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Archive for the Category "Concept"

The Difference Between “Tentpole” and “High-Concept” Jan 05

Reader Questions: Tentpole vs. High Concept

Mission Impossible 4


I received some good questions from Lauren the other day:

What is the difference between a ten-pole [sic] movie and a high concept movie? Or do they always work together? Is there a minimum budget or max budget?

A “tentpole” movie is one that a studio hopes will do extremely well at the box office. Just like a pole holds up a tent, such a movie will provide the necessary financial support to the studio.

The term: “high-concept” is a little trickier to define. Essentially it’s an innovative movie idea that immediately captures viewers’ imaginations in a few words and is believed to have mass-market appeal.

As Steve Kaire writes in this insightful article, a high-concept movie can be sold on its pitch. It’s not execution dependent.

Movies like Jurassic Park (cloned dinosaurs running amuck in a theme park) or The Sixth Sense (a pscyhiatrist trying to help a boy who sees dead people) are high concept.

Movies like Star Wars, or Black Swan are execution dependent, and therefore not high-concept. It’s hard to describe them in a few words in a way that does them justice and excites the viewer.

An original script may get made because it’s high-concept. If it does well, then its sequel may be set up as a tentpole for the studio.

In fact, most tentpole movies these days are sequels or based on franchises with built-in audiences. Usually that means they are big budget productions, where the studios put lots of money into them, expecting a lot more money to come back.

But there are no hard and fast rules on budgeting. It depends what type of movie it is. Twilight only had a $37 million dollar budget, but was expected to be a hit (though, it went on to shatter expectations worldwide).


Is it important to always add humor to high concept scripts, for the studios and agents sake?

Limitless Poster


No, not at all. It depends entirely on the genre of the script you’re writing. But most movies have at least a moment or two of humor — if only to provide a brief respite for the audience. That’s why they call it “comic relief.”

Regardless of the genre though, the goal is to make your script as enjoyable to read as possible. Humor might be a part of it, but ultimately it’s about writing an engaging script. Make the reader want to turn the page to see what happens next.

So if you’re writing a dark horror movie, don’t feel that you need to add humor to the scene descriptions just to make the read more enjoyable. It would probably have the opposite effect.

However, if you’re writing an action-adventure, where part of the goal is to make the audience laugh, then have at it. If you’re writing a pure comedy, it’s probably a necessity.

Spiderman Reboot

Would you say the movie “Spiderman-Reboot” is high concept?

I would say that whether the Spider-Man reboot is high-concept or not is irrelevant. It’s a franchise movie, and a tentpole. We know it’s going to be a hit.

“High-concept” is usually applied to stories that haven’t been seen before on the silver screen. Spider-Man has been around for a while now. Everyone’s going to go see it, not because of an innovative story concept, but rather because we already know what a Spider-Man movie entails.

The original Spider-Man story (young man gets bitten by radioactive spider and develops spider-like superpowers)? Yes, very high concept.

Do you have any questions you’d like me to answer? Send ’em in!

Visionaries or Rip-off Artists? (Or Both?) Oct 08

When we think of people like James Cameron, Darren Aronofsky, the Wachowski brothers, Tarantino… many words come to mind: visionaries, geniuses, mavericks, thieves — wait, what?


The experts at have come up with another excellent film-related article that showcases “7 Classic Movies You Didn’t Know Were Rip-Offs.”

I’m all for paying homage to classic movies, or using concepts from old shows or books as jumping off points to begin an original story, but did these movies take it too far?’s insightful and thought-provoking article provides a historical perspective, videos, and side-by-side screen captures, where applicable, of seven such instances.

Here are few images comparing Black Swan to a Japanese animated film called Perfect Blue, about:

… a pop singer instead of a ballet dancer, but other than that, Black Swan could pass for its American remake. In both movies, the young, innocent protagonist has just moved on to a more demanding job (dramatic actress/lead dancer), and the pressure turns her apeshit. She gets chased by a “double” who may or may not be the product of her imagination, and at one point becomes convinced that she killed someone.

