High Concept Films

Published: 2021-07-02 01:03:59
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According to Justin Wyatt the high concept film is valued by some in the film industry and derided by others. He states, ‘Whereas creative executives such as Katzenberg would stress the originality of a high concept idea, media critics would suggest that high concept actually represents the zero point of creativity’. Discuss the validity of both points of view with reference to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) and one other film. The high concept film represents the economically invested interests of Hollywood, as the high concept film is produced to be highly marketable.
With Hollywood simply being a profit seeking business, the high concept film provided an assurance of box office revenue in a time when the industry was in decline. It can be argued that this change in filmmaking merely altered the style of Hollywood films, allowing film makers to thrive conceptually in simpler narratives. Conversely, it can also be argued that this resulted in the production of creatively bankrupt films, where the importance of marketability far outweighs that of creativity, originality and complexity.
This essay will argue both sides of this debate with reference to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991) and Jaws (Spielberg, 1975). James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) is an example of a director exploring complex conceptual meaning beyond the simple high concept narrative. Whereas Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is an example whereby the simplicity of a high concept film not only limits creative exploration, but also breeds consecutive similar films such as sequels and remakes.



High concept filmmaking emerged from a post-WWII America, where Hollywood studios were struggling to produce a product that would re-energise decreasing profits. The 1948 Paramount case saw the Supreme court decide that the Big Five Hollywood studios were monopolizing the film industry (Balio 1990, p. 5). This decree was concluded on the basis that the Big Five (Paramount, Warner Bros. , MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, and RKO) owned studios, worldwide distribution, and controlled theatre chains; therefore monopolizing the production, distribution and exhibition of the industry (Balio 1990, p. ). This verdict saw the studios separated from exhibition as not only was block booking and unfair film distribution condemned, but the Big Five also had to divorce their theatre chains (Balio 1990, p. 5). The paramount decree in conjunction with the raising middleclass, suburbanisation, and the domestication of the television, saw Hollywood profits drop significantly. Where middle-class Americans may have had more time and money, this was predominantly spent on domesticated items and vacations (Balio 1990, p. ). In addition, the move to the suburbs had audiences drawn away from city theatres and instead take to watching television more conveniently (Balio 1990, p. 3). As a result movie attendance halved, and thousands of theatres were closed down (Balio 1990, p. 3). It therefore becomes clear that Hollywood needed products that would return profits to the industry. Where Hollywood was struggling to survive in a diminishing industry, it also had to compete with rivalling television entertainment.
This caused for Hollywood to differentiate its product and furthermore encouraged collaboration with the new entertainment medium, which consequently bread the high concept film. Hollywood differentiated it's product technologically for the most part, through gimmicks such as 3D experimentation, different widescreen technologies, and colour film (Balio 1990, p. 24). During the 50's, colour films were being produced as a superior product to black and white television; however the novelty quickly wore off (Balio 1990, p. 24).
Widescreen and 3D techniques were also explored with technology such as Naturescope, Panavision, and CinemaScope; again these brought audiences back to the cinema, however they were no more than temporary attempts (Balio 1990, p. 26-28). It became evident that specific demographics had to be targeted - much like television does - in order to market films successfully to audiences (Balio 1990, p. 28). This saw a collaboration between film and television as old films were aired on television to fill time slots; Hollywood generated revenue through telefilm production; and foremost, film marketing had access to television (Balio 1990, p. 8,31-32). This consequently bread the high concept film, as a film had to be sold in a single sentence when restricted to a short TV ad slot; thus associating the term with marketable plots (Wyatt 1994, p. 8). It's reasonable to believe that high concept films were therefore "designed to be sold" (Wyatt 1994, p. 14). With the term high concept unarguably associated with films that Hollywood favour in return of predictable commercial success, there's no doubt that they're heavily influenced by marketing and merchandising integration (Wyatt 1994, p. 7).
