The thing I love about good film concepts is how obvious they are -- in retrospect. Take APOLLO 13. What actor wouldn't want to put on one of those space suits? A sure sale. INDECENT PROPOSAL -- would you break your marriage vows for a million dollars? Interesting. Hey, what if CUPID couldn't perform his duties because he's fallen in love with one of his intended prey? Cool. Regardless of the relative merits of these films, the premises have an obvious, clear appeal.
It's as if thousands of people in Hollywood are combing the beach for that next great film idea, magnifying glasses out, checking every facet on every tiny grain of sand they come across. And then somebody points at a big, beautiful conch shell laying right out in the bright sun and says, "Hey, let's make that!" You look at that big glorious pink and white crustacean and can't believe you missed it.
In the "Strange Attractor" column, I described a different way of thinking about film concepts. I emphasized the importance of choosing a concept that 'attracts' people.
But how do you do it?
Here's the best help I can give. I think that these kinds of concepts have some common qualities. And that knowing their common qualities can make them a little easier to locate.
Like spotting one of those conch shells.
So here's my current list of the attributes for a good, solid, Hollywood-style salable film concept:
A. Larger World Revealed
Thematically, often the best film concepts show the world to be a larger, more magical, more complex place than is commonly believed. Or the story reveals how much larger, more magical and more complex the human spirit is than is commonly believed.
Many solid concepts in some way have to do with experiences we all share -- even phrases we're all familiar with. For example: fear of the monster under the bed. The desire, when young, to be BIG.
Now, these tend to be hard to come up with, because a) they're so common they're too obvious to see; or b) they're so obvious to see they've been done to death.
C. Classic Echoes
Many popular films utilize -- and can even be developed out of -- themes from classic drama. You know you're onto something when you start finding echoes of classic themes in your storyline.
Take BABE, which opened to critical and popular acclaim. There are elements and echoes of Watership Down, Animal Farm, Grimm's Fairy Tales -- even Rocky. The story deals with issues of self-identity, self-worth, class structure, and fate. Not bad for a talking-pig family film.
D. Implies a Situation
In many cases the concept is a situation... and in resolving that situation, you get your sequences for Acts II and III.
Say a New York cop finds himself trapped in an L.A. high-rise, where thirty people are being held hostage. The resolution of this situation becomes the sequences of the film.
Another example: the situation of a kid who finds himself HOME ALONE, and must defend his house against burglars. The sequences are implied in the concept: forgetting the kid, the comic defense of the home, the parents rushing to the rescue, etc.
E. Behind the Scenes
Audiences like to be 'in the know.' It's fun to go to a film, and come away with some special knowledge; knowledge that people who didn't go to the film don't get to have.
For example: THE CANDIDATE shows us the inside story behind winning an election. BULL DURHAM is set in the world of minor league baseball. TOP GUN utilizes the naval jet-fighter training center. Other films noted for their effective utilization of unique settings & subjects: DOWNHILL RACER; DELIVERANCE; ALIENS; WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?
It seems almost that most good films take us to places (and situations) where we cannot otherwise go. Your film idea is probably very good if it takes you into a neat, interesting place ... and then allows you to reveal the 'inside' or 'true' nature of that place.
F. Good Roles (and Good Titles)
Many times a good film concept will imply a good role for an actor. If Tom Hanks reads your script, wants to play the role of the guy who falls in love with the fish, you're in great shape. Also, strong concept tend to be fairly simple, and so they often can be implied in their titles: GHOSTBUSTERS, BIG, BACK TO THE FUTURE, etc. It's of crucial importance to have a good title -- a subject I'd like to cover at length in a future column.
Sometimes the concept is to do a reversal on some aspect of an established genre ('only this time, the ghosts have to exorcise the people!'). Then again, sometimes an entire genre is re-worked with a series of new ideas ... thus 'updating' or 'reviving' the genre for a whole new generation of filmgoers. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, BODY HEAT, and STAR WARS all fall into this category.
A word of caution: this sort of attractive concept is very difficult to do, takes a massive amount of inspired work, and demands a huge amount of talent.
