High-concept novels and movies are some of the best performers. There is a large audience for high-concept stories with dedicatee fanbases. Let's unpack what the difference is between high concept and low concept in film.
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:
High concept: A film or tv show concept that can be easily grasped due to its simplicity
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 high 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, you can see high concept in shows like CSI, Supernatural, Firefly, Psych, and Six Feet Under.
For more on explaining high concepts, check out this video from Film Courage.
High concept comes more from the world of marketing and sales than it does from film. 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 ideas can be a little bit easier to communicate visually than low-concept ideas. We'll get to those later. Take a look at these two posters, and see which one is high concept and which one is 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 more high concept an idea is, the easier this will be for marketing and sales.
Think about Snakes On A Plane. Everything, including the explicit title, describes exactly what that movie is. It is the perfect example of an idea that is high concept.
Films and shows that are low concept are stories that are not centered around their concept. These stories generally lead with their characters or their style.
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 low concept stories out in the world is to look at how they are marketed, typically using the strategy of referencing other projects that are similar in tone, but not necessarily in concept.
A common misconception around the terms high concept and low concept 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 low 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.
Now that you know the difference between high concept and low concept, 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 and sales later. You don’t necessarily have to go in worried if your idea is more high concept or low concept.
Instead, focus on what will make your story the best version of itself and have all the elements of a good screenplay.