High Concept

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"You think there's a treasure map... on the back of the Declaration Of Independence."
Abigail Chase, National Treasure

A High Concept is a bare-bones description of the premise of a proposed show, used to pitch it to a producer or an audience.

A High Concept work is one that can be explained with a short, to-the-point and (it is to be hoped), intriguing description; one that can sell on its own merits. This type is loved by producers who can get a full pitch and explanation of what is going to draw in the viewers within ten seconds. From these few lines they can imagine the trailer, the marketing, the Target Audience and merchandise.

Occasionally, as in the page quote, a line of dialogue or narration from a film will sum up its High Concept for us - it sometimes seems like Meddling Executives demanded a good soundbite to put in the trailer. Let Me Get This Straight... is a frequent contributor.

High Concepts can take several specific forms like: "Show A meets Show B", "One's an X, the other's a Y: They Fight Crime", or "Film X in the style of Creator W" as well as the labored Recycled IN SPACE! and Die Hard on an X. Sometimes a high concept can become so influential and imitable that it becomes a format trope in its own right as is the case of Die Hard; see also The Magnificent Seven Samurai (based on Seven Samurai), Wagon Train to the Stars (named for the high concept pitch for Star Trek), and A Boy and His X. Contrast with Better Than It Sounds which is often taken as a parody of these; unlike Better Than It Sounds, however, these do get the gist of the experience across.

Compare Laconic.

Examples of High Concept include:

Straight Examples

Comic Books

  • Nemesis: What if Batman was the Joker?
  • Irredeemable: What if Superman got genocidal?
  • All Fall Down: What if all the superheroes and supervillains in the world lost their powers... and never got them back?

Film

Live Action TV

Literature

  • Bret Easton Ellis called the premise of American Psycho a high concept: a serial killer on Wall Street.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness - An ambassador from Earth has to try and convince the humanoid members of another planet to join the federation of all the other planets - and the planet he's on is both stuck in an Ice Age and has no gender.
  • Harry Potter: an ordinary British boy learns he's a wizard and goes to a school to hone his abilities while having to fight the evil wizard who killed his parents.
  • Ciaphas Cain: A self-serving coward must reluctantly pull off increasingly daring feats of selfless heroism so that no one will suspect he is a self-serving coward.
  • Honor Harrington: Horatio Hornblower IN SPACE!
  • Temeraire: What if the Napoleonic Wars were fought from the backs of intelligent dragons?

Tabletop Games

  • The Dresden Files RPG, which uses the Fudge System, makes extensive use of concept phrases, including actually name-dropping the phrase "High Concept" for character creation.

Theater

Video Games

The player is a scarred amnesiac immortal in search of his identity. On the way, the player character will kill a lot of people... including himself."

  • Portal: A hybrid First-Person Shooter and Puzzle Game where the only weapon is a gun that shoots portals that you can go through. Oh, and there's an insane killer AI acting as Mission Control.
    • The Laconic entry for the game used to be "Darkly humorous puzzle game in an empty laboratory that kicks the laws of physics in the nuts.", so called that because in order to solve the trickier puzzles, you need some excellent spatial reasoning skills. Or as the game calls it, "Thinking with portals!"


Dialog examples

Film

Trent, age 21: I'll make you a deal. We can be friends, if you can keep it a secret.
Devon, age 10: What's wrong with you and me being friends?

  • Speed: (As above; this was delivered by the villain.) "There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes over 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. When it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?"
  • Unstoppable: "We're not just talking about a train, we're talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!"
  • The Player: Not the concept of the movie itself, but it's set in the film industry, and most of the characters rattle off high-concept pitches to each other to try and make a blockbuster. It's been credited with teaching aspiring film-makers how to pitch ever since.
  • Transformers: "I bought a car. Turned out to be an alien robot. Who knew?"
  • Gladiator: "The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor" was frequently used as a tagline for the film.
  • Parodied in "A Trailer for Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever: "Explicitly summing up the moral of the story, awkwardly working in... the Movie Title."
  • The Man From Earth: "What if a man from the Upper Paleolithic survived until the present day?"

Live-Action TV

Meta examples