At some point — probably during a conversation with one of your insufferable film school friends — you may have heard a movie described as “high concept.” Although the phrase sounds like it should describe something terribly sophisticated and respectable (like Downton Abbey with a twist of Kenneth Branagh), it usually actually refers to the opposite, i.e., any artistic work that can be easily described by a simple premise. A movie pitch from 30,000 feet.
A good high concept project can be summed up in a short “what if?” (What if dinosaurs could be cloned? What if the world was all one big virtual reality lie? What if a man had to live the same day over and over?) The best (and worst) high concept projects can be understood by their names alone. (Planet of the Apes [best]. Planet of the Apes [worst]. Jaws [best]. Snakes on a Plane [worst]. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective [best]. Hobo With a Shotgun [best of the worst].) And while some high concept projects can be elevated by good storytelling and universal themes, usually we aren’t talking about great works of art.
Audiences and studio marketing executives both love high concept fare. But from a lawyer’s perspective, when a dispute arises and you’re worried that someone may have stolen your work, the higher your concept, the lower your chances in court. That lesson may soon be learned the hard way by comic book artist Steven John Busti, whose 1995 9-page comic, Cowboys and Aliens, is (at least in title) just an AP style guide edit away from the 2011 film, Cowboys & Aliens (and the 2006 graphic novel series on which it was based). Continue reading the full story . . . »