Views From Your Muse


by David Trottier

Jeffrey Katzenberg, in his now-famous internal memo to Disney executives, preached the following: "In the dizzying world of movie making, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king. If a movie begins with a great, original idea, chances are good it will be successful, even if it is executed only marginally well. However, if a film begins with a flawed idea, it will almost certainly fail, even if it is made with 'A' talent and marketed to the hilt."

Read this observation from Leonard Kornberg: "When a script comes in, it is the concept that gets it purchased."

Jason Hoffs, while at Amblin Entertainment, said, "Probably 80% of the spec scripts this year were bought for concept and not execution."

According to Robert Kosberg, "Screenwriters usually focus on the craft of screenwriting--plot and developing characters. But these all fall aside if the initial concept is not clear. Find great ideas. Keep asking yourself, do you have a good idea here?"

Sobering words to screenwriters. You might ask, "Well, if the idea is king, why write the script?" Because the script is what you sell; it's what finds you work. But it's your concept or idea that opens minds and hearts to your story. The higher the concept the more forgiving producers will be of your script. A low concept requires superior writing.

If a producer likes your script, he or she must sell it to higher-ups or other producers. The script's story concept, logline, or hook saves the day. Distributors and exhibitors need a simple, easily-understood idea to attract movie-goers to their movies. Marketing is the key to success, and marketers know that concept sells.

There are notable exceptions, of course, but each production company is looking for something for their particular market. Some may be looking for arty, high-quality, character-driven screenplays. But regardless of who they are, they all know their market--otherwise, they don't survive.

I'm not asking you to sell out, I'm only asking you to acknowledge reality as you seek a screenwriting career. So what is high concept? Here's a few quotes I've heard from Hollywood types.

"It's easily understood by an eight grader." "Can be encapsulated in a sentence or two." "It's provocative and BIG." "It has legs. It can stand on its own without stars." "It's fresh and highly-marketable." "It provides an original twist to an already-successful idea."

May I summarize all of that? When I hear a good concept, I immediately see a movie. Your story concept should say, "This is a movie! This is something I can sell!"

Concept comes in many forms. For example, a premise asks a question: What if Peter Pan grew up? What if the president were kidnapped? The concept could come in the form of a logline. The logline is the TV Guide one-sentence version of your story. It can even come in the form of a hook, which is any brief statement that "hooks" the reader or listener into the story.

Whatever form your concept takes, it will become the core of your pitch. And pitching is another Hollywood reality. Your query letter is actually a written pitch, and your pitch should be rooted in a strong story concept.

Whether you are about to write a script or have just finished one, search for the concept that will sell your story. Because in Hollywood, the idea is king.