August 18th, 2014
On Saturday, I spent two hours listening to writers pitch their screenplays. The writers were all earnest and some energetic and entertaining, but none offered a slamdunk movie concept. Some managed to pique a little interest, but none were going to smash down the doors to Hollywood.
The greatest challenge for any writer is finding a concept that will spark interest within the Hollywood community.
New writers have the unenviable task to find engaging concepts because it’s the only way to capture the interest of busy buyers and/or sellers. While established scribes could (though not recommended) write about their lazy summer on a Northern Ohio earthworm farm, new writers must find a concept that screams, “This is a movie.”
This is not a new revelation and is rudimentary to most.
Then why do most concepts suck?
Travel to any screenwriting message board and most are testing out terrible concepts. I wonder if any of these writers have ever been to the movies. Do they read the trades to see what sorts of scripts are selling? Although new writers claim they understand the notion of finding a concept that has universal movie potential – empirical evidence suggests otherwise.
If there hasn’t been a movie made about a lazy summer on an earthworm farm, there could be a good reason for it. That’s not to say the story shouldn’t be told. Just let someone else tell it. Or write it after selling a high concept comedy or two.
“High concept” is a term bandied about and most can agree upon its definition. High concept is a story idea that evokes a movie with just a sentence or two. Even with this definition, high concept can be hard to nail down. One has to hear it to know whether or not it's high concept. It’s like pornography: difficult to define but obvious to spot.
I think the best way to demonstrate a good concept is via visual aids.
I'm going to break down concepts into THREE visual categories.
Let's begin with Halle Berry.
For all intents and purposes, she is a GOOD CONCEPT.
Most who see her will find her attractive and want to get their hands on her.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there are some who will not be attracted to her. However, the percentages are low.
Writers want to strive to find that Halle Berry.
So not to be sexist, George Clooney also represents a good concept.
Like Halle, if George were at a bar, most women would glance his way.
Maybe not all. But most.
A concept needs to do the same thing. It may not be able to attract all, but it should attract the majority.
If you're going to a party, you want to have Halle (or George) on your arm.
Trouble arises because most people have a distorted self-image.
This means that they believe they resemble Halle or George. My wife, on occasion, will ask the dreaded question, "Honey, am I as good looking as Halle Berry." My reply is, "If you were, we wouldn't be on opposite ends of the couch."
This distorted self-image plays a role in the way a writer might envision her concept. In other words, most writers think they have a good concept, when, in actuality, they aren't even close. That's why they often pitch terrible ideas with such passion and zeal.
And writers can rationalize almost any concept, trying to spin straw into gold.
"So this is a true story about a boy's coming-of-age on an earthworm farm. It's a story that will attract all sorts of people. Those who live in the city will be fascinated with life on the farm, and those who live on the farm will love to see their lives on the big screen. With characters ranging from a young boy to a grandfather, it'll attract a wide demographic. Plus entomologists will want to see the movie, and since it deals with the earth, so will everyone on the planet."
98% of all writers do not have a Halle or a George.
Instead, they have:
The Jocelyn Wildenstein concept is less likely to attract as many people as Halle. That's not to say it will not attract some.
But if both Halle and Jocelyn are sidelined at the prom, Halle will probably be asked to dance more frequently than Jocelyn.
In Hollywood, a concept needs to attract as many suitors as possible. Ultimately, the odds of Jocelyn being asked to dance - compared to Halle - crashes at catastrophic proportions.
It should be noted that Jocelyn has worked very hard and continues to try and tweak her appearance, but it simply never turns out right.
Most concepts in town are Jocelyn Wildenstein.
The final concept is:
Can an ugly woman make a beautiful painting?
This concept is the kind that isn't all that attractive and forces one to look below the surface - where a treasure of substance and art exists.
For example, there are certain scripts that do quite well on the contest circuit, but at the end of the night don't go home with a partner. Likewise with films that receive excellent reviews but fail to attract audiences.
While some might opine that she has a degree of rustic beauty, it seems certain that the Mona Lisa will be one of the last chicks to get laid at the MTV Beach House.
While Mona ranks higher than Jocelyn, it's clearly Halle for whom one should strive -if one wants to turn heads.
Here is a list of a few Halle concepts (maybe a Mona or two) currently in pre-production.
Comedy. A low rent lounge singer becomes stranded on a remote island with a group of supermodels. (Title: DON’T SEND HELP.)
Action/Comedy. A spoiled housewife, in desperate need of cash, teams with a cat burglar and robs the homes of local snobs. (Title: LOWLIFES.)
Comedy. After being laid off, a nebbish seeks revenge by becoming a pirate and robbing his former boss’s yacht. (Title: MIDLIFE PIRATES.)
