Coming up with a film concept
A film concept is the core idea of what your screenplay will be about.
Finding the right concept is the most important aspect of writing a successful screenplay. I’ve seen terrible scripts get sold because they had the right concept, and I’ve seen great scripts fail because they had the wrong one.
Just to be clear, when I say “right” and “wrong”, I don’t necessarily mean good or bad. I mean concepts that appeal to film industry people, particularly potential buyers, such as producers and executives.
In general, movie folk are isolated from the broader world. This isn’t a criticism. It’s just an observation on human nature. If you operate in a tight-knit community, surrounded by like-minded folks, you’re going to develop certain very specific tastes.
Unless you’re a movie industry insider, it’s difficult to second-guess what’s in fashion – especially when those fashions are changing constantly. As a new screenwriter, you won’t have a clue (unless one of your parents happens to be the head of development at a major studio). So for someone at the start of their career, I think coming up with that killer concept is pretty much impossible. When it happens, it’s nearly always down to sheer dumb luck.
Avoid the wrong ideas
But while coming up with the right concept is difficult, avoiding the wrong one is a little easier.
The first thing is to be critical of any ideas that pop into your head. You must exercise tough love and self-discipline. Try to explore a new concept from as many different angles as possible. Look for the flaws – if you find them, sometimes you can fix them or at least work around them.
Once you’ve convinced yourself that this is a sound movie concept, then go and pitch it to your friends. This has the added advantage of thickening your skin and breaking down those fears of rejection (key and vital attributes for any would-be writer). Listen to your friends’ comments, view your concept through their eyes, and in your heart of hearts, try to figure out if they’ve got a valid point.
Old Father Time is another great teller of truth. You should let your ideas ferment, like a good wine.
Often a new concept idea will come and you’ll be super excited. But don’t start turning it into a screenplay just yet. Instead, mull it over, allow it to ruminate, and then put it aside for a few weeks. There’s a good chance that when you come back to it in the cold light of day, you’ll see it for what it is: a steaming turd of an idea.
Make it accessible
When it comes to concepts, you need to be as detached and objective as possible. Sure, focus on what you know, but try to come up with an angle that makes your idea relateable to those people who may not share your personal life experiences.
And don’t be precious. There’s a thin line between passion and navel-gazing.
Let’s say, for instance, you’re a one-legged Bangladeshi lesbian who likes to watch paint dry on the wall. That’s too much for a mainstream audience. Instead, write about the prejudices facing Bangladeshis living in the West, or what a gay person experiences in a straight world, or what a one-legged person has to deal with in a society that caters for people with two legs. Each of these is a movie concept in its own right. And leave out the bit about paint drying – that’s a hard sell no matter what.
The Pursuit of Happyness is a great example of an accessible mainstream script based on a potentially niche concept. The screenplay sidesteps the whole issue of race relations, even though the protagonist is a black man trying to succeed in a predominantly white world. Instead, it focuses on being a simple underdog story, which is something that everyone, no matter their skin color, can relate to. The race issues are still there, of course, but they’re implied rather than explicit.
To research or not to research
It’s equally important not to write about what you don’t know – unless you’re prepared to do the necessary research.
For example, if you are from Birmingham in England, then it’s better to set your story there rather than Birmingham in Alabama. After all, if you aren’t too familiar with Alabama, don’t know the dialect or the customs, and have no intention of doing the research, then your script won’t come across as authentic. American-set stories may be more commercial, but they also need to feel real. If you can’t do this, then you’re better off choosing a location with which you are more knowledgeable.
Similarly, don’t write a hospital drama if you know nothing about hospital procedures, or a legal thriller if you have zero understanding of how lawyers go about their business.
And if you want to write a period piece, then be prepared to crack open the history textbooks. You don’t need to become a Harvard professor on the subject, but you must know enough to make your story feel immersive.
This is why many top writers tend to revisit the same worlds over and over again. Take Taylor Sheridan. Sicario, Hell Or High Water, Wind River… They all share so much in terms of locations, character types, themes, and a whole bunch of other things.
In the end, choose something you know about or are prepared to learn about. Then simplify it so that it’s accessible to the largest possible readership.
Screenwriting, after all, is all about making compromises – and that starts with the concept.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment below.
Until next time…