Making Your Screenplay Shine: Concept vs. Execution

A few weeks ago, literary manager Zack Zucker of Bellevue Productions was a special guest at my Screenwriters Support Group. While the questions and topics ranged from how a new writer would secure representation to the construction of a writer’s career strategy from the management perspective, one thing that Zack impressed upon the group members again and again was this: concept is king. And, for many new writers in search of a screenwriting career, concept can mean the very making or breaking of it.

Concept, in logline form, is what leaps off the page when managers read, and consider, query letters, when they scour lists of contest placers to decide which script they want to read, when they look at such websites as The Black List in search of the next great undiscovered writer, screenplay, or TV pilot script.

Per Zack (and I am paraphrasing here), managers look through endless loglines regularly, seeking something that will leap at them, something that will grab them, something that will be both unique and intriguing. I, too, can attest that I look at Tracking Board’s spec report regularly, curious to see which concepts are getting play in the industry as it is introduced to new spec screenplays.

After the session, some of my group members expressed frustration: They spend months, sometimes years, pouring work into 30-, 60-, or 100+ pages of script; is it really fair for it to be judged based on a two-sentence logline, a concept summary? And if it’s all about concept, what of those “low” concept scripts, that may thrive on execution more so that they would the overall idea?

It’s always been said that the lower the concept, the stronger the writing has to be. And I’ve definitely seen screenplays and pilots that were beautifully executed find success and a home despite sporting a logline that would, for all intents and purposes, leave much to be desired.

Case in point? The screenplay for LAND starring and directed by Robin Wright, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Back when I got the screenplay some years ago, it was titled ILAND, and sported the sort of logline that made me think… “Oh boy… this is going to be a verrrrry slow read.”

The logline for the movie reads: An attorney moves to a remote forest in Wyoming to live off the grid.

Definitely not the sort of screenplay that makes you think: Page turner! But the original screenplay, written by Jesse Chatham, quickly became one of my favorites for its craft, for its humanity, for the writer’s voice, and for all the nuance and emotion held within it. And I was not the only one to think as much. Not only did it make Andrew Hilton’s Lugnut List that year, it was also named a semi-finalist in The Nicholl Fellowship, which is how it found its way to the casting-directors-turned-producers who would, eventually, bring it to the screen.

While this story does have a happy ending, it does illustrate, at least in my mind, one point very clearly: For a screenplay that is not conceptually driven, but one that will instead rise and fall on its execution, it is going to have to be qualified for the industry in some fashion in order to find success. This qualification could come through a highly-valued referral by an industry insider to managers or producers who can’t keep himself from enthusiastically raving about the script or, in lieu of those, a high placement or, better yet, a win in one of the screenwriting contests that the industry holds in high esteem. Because a screenplay like ILAND (as it was originally titled) was not likely to get read on logline alone, it needed its superior execution to stimulate meaningful advocacy.

Screenplays and TV pilots powered by unique, stand-out, exciting concepts will likely be able to find more success using more anonymous avenues, such as targeted query letters, as well as those contest placements and wins mentioned above. Due to its appealing, standout concept, the material is likely to grab attention regardless of execution (which, don’t get me wrong, still has to be stellar in order to go beyond a simple script request and launch meaningful relationships for its author) and therefore can be leveraged on its own.

With all of this in mind, ask yourself about your screenplay or TV pilot that you are seeking to get out there: Is its concept unique and truly stand-out and exciting, or do its strengths lie in character development, in dialogue, in point of view or voice? If it’s the former, and you don’t have a lot of industry contacts ready to advocate for you and give you referrals, then you can certainly try stimulating interest for the work through queries and contest placements alone. If, however, it’s the latter and your screenplay’s or pilot’s greatest strengths lie in its execution, you will likely need to invest in those contests, fellowships and services (such as The Black List) that will be able to advance the work based on its quality in execution. Consider these two different approaches (concept vs. execution-driven) when seeking to get your screenplay or pilot exposed, and devise the strategy best suited to help move your screenwriting career forward.