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Understanding High Concept vs Low Concept

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You’ve probably year the term “high concept” before, but what does it really mean? And what’s the difference between high concept and low concept? These are the questions we’re going to answer in this post.

What is High Concept?

In the film and television industry, a high concept idea is an idea that can be explained in one or two sentences and is easy to market.

Studios have sought after high concept stories throughout film history as they have generally had the widest audience appeal.

Some examples of high concept movies are Avatar, Inception, and Die Hard.

High concept ideas are easy to market and have a wide audience appeal, while low concepts ideas are

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Examples of High Concept Films

Here are a few high-concept examples, and take note of how quickly we can summarize the plot or hook of the film.

Jaws – A small island town is terrorized by a great white shark, prompting the townspeople to enlist the help of a local sheriff to hunt it down.

Avatar – A paraplegic ex-marine is sent to the planet Pandora, where he meets the Na’vi tribe and ultimately leads them in battle against human colonizers.

Inception – A thief hired to enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets is tasked with planting an idea instead.

Die Hard – John McClane, a New York City cop, is forced to take on a group of highly skilled terrorists who have taken over an office building in Los Angeles and are holding its occupants hostage.

Star Wars – A young farm boy joins forces with a rebel alliance to battle an evil galactic empire and restore freedom to the galaxy.

Back to the Future – Marty McFly travels back in time to 1955, where he must help his parents fall in love so he can return to his life in the present day.

High Concept is Not a Genre

While genres such as science fiction, horror, and fantasy all have a preponderance of high-concept films, high-concept stories are present in all genres.

Also, a film can exist in multiple genres and be high concept at the same time. For example, the original Star Wars is a high-concept film that blends together multiple genres including science fiction, fantasy, and western.

What is Low Concept?

Low-concept ideas tend to be more character-driven and focus on character development rather than a unique world or concept. Contrary to high-concept stories, low-concept stories are not as easy to explain or market in just a sentence or two.

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A few examples of low-concept movies would be Phantom Thread, Minari, Birdman, and The King’s Speech.

Examples of Low Concept Films

Note how it’s harder to define these films in one sentence. Often times the one-sentence overview can sound weak or low stakes.

Phantom Thread – follows the story of renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and his muse, Alma, as they navigate a complex relationship. As their connection grows, both are forced to confront and ultimately change each other’s worldviews.

Minari – The Korean-American family of David and Monica, along with their children, moves to a rural town in Arkansas to start a farm. In this unfamiliar environment, they learn to navigate their new lifestyle while relying on the strong bond of their family and the support of the community’s elderly Korean couple.

Birdman – a fading movie star, desperately attempts to revive his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play. However, as he struggles with his own sense of worthlessness and attempts to reconcile with his family, Birdman must face the irrational forces that threaten to sabotage his creative ambitions.

The King’s Speech – follows the story of King George VI as he struggles with a debilitating speech impediment. With the guidance of an unorthodox speech therapist, the king embarks on a quest to overcome his stammer and find his voice in order to lead his country into war.

Wrapping up

While high-concept ideas are easy to market, they don’t necessarily make for better stories than low-concept ones. High-concept ideas tend to have mass appeal, and low-concept movies often do better with critics and award shows.

It’s also worth noting that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible to have a high-concept idea with tremendous character development. Likewise, it is also possible to create a character-driven story that has mass audience appeal.

It’s all about what you as the writer, want to tell and what will resonate with your audience. Understanding high concept and low concept is not about choosing one vs. the other but understanding the unique strengths of your story and how best to communicate those to your audience, both in the form of the finished film as well as your ability to pitch your story to others and properly express your vision.

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