H’wood’s high on higher concepts

Studios find road to riches can be paved with two-word pitches

Here’s the pitch in two words: “High concept.”

The venerable Hollywood genre that gave us “Flashdance,” “Police Academy” and “Beverly Hills Cop” is once again making a comeback.

The label “High Concept,” long used to describe films sold on the basis of a short and sweet gimmick — pics like “Big” or “What Women Want” whose storyline can be pitched in 25 words or less — has a new cachet in Hollywood.

And in some corners, it’s far more popular than source material like specs and books.

Steven Spielberg once said, “If a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie.”

In today’s frenzied film marketplace, it takes only two words.

Consider “Ghost Ship,” a horror pic from Warner Bros. out Oct. 25. The concept: a salvage crew finds a haunted ocean liner in the Bering Straits. The logline: “Sea Evil.”

“Ghost Ship” is poised to ride a wave of high-concept pics into theaters this fall.

There’s “Stealing Harvard,” in which Jason Lee plays a hapless man who turns to crime to fund his niece’s tuition; “Pipe Dreams,” about a plumber who picks up women by holding a casting call for a nonexistent film; and “Who’s Your Daddy,” the story of an Ohio teenager who inherits a porno empire.

Hollywood has long been a place where simple, provocative ideas command millions. But such ideas have heightened appeal in a market glutted with costly CGI spectacles, franchises, remakes and spinoffs.

As the longevity of studio tentpoles dwindles to a few weekends or less, producers are looking for pics that are cost-effective, easy to sell, lend themselves to splashy poster campaigns and are gimmicky enough to open with a thunderclap.

At a time when marketing forces figure ever more prominently in greenlight decisions, high-concept pics also come with titles that double as sales handles. That’s especially true of superhero pics like “Spiderman” and “The Hulk,” which are built around a single, mass-merchandized image.

“Jaws” was the quintessential high-concept blockbuster, launching a flood of event films whose highly-charged, one-word titles told the audience exactly what to expect: “Alien” (originally pitched as “Jaws on a spaceship”), “Twister,” “Gladiator,” “Speed” and “Titanic.”

“Tootsie,” says Deep River Productions parter David Friendly, is the ultimate high-concept movie. “It’s the story of a man who dresses as a woman to become a better man.”

Next week, DreamWorks trots out another high-concept, disguised identity comedy, “The Tuxedo.” Pic stars Jackie Chan as a clutzy chauffeur transformed into a master spy when he dons a high-tech tuxedo.

It’s an idea that’s at once simple and visually iconic, as Chan demonstrated in his first development meeting, when he began hamming around, miming the process of putting on the suit, one arm held gracefully aloft while the rest of his body flailed around.

It was also easy to pitch. “It’s a zero to hero story,” producer John T. Williams told the DreamWorks execs, “and the first opportunity to present Jackie Chan as master physical comedian for a family audience.”The holy grail for many high-concept producers is “Liar, Liar,” the 1997 Imagine Entertainment pic starring Jim Carrey, which grossed nearly $200 million.

Imagine co-chair Brian Grazer is one of Hollywood’s high priests of concept, having produced some of the genre’s biggest hits. These include “The Nutty Professor,” “Night Shift” and “Splash,” the last of which earned him a screenwriting Oscar nom.

Grazer prefers the term “what if” for such pics. “My whole career started on What If,” he says.

Today, such pics comprise only a fraction of Grazer’s slate. Oscar-winner “A Beautiful Mind,” for instance, stands in sharp opposition to the usual high-concept formula: it’s a complex, true story based on a challenging literary source.

But “What If” pics, Grazer says, can be highly rewarding.

“You get to postulate completely off the psychology of a character without having to conform to a book or pre-existing material,” says Grazer. “You can really just dream.”

Few high-concept pics are as successful as “Liar, Liar” or “Splash.” But studios continue to prospect for the next big idea.

Now in development around town are such projects as “Devil’s Playground,” described as “Faust” set in a high school; “Super Mutt,” a canine “Superman”; “South By South Central,” an inner city version of “North By Northwest”; “Used Guys,” a comedy in which women buy and trade men like used cars; “Smart and Smarter,” a 180-degree turn on “Dumb and Dumber”; and “Field Trip,” a project Disney is developing that, as yet, doesn’t even have a concept – Disney execs, says a source, were inspired by “Snow Day,” a modestly budgeted, high-concept pic that grossed nearly $60 million for Paramount.

There’s also an entire subgenre of high-concept pics set in school: “Superhero School,” “Date School,” “Old School,” “Never Finished School,” “School of Life,” “School for Dads” and “School of Rock.”

When it comes to selling high-concept pitches to studios, the reigning champ may be Lauren Lloyd. A producer on the Sony lot, Lloyd has sold 20 pitches in the last 18 months — a track record she attributes in part to her experience inside the studio system.

A former exec at Columbia and Hollywood Pictures, she says, “I like being proactive and working with writers. Most of my writers are newer writers, they’re affordable, and figure out the story before the pitch.”

The abstract nature of these ideas, however, comes with a risk: They often get pulled in several directions by development execs and the result is an ill-seasoned gumbo that leaves a foul aftertaste for all who shaped it.

Lloyd’s first sale was “Sorority Boys,” which sold to Disney as “Some Like It Hot” set on a college campus.

Somewhere in development, however, it took an extremely raunchy turn, and the finished product, complete with dildo fights and bodily excretions, failed to connect with auds, grossing just over $10 million.

Other high-concept ideas simply die in development, when the writers fail to deliver on the original promise and the studio realizes it has no third act.

In a heady pitch session with a persuasive writer, says one studio exec, its easy to lose sight of problems that could crop up later.

“When you have a one-line idea,” he says, “it’s the perfect form of that idea, as opposed to the poorly executed version you’ll confront later. There’s less area for disagreement, because the idea is so agreeable in its simplicity.”

And high-concept pics begin as ideas so rudimentary that the final project invariably bears the heavy handprint of a producer or studio exec, a situation that a former development exec says is backwards.

“We’re movie execs,” he says. “If we’re coming up with ideas, by definition they’re bad ideas. That’s what writers are for.”

But producer Bob Kosberg, balks at the idea that they are a sign of a system that’s creatively bankrupt.

“People don’t realize,” he says, “that they often revere and even give Oscars to movies that are based on a one-line gimmick. ‘Big’ is a one-line gimmick. ‘Splash’ is a one-line gimmick.”

Beleagured studios execs, however, tend not to buy high-concept projects for the prestige factor, but to address a more pressing problem. They have a huge slate to fill, and if there aren’t any exciting scripts or books coming in over the transom, they’re likely to reach for ideas that they’re convinced, will prove easy to develop and market.

As Kosberg puts it, “A common complaint is that weekend reads suck. How many people this weekend are reading scripts by William Goldman?”

Kosberg, who once sold a genetically engineered dog pic to New Line as “Jaws on Paws,” hopes to plug that gap with projects that are easy to grasp, produce and market.

There’s a cliche in hollywood,” says Kosberg, that ideas are a dime a dozen. Bad ideas are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are one in a million. The minute you find one, the world will beat a path to your door.”

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