This creates a style of filmmaking that has an emphasis on star personas, fashionable subject matter, presold premise, and the ability to be pitched (Wyatt 1994, p. 12). The pitch is generally a single sentence summary of a film, which will at first sell the film to studios, and secondly it will create the marketing hook that catches the attention of audiences during ad campaigns (Wyatt 1994, p. 8). This influences the narratives of high concept films as they're sculpted to be pitched. Wyatt notes that this produces an idea that is "very straightforward, easily communicated, and easily comprehended" (1994, p. ). Many films value this simple narrative approach, such with Snakes on a Plane (2006) being a film simply about snakes on a plane; American Gangster (2007) is about Frank Lucas and the gangster culture during the 1970's; Star Wars (1977) is about epic intergalactic space battles. The use of stars also become prominent in the high concept film, as stars not only attract audiences, but they can also be attached to specific star personas, both of which favour marketing (Wyatt 1994, p. 10). For example John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in a western film is instantly recognizable.
Fashionable subject matter involves cashing in on what's popular culture, such as the recent string of alien films. These include Cloverfield (2008), District 9 (2009), Battle L. A (2011), Skyline (2010), Cowboys and Aliens(2011) and Predators (2010) to name a few. Pre sold premise is the production of films that are already successful and have pre established audiences, which Wyatt suggests is limiting new ideas, "relying heavily upon the replication and combination of previously successful narratives" (1994, p. 3). This is most evident in the abundance of comic book adaptations over the years - mostly superhero films - such as Batman (1989) and Batman Begins (2005), or Superman (1978) and Superman Returns (2006). It's therefore clear that the marketing and commercial aspect of high concept filmmaking influences the narrative and style of films produced in Hollywood. This can foremost be seen as an indictment of Hollywood, as creativity is no doubt limited when favouring those films that are adaptations, sequels or remakes.
The film Jaws (1975) is no doubt a high concept film, as the attributes of the pitch, stars and pre sold premise are evident in its production. The film has the simplicity of a high concept narrative, possibly pitched as 'giant shark attacks swimmers'. For example the pitch used in the trailer was "Jaws. See it before you go swimming" (Jaws 1975). Therefore the pitch would have sold the concept of the film to studios, and also been used in the marketing for the film. Furthermore, the film starred Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw, each of which were prominent film and television actors that were featured in the Jaws trailer.
However, the fact that Jaws (1975) was a presold premise would have been the primary studio attraction to the film. With Peter Benchley's novel Jaws a bestseller, the film was able to use the novel's success in their marketing; noting such achievements in the film trailer. These marketing attributes of the film therefore create the simple high concept narrative of Jaws (1975). Directed by Steven Spielberg, he even proclaims a desire for such a simple narrative, "I like ideas , especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand" (Wyatt 1994, p. 13).
From this the negative connotation associated with the high concept film is introduced, as Jaws (1975) bread sequels, a franchise, and similar Hollywood productions. For the most part critics condemn such high concept films as creatively bankrupt, claiming that they're "the zero point of creativity... relying heavily upon the replication and combination of previous successful narrative" (Wyatt 1994, pp. 13). Being a novel adaptation, this is no doubt relevant to Jaws (1975), however I don't believe it to be a creatively bankrupt film, as there is an art in adapting a novel for screen.
Where I do agree however is in regards to the 3 Jaws (1975) sequels, each of which used the same concept merely with altered plot elements. This is no more than exploiting a successful film by using its generic plot that was so easily summarized for marketing purposes. Furthermore, this high concept film has inspired other similar giant creature films such as Lake Placid (1999) and Shark Attack (1999). In addition to this, the Friday the 13th (1980) franchise could be said to be Jaws (1975) with a man instead of a shark.
Both of these films rarely depict the 'killer' killing, and both films have consistent suspense music that plays during the presence of the killer. To continue this further, Friday the 13th (1980) established a repetitive franchise of 10 films, again exploiting a simple high concept narrative. These examples clearly indicate a habit to duplicate and exploit high concept films, which I believe is where creative potential is most hindered in this debate. Also considered a high concept film is James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day, as it too incorporates Hollywood stars, pres sold premise, and the simplicity of the pitch.
