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The Notion of High Cinema and "grease"

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High concept cinema. They are films that originate from a short, precise pitch, which can also be referred to as a quick summary driven idea. It allows the film to be explained interestingly to a movie studio in just one sentence. In a high concept film pitch, the story’s premise is simply discussed without going into any in-depth length at its story and themes. Premise and ideas take center stage to characters and their personal struggles. The hook and visuals carry more emphasis than whatever deep narratives and emotions the film intends to convey in its final product. With that said, the hook is incredibly crucial, and what makes the concept innovative and different must be clear.

According to Kaire, S. (n.d.), for a high concept film to be successful, it must have an extraordinary premise, mass audience appeal, the pitch has to be short and story-specific, and have an obvious genre. In his book High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, film marketing analyst Justin Wyatt discusses that a high concept film’s marketing is based on “the hook, the look, and the book.” In the film’s pitch,  there has to be a representation of a certain look, have a hook in its approach, and reach potential success to be sold further as a book, which speaks in reference to tie-ins and merchandising. With that being said, the film in  discussion, which is considered to be an example of a high concept film, is Paramount Pictures’s 1978 musical film Grease. This film was successful as a high concept because it managed to appeal to a wildly broad target demographic, and adhere to the key notion of a high concept film, which is its ability to be marketable in two ways. Grease was marketable as a pitch to be worthy of production, and as a pitch to attract the general public.

Grease was released during the summer of 1978, at the time when Hollywood was relatively young in introducing the “blockbuster”business model, which revolves around profitable box office earnings from “simple-premise” films which are widely released to thousands of theaters nationwide, accompanied by heavy and expensive advertising. Directed by Randal Kleiser and based on the popular Broadway musical, Grease was an immediate box office success, earning the legacy of being the highest grossing musical ever until the late 2000’s, and has spawned a sequel in 1982.

Wyatt also argues that high concept films can be defined as based on a singular theme, with simple characters, a straightforward storyline, and a broad audience. This in turn lends cohesiveness in their marketing campaigns which helped Grease sell as a musical. With the one line pitch of: “John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John star as the ‘50s greaser and ‘good girl’ in the screen adaptation of the hit stage musical Grease. The film was easy to sell on its concept of being adapted from one of the most popular and long-running shows presented on the Broadway stage. And in terms of  marketability, Grease had the advantage of being a pre-sold and beloved property, and naturally everyone who heard about it was excited.

One of the reasons which help Grease solidify as a high concept film was that the film’s production elements promote a nostalgic and utopic view of the 1950s. Grease was released during the decade of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The American general public’s perception of the world was undergoing influence and change due to these recent crises. And it is this reason that the producers set Grease in the utopic world of the ‘50s rather than the current decade of the ‘70s. The producers intended to promote a film in which audiences could escape into a world that is dismissive and devoid of social difference and instability. This world was the utopia of a high school setting with vibrance and cheer, where kids were studying and being optimistic, away from the real world where the thoughts of kids being shipped off to fight and die in a foreign country were in the minds of most people. This utopic approach from the producers was an attempt to divert audiences away from the negative conflicts that were prevalent in American culture at the time, and bring them to a nostalgic trip to a more lighthearted period of time.

Star package was also integral to the high concept of Grease. Hype for the film was constructed around the casting of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as the two main leads. At the time of the film’s release, Travolta was rising to popularity as the hottest star of the era, after having been the lead in another popular musical film called Saturday Night Fever; while Olivia Newton-John was rising to popularity as a singer turned actress. Travolta’s casting was also beneficial to the marketing and advertising of the film due to Saturday Night Fever being released a mere six months before Grease’s debut.  As such, the lasting impression that Saturday Night Fever brought to the general public was still fresh on everyone’s minds. And with John Travolta having been critically praised for his performance as the lead in that film, it drew audiences to see what the young actor could do in his “follow-up” musical performance.

Besides that,  as a film that involved a lot of singing and dancing in their performances, Travolta and Newton-John, along with the cast of supporting actors, provided audiences, especially the film’s target market of  teenagers, with an exuberant and alluring depiction of high school life. And while the film received criticism regarding Travolta and Newton-John’s age in the film, with critics stating that they looked more like failing college students rather than high school kids, audiences felt that the cast was able to sell themselves as their characters and pull off performances that contained a certain raw energy and sexual confidence.

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