Cracked - Black Swan Comparison

Cracked - Black Swan Comparison

Cracked - Black Swan Comparison

Yes, the pictures also come to life and taunt her in Perfect Blue.

Here’s the full list of movies that they scrutinize:

#7. Pirates of the Caribbean Is Suspiciously Similar to the Game The Secret of Monkey Island

#6. The Matrix Was a Comic Book

#5. Black Swan Was a Japanese Cartoon

#4. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Is Really Star Wars

#3. Wild Wild West Was an Episode of Batman: The Animated Series

#2. Terminator Was a Bunch of Harlan Ellison Sci-Fi Stories

#1. Reservoir Dogs Was a Film From Hong Kong

It’s worth pointing out that a few key scenes and ideas does not a movie make. All of these movies (with perhaps the exception of Wild Wild West) feature brilliant story elements, dialogue and cinematic innovation that did not appear in the sources that are being cited. The execution of an idea is a thing unto itself. That’s why you can’t copyright a concept.

But — if the execution is virtually identical, that’s another matter… Seriously, check out the Reservoir Dogs section and tell me that wasn’t a flagrant rip-off something more than an homage.

What’s your take? Does the knowledge that these filmmaking icons borrowed (stole) key elements from these previous sources cause you to look at them in a different light?

Read the full article at

Surprise Your Audience Mar 27

Ros goes down the elevator shaftA friend sent me this excerpt from a recent interview with David E. Kelley (Harry’s Law, Boston Legal, Boston Public, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, L.A. Law). It highlights an important mindset to have when crafting scenes:

L.A. Law is where we first got a taste of what would be your trademark, those surprise, odd twists, like Roz going down the elevator shaft. Where do those ideas come from?

I promise it isn’t drugs. You know, you sort of get smarter through the years, but that’s the one question I’m really still unable to answer. I do subscribe to the theory that it is entertainment, and when people sit down in their La-Z-Boy chair at the end of the night, they maybe should be able to see something that they’re not going to see in everyday life. So arguments of mine [between characters] will tend to be more melodramatic, and some of the eccentricities will be heightened. That’s just kind of what I like to do. Also, I loved The Twilight Zone as a kid, and Outer Limits and shows like that, which went in directions that you just never imagined. I do do that. I do say, “Okay, this is the scene, this is the normal way it would go. Is there another way it could possibly go that fits within the context of the show that you may not see coming?”

So what are the important takeaways? Give the audience:

A) “something that they’re not going to see in everyday life.”
B) something that they “may not see coming.”


If you have 4 1/2 minutes, I highly recommend watching the following animated short that I found recently, created by Graham Annable. It has several moments that I hadn’t seen before and definitely didn’t see coming.

Pay special attention to how the slow pacing (especially in one particular scene) is brilliantly utilized for humorous effect.

Full David E. Kelley interview via Vulture.

Want me to read your screenplay? Please take a look at my script services.

Where’s the Juice? Mar 20

Where's the Juice?Where’s the Juice?

This post deals with an all too common question that I find myself asking…?

Where’s the juice of your script! Where’s that clever story element that provides the potent entertainment value and killer box office potential? In other words, why is this story movie-worthy?

It starts with a concept or logline. If you find yourself saying “And?” after you hear a logline, then there’s no juice.

Example 1

A police detective battles organized crime.


Boring right? It’s too familiar. This scenario happens every day in America. What makes it movie-worthy? Where’s the juice?

How about this?

When a disgraced police detective discovers that his new bride is connected to the mafia, he’s forced to choose between honoring his marriage and honoring his badge.

Better right? Sort of like a crime thriller version of “Meet The Parents” meets “Married to the Mob.” The juice (the fundamental conceit that will sustain and entertain the audience) obviously comes from watching the cop being forced to make tough decisions and uncovering things that could jeopardize not only his marriage but his life.

It’s an interesting setup rife with story possibilities. And it’s not simply because I fleshed out the idea. Here’s the same base concept (of cop vs. mob) fleshed out a different way:

After a police detective’s family is murdered by the mob, he embarks on a revenge-fueled journey that pits him against the crime boss that sanctioned the killing.

