How One Dinosaur Film Has Changed the Entire Industry: An Analysis of High-Concept Films and Jurassic Park

Paper by Anna Navin.

It wouldn’t be going too far to say that Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) is one of the most influential movies in Classical Hollywood filmmaking. Steven Spielberg changed the game with this masterpiece as he incorporated an original and innovative film idea that later, lead to a million dollar franchise. The idea of dinosaurs roaming the earth in present day could frighten anyone and this film has one of the biggest “what if” factors compared to other high-concept films. Spielberg is known for thinking outside the box and bringing new film ideas to the big screen, but Jurassic Park is definitely top of the list for most legendary. This film has given viewers a glimpse into an alternate reality that is quite scary and the dinosaur franchise has dominated the industry so much, that it is considered to be a film that defines high-concept films in New Hollywood.

The common belief is that if a movie can be pitched in one sentence, it is high-concept, but this is a false representation. High-concept films stem back from the Old Hollywood film system. Classic Hollywood Cinema is a term used in film history that recognized a visual and sound style for making films from 1927 to 1963 (Classic Art Films). Kristin Thompson, author of “Story Telling in the New Hollywood, states that the classical Hollywood narrative system is a set of guidelines that initially was developed before 1918 and these guidelines have expanded after being introduced to other film making practices from outside influences. The most basic principle of Hollywood cinema is that a film should be based on a series of cause and effect scenarios and is easy for the audience to follow (Thompson, 10). This set of unwritten rules has been widely accepted by film writers for decades, and these films usually end with a solution to whatever problem is presented.

There are many factors that contribute to a film being considered high-concept. First, there has to be a high level of entertainment value, which means the film, has to appeal to multiple audiences. A film that sparks interest of many viewers is going to be more profitable, not just a film that is engaging. The film must have original concept that has not been done before, meaning that even if it plays off a familiar idea, a whole new approach must be taken in order to successfully create a good film. A simple narrative along with high marketability is key. In addition to being original, a film must have a high level of uniqueness and be incomparable to others (Lyons). Not only does it have to be based on a new concept, but also the perspective must be different than all other films, not just a new twist on an overdone idea.
Justin Wyatt first recognized high-concept in his book “High-Concept”: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (1994). He notes the idea “The Look, The Hook, and the Book” as a quick definition that encompasses some of the several elements that make up these films. When reading a book with a relatively high concept, it is easy to imagine imagery in your head that is so out of this world, which is why most high concept books are turned into films. Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) for example, was a very popular book series written by Suzanne Collins that was eventually turned into a highly profitable franchise. The books gave readers that frightening question, “What if in the future we humans have to compete until death?” This makes for a great movie because on the big screen this original idea had great potential to be successful due to the high concepts in it (and it was successful, profiting $694 million). For Justin Wyatt, high concept is the defining feature of modern cinema and he suggests that this method became popular with the decline of 1970s auteurist cinema (Thompson, 153):

“To gauge the importance of high concept films, consider how a film historian might chart the death of the rich period of experimentation in American film of the 70’s. As indicated in the chapter on industrial and aesthetic history, the period is frequently described in auteurist terms. And examination of the fate of these auteurs illuminates just how powerful high concept film became within the industry and how high concept, in many ways, irrevocably altered the career paths of these auteurs (153).”

According to Thompson, auteurist directors never dominated Hollywood, but they instead gained a high profile by attracting lots of critical attention and making several commercially successful films. “The simplicity and clarity offered by high-concept plots conform to classical principles rather than offering and alternative to them,” (153). Jurassic Park and auteur Steven Spielberg helped define what we know as a high concept films today, but there is still a basic set of guidelines that have been followed prior to the dinosaur sequels. The classical system that Hollywood uses applies to high concept films because these kinds of films are typically easily comprehended because the story line is so straightforward. Although this approach seems similar to the style in many films, there are aspects that differentiate high concept films with the classic studio era. Thompson argues that, “The “pitch” idea becomes more and more a recombination of proven elements. Speed was referred to as “Die Hard on a bus” and there has been several “Die Hard on a plane” concoctions, such as Air Force One (1997).” High concept films would not seem so different from the studies era practice if it was not the same formula that has been used in B-list films to the high budget films we have today (154). “It is ironic that this elevation of B-movie genres to the high-budget level has also been one of the legacies of the auteurist genre,” (154).

