US script consultant Michael Hauge is advising local writers to think big, but on a budget.
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16 Mar 2012 - 11:30 AM  UPDATED 16 Mar 2012 - 11:30 AM

Eleven Australian filmmakers, armed with ideas for “high concept” movies, will spend much of next week with sought-after US script consultant and teacher, Michael Hauge.

High concept movies, according to Hauge (pictured), are genre movies with one-line plot summaries compelling enough to attract audiences with their promise of a big emotional experience. Think Jaws and Speed.

Putting aside sequels, which attract audiences on the strength of a previous film, most big hits are high concept films. High concept is all about getting bums on a lot of seats but implies neither high nor low artistic achievement. Clearly, if Australia can produce more of these films, its box office fortunes will rise.

Workshop participants have to pitch ideas to the group. The one favoured by Michael Lucas, a writer on television show Offspring, is for a black comedy, while Alister Grierson, who directed Sanctum and Kokoda, is keen on an idea for a thriller/ghost story.

“A humble insurance agent is brutally betrayed by his apprentice and commissions an underground revenge agency to even the score,” said Lucas of his film.

“My one-liner would be 'A woman must destroy a spirit haunting her mother's house',” said Grierson. “It is just a starting point. I'm yet to know what it will turn into.”

When Screen Australia invited interest in the workshop – 45 applied – it stipulated that ideas should be for films that could be made for less than $10 million. Grierson plans to set his all in one house, limiting costs.

Grierson read Hauge's book, Writing Screenplays That Sell: The Complete Guide to Turning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals, while studying economics and political science at the Australia National University. Directing movies was a fantasy back then, but that book shaped his worldview on filmmaking.

The book argues that the primary objective of any filmmaker should be to make people feel: that's why they go to the movies. Audiences get emotional experiences – whether fuelled by humour, adrenaline or something else – by empathising with a character who is trying to get what he or she wants.

“Emotion grows out of conflict … [and] comes from the obstacles that your character faces,” Hague explained in a lecture he gave in Australia last year. “The bigger the obstacle, the greater the conflict in the story and the more emotionally involving the film.”

In high concept films, he said, a very short summary of the story should be strong enough to draw an audience in without any other components such as star cast, a known director, execution, good word of mouth or awards.

This rings very true to Lucas, who often notices that those of his projects that have an easily graspable core idea are those that genuinely interest friends and family, government agencies and potential collaborators.

“An idea you can hold in your hand, that has something about it that's interesting and compelling, has a better chance of attracting an audience.”

But Lucas also said that deeply personal stories practically write themselves while it can be torturously difficult to make high concept scripts live up to their promise.

Hauge's big bag of tricks includes heaping obstacles on characters, making desires and obstacles visible not internal and telling stories over a short time period.

The first feature to be produced from a script written by Lucas is director Peter Templeman's Not Suitable for Children, starring Ryan Kwanten. It will be in cinemas on June 28 and is about a freewheeling 20-something guy who learns he will be infertile in a month, so he has to find someone to conceive.