Same approximate length, but does this premise have any juice? Not really. It’s a hackneyed story that we’ve seen far too many times.

Example 2

A young boy in rural Missouri learns about love and loss after his grandfather dies.

Wow, I almost fell asleep writing that logline. And? Where’s the juice?! There better be something in a concept that I can sink my teeth into.

What about?

A shy farm boy finds out who his true friends are after his grandfather dies and leaves him a secret fortune worth 20 million dollars.

Okay, now you have my attention. I’d like to see how that one plays out. Maybe he’s been estranged from his biological parents for some time. Maybe he’s a social outcast who suddenly has a bunch of “friends” that he’s been longing for. Maybe he has to discover what his grandfather wanted him to do with the money? Etc. Etc.

Bottom Line

The first thing you need to do when writing a script is ask yourself, “Where’s the juice?” What is it about this concept that is compelling, unique and would make a great movie?

Now that you’ve found the juice of your story, you need to know how to Squeeze the Juice! I’ll talk about that in a post later this week.

Photo: sudweeks photography

Want me to read your screenplay? Please take a look at my script services.

Category: Concept, Writing  | 2 Comments
5 Big Things To Sweat About May 30

Sweat The Big StuffSweat The Big Stuff

I’m sure you’ve all heard this inspiring set of rules before:

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. It’s all small stuff.

The truth of the matter, however, is that when it comes to screenwriting, that message couldn’t be further from the truth. While the devil may be in the details, your script lives or dies in its broad strokes.

Prom Date

Here’s a quick metaphor to illustrate what I’m trying to say…


Is my prom date’s dress hot or what?


I guess. But dude, your date is a chimp.


Okay now you’re just being rude.


No, I mean your date is literally a chimpanzee. Does your dad work for the circus or something?


The zoo.



Awkward silence.


Smokin’ hot dress though, right?

It doesn’t matter how hot your scenes are, if your script is a chimp!

5 Things

Here are five BIG things you should sweat over, long before worrying about things like correct formatting, clever descriptions or upping the tension in a particular scene:


Concept is probably the most important aspect of your script. If you have a fantastic one, readers/producers will be more likely to forgive minor problems.

When you tell people about your concept, do they ooh and ahh? Do their eyes light up? If it’s a comedy, do they smile or laugh? Do they immediately connect with the material. Make sure you have a winning concept before you start writing your screenplay.

True story. I once had a woman pitch me the following sole movie concept: “It’s about a black Hollywood producer who has a small dick.” FAIL!

Character Motivations

By the time a reader reaches the second act of your script, he/she should be able to answer at least two fundamental questions. The first one is: “What does the protagonist want?” Make sure the answer to this question is clear and primal.

“My protagonist is just kinda going with the flow at this stage of the script.” FAIL!

Rooting Interest for Your Main Character

The second question a reader should be able to answer by the start of the second act is: “What do I want for the protagonist?” Depending on your story, this may, or may not, be the same thing as what the protagonist wants. But either way, at this stage, the reader should be rooting for your main character(s).

Moreover the reader should have an implicit understanding of where the story is going, and care about that direction.

READER: “I hate the protagonist, so I don’t care if he finds his lost doughnut… not that I would have been at all interested in that anyway.” FAIL!

Overarching Story

Have you provided a solid structure and an engaging plot?

Do cool or powerful things happen in your story? Have you fulfilled the promise of the premise? Have you executed a story that maximizes the potential of the concept? Thrilled the audience? Shown them something they’ve never seen before, or in a way they’ve never seen it?

“Yes, it’s a global apocalypse movie, but we learn what happens through first person accounts only. It takes place entirely in one interview room.” FAIL!


Is your movie about something? The movies that leave an impact on us are the ones that teach us something, or, at the very least, have something to say that will resonate with audiences. Something specific.

“The theme is danger.” FAIL!


Do you have all of these bases covered in your script? Or are you taking a chimp in a pretty dress to prom?

Any “big stuff” you would add to the list? Please post in the comments section.

Need someone to review your screenplay? Please take a look at my script services.

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