L.A. Meeting #1: What’s High Concept and why do I care?

I stood in the well-used conference room of Madhouse Entertainment and stared at the Hollywood sign, beckoning from the nearby hills. It was a moment worthy of “Lawrence of Arabia”. My breath hitched and my knees locked. For the first time, I realized…”Holy crap! I’m meeting with a real Hollywood Executive and my life hinges on the next 30 freaking minutes!” And that’s when said executive walked in.

After nearly a year of accolades for my script, he blew the “High Concept” whistle and proceeded to tell me why this script won’t get far. He was pragmatic and kind, which are not easy bedmates. Luckily, I wasn’t surprised by the ruling. After all, I wrote a teen comedy with an autistic leading man. I was surprised and inspired by his reasoning.

He faulted my “Big Question”, which is the something that makes us watch the hero’s progress, mindlessly shoving popcorn into our mouths. We identify subconsciously with the big question and we apply our own emotional experiences to the story, which draws us deeper into the movie. He had recently spent years massaging a dark thriller script with a baby writer. When it finally hit the market, it was revered as an overnight sensation, which he still finds amusing, despite the countless drafts he personally reviewed. In that script, the big question is, “What would you do if someone you love is kidnapped; and you know who did it, but you can’t get justice through acceptable channels?” I admit, that many ideas and images pop into my head, and that’s the secret of the “Big Question”. My script obviously has mass appeal or I wouldn’t have made it into his office, but according to him, it isn’t big enough. And dammit, I agree with him.

Hollywood is more timid than a lost dog. It sniffs the same ground every day, hoping for a miraculous treat to appear. It chases rival pooches away, desperate to protect its very own barren ground. When a stranger bearing bones extends a hand, the Hollywood hound is more likely to bite an ankle without even glancing at the gift. If it manages to overcome its wariness, it takes a reluctant sample. If the bone is juicy and spicy in a way that satisfies it, the bone is gobbled in one gulp, along with a few fingers, too. Then, it goes right back to sniffing the garbage-strewn ground. As long as the stranger never shifts position, she’ll be included in the hound’s tireless search for treats.

I asked, “What’s the greatest example of a high concept film?” He was startled by the question and admirably, took a minute before he answered, “It Happened One Night”. I respected him even more for the bold choice. While the Frank Capra classic may not seem vanguard nowadays, make no mistake, the story of an heiress running away from her powerful family for love, and spending unchaperoned days in the company of a shifty journalist, was the height of high concept for its time. He also named “Pretty Woman” and “Taken”. The first is pretty obvious HC. He chose “Taken” for the “five clues”, which the ex-spy protagonist asks his kidnapped daughter to relay over her cell phone as she’s being taken. This simple mechanism, he instructs, elevates a kidnapper/shooter script into a thrilling action story. It also shouts the “Big Question” of the Executive’s overnight success script. No wonder he likes it!

My movie mystic also worries about the market for my script. The Executive observed that true indies are dead for a while. While Fox Searchlight has a tight business plan that allows them to produce successful yet thoughtful movies, these really aren’t indie because they’re backed with big money. In other words, I’ve written a script that may not find a home.

Have you ever lost a word? I don’t mean, a writer’s unending search for le mot juste, but the workaday words that fill your casual lexicon. Perhaps, it’s a name, a movie title or the thing that sits on the end of my desk…you know, with the pink thing and the sharp pointy…pencil! Phew.

After a few seconds, it’s no longer about the word, it’s about the panic that I cannot remember that simple thing. Knowing that I am so close to reaching it just before it recedes, leaving me with a jumbled phrase that almost communicates what I want to say. As I left that first meeting, I could feel the panic building. I’m so close to launching my screenwriting career, but for want of the perfect script! It may recede before I ever get a grip on it. Of course, I won’t let that happen ’cause I’m too damn close now!

As I head into my next Executive meeting today, here’s what I know so far.

I am a good baby screenwriter. I have the potential to be great. I understand what Hollywood wants and why it wants it. And, I now have a list of real industry Executives who are interested in reading what I write next. I may not have tamed the Hollywood hound on my first time out, but I did get him to lick my hand.