I’ve been taking a pitch and treatment around to producers, and people are responding very well to it–but one note I keep getting is that the idea is very “execution dependent.”
What exactly does this mean? It’s a high-concept comedy idea, easy to sum up in a logline. So what makes one high-concept idea more execution-dependent than another? Or is this a euphemism for “not high-concept enough”?
I’m planning to spec it out anyway, but I’d love to get a handle on what makes an idea more or less execution-proof. I’ve read your (excellent) answer about the family of robots, but that seemed to be about high concept and low concept, while this is something about the idea itself.
“Execution dependent” means that the best version of the movie is a hit, while a mediocre incarnation is worth vastly less. It’s not a diss. Most films that win Academy Awards are execution dependent, as are many blockbusters.
For example, Slumdog Millionaire is completely execution dependent. If it didn’t fire on all cylinders, you would never have heard of it. It would have been another ambitious indie failure.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is also extremely execution dependent. There have been countless movies with adventurers seeking treasure, but the combination of elements in Raiders just clicked. If Raiders were twenty percent less awesome, it wouldn’t have a place in film history.
Other examples I can think of: Juno, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Dark Knight, The Piano, Titanic, Silence of the Lambs, Babe, Fargo, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Usual Suspects, Sling Blade, Se7en. Some of these are high concept, others aren’t. But in each case, the film’s relative success is largely a factor of how well-made it was.
Here’s a good test for whether a project is execution dependent: How many different directors could you imagine making it?
If there are five or fewer directors on your list, that’s a highly execution dependent project. And that can be a stumbling block. For Big Fish, the studio was willing to make it with Steven Spielberg or Tim Burton. Get one of them, and the studio will make the movie. Otherwise, it’s turnaround.
Many films are much less execution dependent. Consider Paul Blart: Mall Cop, or Obsessed. I haven’t seen either movie, but instinct tells me that the list of possible directors for each was much longer. Neither film needed to be perfect in order to succeed. Rather, they needed to be marketable. Both were, much to their credit.
From a studio’s perspective, there is some safety in picking movies that “anyone could direct.” You’re less likely to hit a home run creatively, but you’re also more likely put runners on base.
When a studio or producer trots out the phrase “execution dependent,” that may be a euphemism for a couple of things they’re not saying:
- “I like it, but it would have to be perfect, and we mess up movies right and left.”
- “I can’t think of five directors who could do it.”
- “I can imagine getting fired over this movie.”
- “I might buy it as a spec.”
- “I hate the idea and I’m just trying to be nice.”
I hope it’s not the last one. Good luck with the spec.