When Concept is King!
Updated: May 6
The Hitch-Hiker (Dir. Ida Lupino) Public Domain-Library of Congress
The WGA strike in 2007 was a rusty nail in Old Hollywood’s coffin. The studios wasted little time cancelling writing assignments and contracts. Mid-budget feature films, those 20-50 million dollar original dramas that traditionally win Oscars were quickly replaced by big budget tent pole movies. Shedding the pretense of artistic endeavor, Old Hollywood showed little interest in anything else.
Welcome to the Digital Age!
What to do with the loss of mid-budget features? Not to worry, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, taking a cue from HBO, are producing lower cost original features for their eager subscribers. Old Hollywood created a void and Big Streamers moved right in.
Oscar Nominees in Your Living Room
The divide between high and low budget films is wide and obvious. Big budget films are mostly star studded productions derived from well known properties like computer games, comic books, novels, and classic movie remakes. They are meticulously marketed to a proven audience. Rather than “High Concept,” let’s call these films, “Known Concept,” from previously released plots and characters derived from a popular source. These films are created to drive an audience to the theater. Considering the millions spent filming and promoting big budget films, economic failure is not an option. Creative risk is not encouraged.
Screenwriting is Back!
Most low budget films, especially genre films like horror, sci-fi, comedy, and westerns, don’t have the benefit of established stars and lavish effects. They are powered by an original screenplay with a “High Concept,” a luminous story idea that engages the audience. Low budget high concept features require an intriguing idea and conflict with obstacles the audience wants to see play out.
Big Streaming’s devotion to low budget films has earned them a seat at the Oscars. Just look at the 2021 best film of the year, Coda, a movie about a musically gifted teenager raised by her deaf parents and brother. Able to interpret between the deaf world and the hearing, she must choose between her devotion to her family and its failing business or her dream to become a singer. Caught between two worlds, with a charged emotional choice, what will she do? There are no huge stars to power Coda but its high concept screenplay is glowing.
That was Then. This is Now.
Since the advent of TV and its three monochrome networks, television has been a medium dominated by writer/producers, those talented folks who can both create and deliver a series. Old Hollywood, tied to old traditions, remains an industry driven by directors. Producers and studio execs handle money and logistics while directors are charged with delivering hits. In that frenzied environment, the screenplay is often a hodgepodge of disparate drafts from different writers.
A low budget high concept film requires a defined and original voice. It requires a lean, well crafted, character driven screenplay. Offering a wide variety of films to their eager subscribers, Big Streamers are pushing story over stars. Original Oscar quality features are now being produced from Oscar quality scripts. They're premiering in your own living room. Got a killer screenplay that can be shot for 2-4 million? Think about streaming.