In such commercial vehicles, where the onscreen activity is less important than the saleability of the product brand, a high-concept narrative is often used as a "safe" option to avoid the risk of alienating audiences with a convoluted or overly taxing plot exposition.
- Planet of the Apes (1968; often remade or re-versioned)
- Jaws (1975)
- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
- Freaky Friday (1976; remade 1995, 2003)
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
- Tootsie (1982)
- Ghostbusters (1984)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984; remade 2010)
- RoboCop (1987)
- Big (1988)
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
- Groundhog Day (1993)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Last Action Hero (1993)
- Speed (1994)
- Strange Days (1995)
- Toy Story (1995)
- Independence Day (1996)
- Space Jam (1997)
- Liar, Liar (1997)
- The Matrix (1999)
- The Sixth Sense (1999)
- Shallow Hal (2001)
- Phone Booth (2002)
- Cellular (2004)
- Snakes on a Plane (2006)
- The Hangover (2009)
- The Invention of Lying (2009)
- TiMER (2009)
- Buried (2010)
- Inception (2010)
- Grabbers (2012)
- Ted (2012)
- Locke (2013)
- Inside Out (2015)
- The Time Tunnel (1966–1967)
- ALF (1986-1990)
- Quantum Leap (1989–1993)
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
- The Trial of Tony Blair (2007)
- Dollhouse (2009)
- The Execution of Gary Glitter (2009)
- Flashforward (2009)
- Awake (2012)
- Continuum (2012-2015)
- Wilfred (2011-2014)
- Pressfield, Steven (April 25, 2012). "Writing Wednesdays: High Concept". Steven Pressfield Online. Retrieved October 6, 2012.
- Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994) p. 8. ISBN 978-0-292-79091-9
- High Concept Defined Once and For All from WritersStore.com
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- Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. New York 2007. p. 17.
- High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood by Justin Wyatt, 1994.
- Heitmuller, Karl."Sometimes 'High Concept' Is Just Plain Old Awful." MTV News, July 11, 2006.