Again this film is also a presold premise, as it's a sequel to The Terminator which was also successful. Therefore the narrative of this film simply continues from that of The Terminator, however now the terminator must protect the Connor duo. This is simply summarised in the trailer as "this time he's back. For good" (The Terminator 1984). This sequel brings back stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, with Arnold primarily featured throughout the films marketing. So with the stars and simplistic narrative both a result of Terminator as a presold premise, this film is no doubt a high concept film.
As a result of this, critics would assumedly favour Terminator 2 as a marketing plot, as sequels are economically strong due to the ability to be marketed through the previous films (Wyatt 1994, p13). However, this is a critically narrow perception of high concept films in general. Tho Jaws may be seen as a lack of creativity in relation to its franchise, Terminator 2 has been studied beyond its simple narrative, granting it more value and meaning. While critics prefer denouncing high concept films, those within the industry favour and encourage the high concept.
Wyatt claims that the industry stresses the originality and uniqueness of high concept films, and such Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) will be the example (1994, p. 14). While Terminator 2 (1991) may be a high concept film, James Cameron managed to provide a film that can be analysed beyond the simple cyborg narrative (Radner 1998, p. 249). By contrasting Sarah Connor from Terminator 2 (1991) with her character in the original, it's clear that there's a contrasting development of femininity (Radner 1998, p. 253).
This can be seen to not only symbolise her evolution in the narrative, but also as a reflection of Hollywood feminist culture (Radner 1998, p. 260). The Hollywood female being that of masculine desire, reducing "femininity to her image" (Radner 1998, p. 260). In The Terminator (1984), Sarah Connor appears "fragile, rounded and fecund", being typically feminine (Radner 1998, p. 260). However, in Terminator 2 (1991) - after the term of her pregnancy - the same character appears much more masculine and irrational (Radner 1998, p. 249-250).
This therefore defies the Hollywood model of femininity, while also inverting the rationality of men with the maternal mother (Radner 1998, p. 250). Cameron has used Sarah Connors body as not only a symbol of her evolution and a reflection of Hollywood culture itself, but also to encompass the complex - somewhat contradictory - character that she's become (Radner 1998, p. 251). While fearing for her sons life, she arguably neglects her maternal instincts in order to save humanity, and in doing so appears to jeopardise her sanity (Radner 1998, p. 252).
In addition, she also helps to humanize the cyborg that she once feared (Radner 1998, p. 251). This is clearly a complex character transformation through the two Terminator films, and to discard such characterisation as creatively bankrupt would be nothing but generalisation and ignorance. With that, it's clear that the high concept film can be conceptually superior to what critics may give them credit for. In reference to sequels, remakes and adaptations, there's no doubt that the critical view of high concept filmmaking - put forth by Wyatt - is valid.
This is evident with the Jaws (1975) franchise - as well as the other previously mentioned films - as the incentive to exploit popular ideas discourages the exploration and creation of new original ideas. In summary, the high concept film is undoubtedly produced at the cost of lower concept films, as low concept films rarely have the same marketing potential that has been discussed. However with reference to Terminator 2 (1991) comes the validity of the opposing argument, as this film has encouraged feminist analysis and reflection despite its marketing value and simple narrative.
In addition, Terminator 2 (1991) doesn't stand alone as a superior high concept film, as technically any film can be analysed beyond the surface narrative. This proves that while the high concept film has it's commercial placement in Hollywood, there still remains a place for it artistically. Where marketing and economic interests may produce a 'simple' style of filmmaking, filmmakers are still encouraged and challenged to explore artistically elsewhere in the production of such films. The high concept saved the Hollywood film industry financially, and is the primary reason for its success through to contemporary cinema.
Therefore to brand it a creative burden is to ignore the current success and progress of the industry, and to praise it is to ignore the creativity explored in lower concept films.
Reference List

American Gangster, 2007, motion picture, Ridley Scott, USA. Balio, T 1990, 'Introduction to Part 1', Hollywood in the Age of Television, London, pp. 3-40. Batman, 1989, motion picture, Dir.
Tim Burton, USA. Batman Begins, 2005, motion picture, Dir. Christopher Nolan, USA. Battle L. A, 2011, motion picture, Dir. Jonathan Liebesman, USA. Cloverfield, 2008, motion picture, Dir. Matt Reeves, USA.

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