Dramedy. True story of an 18-year-old from New Jersey who becomes a successful train robber. (Title: CONRAIL.)
Comedy. An ad exec, embarrassed about introducing his fiancée to his family, hires actors to portray them. (Title: WE ARE FAMILY.)
Comedy. An unscrupulous real estate developer finds himself under attack by forest animals when he prepares to plow down the land for new homes. (Title: FURRY VEGEANCE.)
Action/Thriller. The son of the governor teams with a hardened criminal to stop a group of inmates, who have taken over the prison using a “Scared Straight” program as their cover. (Title: SCARED STRAIGHT.)
A romantic comedy between two heterosexual men. (Title: MANCRUSH.)
Dramedy. After quitting his mundane job to follow his bliss, a man is slapped with a lawsuit by his disappointed father who sues him for all the money he invested in his upbringing. (Title: THE BILL FROM MY FATHER.)
Comedy. After a bizarre accident magnetizes a man and he unwittingly erases all the videotapes at the local video store, he and his friend set out to replace the films by recreating them using the townspeople as actors. (Title: BE KIND, REWIND.)
Thriller. An unscrupulous divorce attorney struggles to find his kidnapped wife before he pays the ransom: he must commit suicide. (Title: TWO SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT.)
Romcom. A woman finally meets the man of her dreams – only to discover she recently had a one-night stand with his father. (Title: A FAMILY AFFAIR.)
Action. When the USA is attacked by an electromagnetic pulse, which disables modern living, the Secretary of the Interior must wage war with antiquated combat methods. (Title: LIBERTY.)
Comedy. Two straight men pose as a married gay couple in order to receive employee health benefits. (Title: I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY.)
Dramedy. A simple man is thrust into the spotlight when his single vote will determine who is elected the next President of the United States. (Title: SWING VOTE.)
Comedy. Three high school boys hire a solider of fortune to protect them from bullies. (Title: DRILLBIT TAYLOR.)
Drama. A college student investigates the identity of her grandfather’s best friend – a 20-year-old who thinks he’s elderly. (Title: OLD MAN JOHNSON.)
Thriller. After his daughter is kidnapped by sex-slavers, a neurotic dad reveals his black ops past and sets out to save her life. (Title: TAKEN.)
Being mindful, once again, that beauty is an individual experience, some might feel there is a Jocelyn or two in the pack. However, most would agree that these are Halle concepts.
They are simple, easy to pitch and convey a movie.
I know I'm in trouble when it takes the writer twenty minutes just to relate his concept and then he says, "It sounds bad only because I had to leave out the good stuff."
Writers don't even have to work that hard to come up with "Hallewood" concepts.
For instance, there are tried-and-true concepts that are recycled over and over again. Look at movies like BIG DADDY or THE PACIFIER that create that fish-out-of-water scenario dramatizing an independent adult who must suddenly deal with children.
Here are a few currently in pre-production.
TRUCKER, a drama about an independent female truck driver who must care for her estranged 10-year-old son after his father is diagnosed with cancer.
BREAKFAST WITH SCOT, a dramedy about a gay former hockey player who is forced (with his partner) to care for an 11-year-old boy after the death of his mother.
ROCK AND ROLL NANNY is a comedy about a down-and-out rock star who takes a job as a nanny.
FATHER KNOWS LESS is a dramedy about a legendary music producer whose wife leaves town forcing him to care for his two kids in the middle of a career crisis.
SUMMER MOON is a drama about a selfish celebrity chef who struggles to connect with his estranged daughter upon her return.
SAY UNCLE is a family comedy about a kid-phobic bachelor who must take care of his brother’s children for a few days.
FOOD FIGHT is a family comedy about a fastidious celebrity chef who volunteers to teach children how to cook.
GREAT WITH KIDS is a comedy about a man who can only marry the woman of his dreams if he wins over her obstreperous children.
While writers might have a difficult time discerning whether or not they have a good concept, it isn't so difficult to see the difference between Halle, Jocelyn and Mona.
Start judging concepts that way.
And if a screenwriter can't tell the difference between Halle and Jocelyn - he's in the wrong business.
Coming up with a concept that resembles Halle Berry is not easy - for the same reason the beautiful Oscar winner is one-of-a-kind.
But work endlessly to find it. Never give up!
After all, Halle Berry came in second place in the 1986 Miss USA Contest.
About the Author
Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher. For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors. He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program. Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor. He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has taught at Los Angeles Valley College, UCLA and is currently an adjunct professor in the MFA program at National University. He is an award winning and Emmy nominated producer with credits that include THE COLLECTOR (2009) and its sequel THE COLLECTION (2012), as well as writing and producing the documentary MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS (2010) for Oprah Winfrey. He is a member of the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He has read over 35,000 scripts throughout his career.