Yes, it is happening.
I am going to list the ten greatest movie concepts of all time. And I’m doing it to remind you that concept is still king in this town. If you come up with a great concept, you possess power. There are very few great concepts circulating. That’s because whenever they show up, they get snatched up.
Here are some successful movies from the past year…
La La Land
Most people who saw these movies would say they were good. But conceptually, they’re nothing special. Rogue One is about stealing some plans, so a basic heist story. Deadpool is an irreverent look at superheroes, which is cool, but shines because of its hero, not its story. Arrival’s a cool little sci-fi idea. But nobody’s saying, “I want to see a movie about alien language!”
The closest we have to a great concept is Hacksaw Ridge, and that’s because it includes irony (one of the best ways to supercharge a concept). A soldier who refuses to carry a gun becomes the biggest hero in one of the most important battles of World War 2.
You see, concept is not the same as an idea. An idea is like a concept fragment. It’s a cool starting point, but it doesn’t have enough meat to be a full-on concept. An example would be Transformers. Vehicles that transform into robots is a cool idea one can easily imagine as a movie. But there’s no plot in “vehicles that transform into robots.”
I hate to burst your bubble, Ghostbusters fans. But that too is just an idea. Men who capture ghosts. Great idea. But not a full concept. That DOES NOT MEAN it wasn’t a great movie. They figured out a plot that worked and injected it with some of the most memorable characters ever. But a good concept takes an idea and infuses it into its plot in a clever way. It’s the entire movie as opposed to just the spark that ignited it.
Note that you don’t need a great concept to write a great movie. Star Wars isn’t a great concept by any means. You’d need five minutes just to explain the backstory necessary to pitch the idea. But it’s still one of the greatest movies ever. However, when you start with a great concept, you start with a much better chance of writing a great movie. That’s because great concepts lay the entire movie out before your eyes. Whenever you hear writers say, “The movie just wrote itself,” it’s usually because they had a full concept as opposed to just an idea.
So here are the ten greatest movie concepts of all time. I’m hoping they will inspire you to come up with your own great concept.
Beverly Hills Cop – A rough and reckless Detroit cop invades the prim and proper town of Beverly Hills to investigate the murder of his good friend.
The best concepts tend to have some form of contrast or irony. Beverly Hills Cop’s concept is the embodiment of both. What better cop to place in the rule-obsessed universe of Beverly Hills than one from the most ruleless city in the world? There’s a reason this movie cemented Eddie Murphy as the planet’s biggest star. It was the concept, baby!
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – In order to get over his ex-girlfriend, a man hires a revolutionary new company that can erase targeted memories. But during the erasing process, he changes his mind, and both he and his ex must escape the memory erasing process in order to stay together.
The thing about Charlie Kaufman is that he gets everything out of his concepts. Most people would stop at the surface here. We watch our hero get his memory erased, see his old girlfriend, not know who she is, etc. But Kaufman takes it to the next level, where we’re inside the memories as they’re being erased and our two characters are trying to hide from them so they can’t be erased along with them. It’s probably the most brilliant way to explore a relationship that’s ever been put on film. Conceptual euphoria!
The Hangover – Three friends celebrating a bachelor party in Vegas, wake up to find the groom missing and have no memory of what happened the night before. Using clues from the previous night’s debauchery, they must travel around Vegas to find their friend and get him back to his wedding on time.
Do concepts get better than this one? I don’t know. You’re coming at an age-old comedy premise (bachelor parties) in a completely unexpected way (don’t show the bachelor party itself, but focus on the aftermath). The stakes (the missing groom) and urgency (the wedding back in LA) are totally organic to the concept and therefore don’t feel written. This is the definition of a movie that writes itself.
Memento – A man with a unique form of amnesia that only allows him to remember 8 minutes into the past, must find out who killed his wife. Using tattoos to never forget the clues, we observe the investigation starting at the end of the movie and finishing at the beginning.
This idea of tattooing clues to your wife’s murder onto your body because you have amnesia is so freaking cool, I still get chills thinking about it. To go one step further and tell the story backwards put this concept over the top, and cements this as Nolan’s best screenplay ever.