H. Concept Cannot Be Done Again
Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison pointed out that one of the defining attributes of a good 'high concept' was that once it was done, the idea was fully defined and explored, and nobody could do it again.
When SPLASH was in the works, it precluded anyone from doing a mermaid romance for a while. When Jan De Bont's TWISTER went into production this summer, that noise you heard was the collective THUMP of the thirty other tornado projects in town being dumped into the trash.
(Actually, different films can be made with the same basic concept -- BIG, VICE-VERSA, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, and EIGHTEEN AGAIN, for example -- but only, it seems, if they all go into production at once!)
I. Known Elements
Good film concepts tend to utilize elements that already exist within the awareness of the audience.
For example: a writer was pitching a story to me recently, along the lines of: "Magical chimney fairies steal a child's favourite napkin, and take it to the lost land of Maypole. The kid travels on a backwards bicycle to the magical land, and gets his napkin back."
I was trying to figure out what was wrong with this. After all, Winnie the Pooh has elements just as fanciful, as do films like MARY POPPINS and STAR WARS. Then again, those weren't spec script sales. It finally hit me -- none of those elements pre-existed in my mind, which made connecting to each one an effort.
I've heard of fairies, but not any that live in chimneys. Since when do kids fall in love with their napkins? This falls outside my realm of experience. Similarly, the 'Lost Land of Maypole' and the 'Backwards Bicycle' are unknown elements.
In contrast, consider the individual elements in the film LIAR, LIAR: A kid (I get that) makes a birthday wish (okay) that his father, a lying untrustworthy lawyer (that's easy to believe) has to tell the truth (uh-huh) for twenty-four hours. Each of these elements is familiar -- they already exist in my head, ready for the filmmaker to manipulate. The overall concept can then be easily promoted, marketed, or advertised, as there exists in the audience an awareness that can be reached. (This may be what executives mean when they say they want something new and different, but also time-tested and proven.)
Knowing these attributes, I hope, should help in discovering that next great film idea. If you already have an idea that fits most or all of the above, great, you're probably on the right track.
If you've given it some effort and still don't have a film idea you're happy with, here are some more tricks you can use:
1. Read. Seriously. Read lots and lots. Reading leads to knowledge of a genre. And it's knowledge of the genre that allows you to create variations on the genre -- variations that haven't been done before. And it allows you to potentially --
2. Option material. This seems obvious but is commonly overlooked. If you do locate a book or article to adapt into a movie, already you've set yourself apart from 95% of the aspiring screenwriters in the world. Reason enough alone to do it, perhaps. Keep in mind that studios are more comfortable if your concept has already proven itself in book form.
3. Juxtapose genres. Take the very successful drama X-Files and imagine it as a comedy, and you get something along the lines of MEN IN BLACK from Columbia, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.
4. Transpose/update settings. OUTLAND was pretty much HIGH NOON in outer space. Steve Martin's ROXANNE was a wonderful re-telling of the CYRANO story. If he can do it, so can you.
5. Push your idea all the way. Many screenwriters come up with just half an idea, then stop. Most spec scripts which end on page 110 actually should end on page 35 -- because that's all the story that's really there; it's just been dragged out to fill the page requirement. Try telling the story you've told in 110 pages in 35. That'd be thirty five great pages! Then keep going at that pace. Going past the obvious ending can sometimes leads to that unique twist.
6. Kill your babies. All writers have pet ideas. The trick is to not get stuck on one. Write the damn thing, get it out of your system. If it's great it will sell, if not, then get onto the next thing. You're not going to stumble on that career-making concept if you keep revising the same pet idea for five years. (I've seen this happen.)
7. Write from love and passion. Forget what you think are commercial considerations. What do you love? To do, to study, to think about, and talk about? Whether it's cave-diving or model trains, cross-dressing or particle physics, your passion is often the best guide to your most unique and powerful work. Ironically, the unique, non-commercial aspects of a project are often what make it commercially valuable.
Okay. That should help get you started.
So. How do you know when you've actually got that great concept, and are on the right track? Here's a clue: other writers hear your idea, and give you black looks. You get several offers to co-write it. Another clue: producers return your calls. Still another clue: agents return your calls. And best way to truly know that you've got a good film concept: Your screenplay sells!