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September 21, 2021

High Concept vs. Low Concept: What's the Difference?

Both high-concept and low-concept novels and movies are wildly popular today. There is a large audience for both types of stories with dedicated fanbases.

High concept vs. low concept

Let's unpack what the difference is between high concept and low concept in film and discuss what makes them both uniquely different.

What is high concept?

The term "high concept" has been used in various ways over the decades since it came into existence. But generally, it can be defined as the following: A film or tv show concept that can be easily grasped due to its simplicity. It can also be applied to character development.

Now that isn't to say that the concept is reductive, and there's no judgment that a simple concept is somehow lesser than a complex one.

Think of higher concept ideas as stories that lead with their concept, rather than character or style.

Films like Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Speed, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, Gladiator, and Taken are high-concept films. On television, some examples would be CSI, Supernatural, Firefly, Psych, and Six Feet Under.

For more on explaining high concepts, check out this video from Film Courage.

High concept in practice

This term comes more from the world of marketing and sales than it does from film and so you'd do well to street of mentioning words like high concept until after you've pitched and are discussing marketing. Think about it, a concept that is easy to understand is easy to market and sell. If the essence of a story is simple, that essence can be distilled and distributed clearly.

High-concept premises can be a little bit easier to communicate visually than lower concept ideas. We'll get to those later. Take a look at these two posters, and see which one is higher concept and which one is lower concept.

Two movie posters highlight the difference between high concept and low concept.

Not knowing anything about these films, one of these films can communicate the idea of its content more so than the other through the imagery and title. The higher the concept an idea is, the easier this will be for marketing and sales.

Think about Snakes On A Plane. Everything, including the plot and explicit title, describes exactly what that movie is. It is the perfect example of an idea that is high concept. A series, for example, such as Criminal Minds is about a serial killer as you would expect.

What is low concept?

Films and shows that are low concept are stories that have a main premise that is not centered around their concept. These plots generally lead with their characters or their style or a blend of styles.

Think of films like Lady Bird, Manchester By The Sea, Ordinary People, or Steel Magnolias. And for TV shows, you might think of Gilmore Girls, This Is Us or Frasier.

A way to identify this concept is to look at how their plots are marketed, typically using the strategy of referencing other projects that are similar in tone, but not necessarily in concept. For example one might say Lady Bird is a story about friendship even though you wouldn't know that from the title.

Common misconception

A common misconception around these terms is that they mean the opposite of each other. I think this comes from the idea of "high brow" and "low brow" which often seem to be conflated with the idea of art for the masses and art for the individual. High brow art, generally speaking, has less mass appeal than low brow art.

To be clear, a high concept idea does not have to be "low brow" and vice versa. Look at a film like Arrival, which has a very clear high concept: aliens land, and a woman must figure out how to talk to them. The film did well with audiences (mass appeal) but has also been praised by critics for the thoughtful use of structure and the film medium.

Blade Runner, The Matrix, and any given episode of Star Trek are pretty high concept, but provide plenty of ideas to provoke thought and discourse. (Perhaps science fiction found the sweet spot.)

Additionally, a lower concept idea like the television show Roseanne had mass appeal due to how it led with characters that led lives conceptually not much different from its viewers.

High concept and low concept are not antithetical to each other, or any type of art, as this video wonderfully elucidates.

The idea of high concept is separate from genre and exists in all genres. Westerns are a great example of how broad the “concept spectrum” can be across a type of genre.

Your own concept

We hope that this blog explained the difference between high concept vs low concept. Now it's time to start incorporating these into your own work. When you’re thinking about your own stories, I generally advise writers to think about marketing, how to pitch in Hollywood, development and sales later. You don’t necessarily have to go in worried if your idea is higher or lower concept.

Instead, focus on what will make your story the best version of itself and have all the elements of a good screenplay. It's important you write a unique story you truly love with a fully developed script and then contemplate the business of the film industry.


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High Concept vs. Low Concept: What's the Difference?
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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