Not every director in Hollywood is an auteur. When watching a film, if you can notice the director’s artistic abilities to create a film that is unique to their style from start to finish, then they have earned the title. These types of directors usually earn the power to have complete creative control over a film after they have had one successful ‘blockbuster.’ For example, Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) redefined the modern studio blockbuster and became one of the most marketable movies in its time. Films like these that are still household names today cause the director (Spielberg in this case) to become known worldwide and obtain the control he desires in any film he directs. According to P.G. Neil, “Steven Spielberg was just an unknown, novice television director before he made Jaws, but after the box-office success and fan support it was clear to any film executive in Hollywood that he was and is a special type of filmmaker; with a unique vision.” Neil adds that this type of creative freedom was responsible for movies such as Indiana Jones, Close Encounters, and Jurassic Park and had Jaws not been a box office success, Spielberg could have potentially just gone on to be a television director. “The gifted and talented director is indeed the auteur only until he stops making money at the box-office,” (Niel). He began his career in silent film and later moved to America to work in Hollywood after he started working with sound. He first started doing films only in black and white but later moved on to color, and throughout his entire career, his contributions are significant to each of these areas (Niel). As an auteur, criticism will always rise especially when an unknown director make sit big with just one hit. One problem with the auteur theory is that is tends to lessen the role that other talented people play in the making of a film and can distract from who put substantial amount of work into making a film. So many people’s assistance goes in to the making of a blockbuster film and sometimes this can overshadow other individuals, therefore making people critical of auteurs. “The auteur director is indeed the painter, but there are many paint brushes that assist in each stroke of genius,” (Niel).

Jurassic Park is a film directed by Spielberg that allows us to see the marketability and simple narrative that is the ultimate idea of the high-concept method. The question, “What if we could clone dinosaurs?” is a very straightforward ‘what if’ factor and proved to be successful in this million-dollar dinosaur franchise. This idea is frightening just to think about but viewing it on the big screen makes everything come to life and challenges our minds in ways we didn’t know possible. In the film, the dinosaurs are kept out of view early on, so the audience is not bombarded with action right off the bat, which happens in many action films.
The idea of this film that sounds entertaining from start: an old millionaire brings dinosaurs back from extinction with genetic engineering places them in a park, in which they escape and start hunting people. The plot is clear and direct which sparks audience interest from the beginning, so dinosaur action is not needed right away because everyone knows it’s coming. The characters come into play and direct audience members towards the plot of the movie, which is already very anticipated. The main character in the film is Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and he is a scientist who works in the park and expresses his hatred for children. This is an important part of the film because it gives the whole story significance at the end when all of the characters become united to fight off the dinosaurs. The different elements that bring this film together attract viewers from all demographics and although this film was given a PG-13 rating, the dinosaur franchise will always live on as a childhood memory.
The MPAA rating system had an impact on the emergence of high concept films. Ratings can potentially influence the size of film audiences, which affects the box office revenue of R rated films due to admittance (Wyatt, 165). The MPAA rating system is a motion picture guideline for parents to judge whether a movie is appropriate for their children. This rating system consists of G (all ages admitted), PG (parents guidance), PG-13 (parent’s guidance if under 13), R (restricted for under 17) and X (no one under 17 permitted). When the blockbuster film Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) was released, the rating system had not yet developed PG-13 as a rating resulting in the horrifying shark film to receive a PG rating. This upset many parents as they found this movie was not appropriate for younger children due to the graphic shark attacks, and people being murdered. Later, the MPAA rating system developed PG-13 as an in between for R rated films and PG films due to numerous complaints. Jurassic Park received the rating PG-13 that at the time may have limited younger children from viewing it, although dinosaurs are a favorite among children.

High-concept films are often times so successful they turn into million dollar franchises, and Jurassic Park is a perfect example. “The “Jurassic Park” marketing campaign, which cost a then-staggering $65 million and included pre-release licensing deals with more than 100 companies, created massive upfront demand,” (Cunningham). Although this was by no means a movie meant for children, dinosaurs replaced teddy bears, Barbies, and baseball cards and are still in the heart of children today (Cunningham). This franchise lead to an increase in demand for dinosaur everything, which took over the nation as the anticipated film, was waiting to be released. Such a straightforward concept but so marketable which is exactly what made it the perfect high-concept film.

With a box office revenue of over one billion dollars, Jurassic park has proved that the method of high-concept films is successful for bringing in the big bucks. Justin Wyatt first made the connection between marketability and high-concept films and pointed out several films that rely on this technique to be successful. Auteur and famous director Steven Spielberg had had numerous record breaking box office hits that have followed the basic guidelines to high concept films and he has a unique way of displaying his artistic ability to capture such a simple concept into a huge blockbuster sensation.

Work Cited
Lewis, John. American Film: A History. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2008.
Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique, (1999), 153.
Wyatt, Justin. “High-Concept”: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, (1994), 7-8, 109.


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