Pretty Woman – A successful businessman who’s in Los Angeles for a week to close a deal hires a local hooker to keep him company. But as the week goes on, it becomes less and less clear whether their relationship is business or personal.
Some of you might question this choice, but Pretty Woman was one of the most famous specs ever written and was loved by almost everyone who read it. That was because of its strong concept that laid out the perfect conflict for a relationship-centered movie. Is this a real relationship or is it a transaction? That undercurrent plays throughout and, famously, climaxes in the opposite direction in the original spec, when our hero kicks the hooker out at the end and reminds her that she is and will always be a prostitute.
Rear Window – Confined to a wheelchair in his New York apartment, a bored photographer spends his nights watching his neighbors in the windows across the way. When he thinks he witnesses one of them murder someone, he must convince his skeptical friends that what he saw was real.
If you want to study concept, Hitchcock is a great place to start. Since almost all of his movies are low budget, he has to rely on clever concepts to keep the audience interested. The man stuck in a room who thinks he’s seen something terrible concept was so good that it’s spawned numerous copies over the years. It is the prototype for coming up with a fixed location high concept movie.
High Noon – Before the sheriff of a small town retires to raise a family with his wife, he finds out that a dangerous criminal he put in prison will be arriving on the noon train to exact revenge on him. The sheriff will have just a few hours to recruit a posse big enough to take on the outlaw and his blood-hungry gang.
Good concepts tend to have organic ticking time bombs built right into the premise. And this concept has one of the best. There’s something about being trapped in this tiny town with a nasty criminal just a few hours away, and everywhere you go for help, they turn their backs on you, that makes this one of the most tense and suspenseful concepts ever.
Inception – Utilizing new technology that allows us to enter the subconscious, a group of dream extractors are commissioned by a businessman to enter his competitor’s mind and convince him to dissolve his company.
This was the most difficult choice on this list because I don’t think the plot is as strong as the idea. So is this really a great concept? It’s debatable. However, the idea of placing heists inside the dream world, and then creating multiple layers of dreams, each of which distort time even further, leaves for some hella-trippy sequences that make this concept hard to forget.
Back to the Future – A high school student is accidentally sent back in time 30 years where his teenage mother falls in love with him. The student must now convince his mom to fall out of love with him and in love with his hopelessly geeky father before it’s time for him to jump back to the future, or be erased from existence.
This was another close call because it’s a concept that needs a bit more plot setup to get to the hook. But that hook is so glorious (your own mother falls in love with you and you have to reverse that in order to secure your existence) that it makes it Top 10 worthy.
Jurassic Park – After scientists learn how to clone dinosaurs, they create the world’s first dinosaur amusement park. But when the dinosaurs prove less than eager to be treated as entertainment, the park’s first attendees find themselves fighting for their lives.
This concept works in a very unique way, in that we know where it’s going before we even finish reading it. And that’s when you know you have a movie. I mean who honestly believes you can contain dinosaurs? That they’re going to cooperate? Of course they’re going to rebel. And of course they’re going to take it out on our poor group of heroes. Which is why people flocked to the theaters to see this.
Before I leave, let me go over a few movies that I didn’t include. Indiana Jones is more of a great character than a great concept, although an argument can be made to put Raiders on the list. Toy Story is more of a great idea (what do toys do when kids aren’t around?) than a great concept. Jaws is another good idea (a really big shark terrorizes a local community) but not complex enough to be a killer concept. Tootsie is just “guy dresses up in drag” to me. I don’t find it to be very clever or complex.
And then there are many great movies that shine because they’re beautifully intricate, not because they have great concepts. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Chinatown, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Casablanca, Pulp Fiction, The Dark Knight.
But that’s sort of the point. Those movies needed to be crafted perfectly from the ground up. When you have a great concept, you’ve already laid the foundation for a great script. It writes the movie for you. To that end, there are still many concepts that could’ve made this list. Seven. The Usual Suspects. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Liar Liar. The Terminator. I realize there’s some subjectivity here.
What about you guys? What concepts would you add to the list?