Sun, Dec 26, 2010 - Page 13 News List

LIFE: Enough with the pitch — what’s the concept?

By Michael Cieply  /  NY Times News Service, LOS ANGELES

Photo: Bloomberg

Talk with Winston Perez for more than a few minutes and he is likely to tell you about the sleeve around your Starbucks cup.

In the hazy past, he explains, paper cups had handles that mimicked those on ceramic coffee mugs. But somebody came up with the sleeve and presumably made a mint. Because he, or she, or they understood that the underlying concept runs much deeper than the mere notion of an earlike protuberance on the side of a cylinder.

The handle you can see. The concept of cool fingers on a hot cup you can’t. The real money lay in coming up with an elegant approach to heat protection — hence, the sleeve.

And in that, says Perez, lies a lesson for Hollywood.

In a town where various consultants will tell you what to eat, when to bend your limbs, where to put your money and, above all, how to write a screenplay, Perez is emerging as the guru of “Concept Modeling.” It is a registered service mark that refers, more or less, to a process for getting to the bottom of things.

“Every thing starts with an idea,” Perez declares on his Web site. “But the truly great ideas are built on concept.”

Precisely what that means can be a bit mysterious, because, as Perez explains, pure concepts dwell somewhere beyond words. But they can be approached with the help of deep thought, complex diagrams and simple maxims. Perez has been providing these to entertainment producers like Michel Shane, whose film credits include Catch Me if You Can and I, Robot, and Charles Segars, who was an executive producer of both National Treasure and National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

The idea, as Perez explains it, is to get beyond plot and dialogue, those handles on the coffee cup of your picture, to the essence of a movie, a video game or an entire film-based franchise. Because, he figures, in a business as ephemeral as the entertainment industry, it’s easy to lose track of what you’re really selling.

By devising a concept model for the James Bond films, for instance — it was an exercise, not a paid gig — Perez discerned, among other things, that Bond is not a cold-blooded killer. He is a “cool blooded” one who must temper every assassination with a joke.

When Bond became too serious in Quantum of Solace, the entire franchise was put at risk, despite healthy worldwide ticket sales of US$586 million, because it wandered off-concept, at least as Perez sees it.

The example is pretty basic — the sort of perception that screenwriters and executives have long reached intuitively, acknowledged Perez, who spoke over a laptop full of fancy graphics at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel last month.

But things become more involved when he starts to dissect a film project for clients, as he did recently with Band on the Run, a feature film being assembled by Shane and his business partner Anthony Romano on a budget of just under US$20 million, through their Handpicked Films.

In the course of three or four sessions, Perez figured out that their script, written by Michael Stiles and George Oliver, was more than just a story about a 20-ish rock band that had to go on the lam after being falsely accused of robbing a bank.

In fact, the film is playing with the same concepts — connections to youth, destiny and media — that long ago made a hit of A Hard Day’s Night, with the Beatles, or even of a Babes in Arms, with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. In a flurry of colored diagrams, Perez showed that success would depend on honoring archetypal patterns — finding a fresh sound, falling in love with the kids, being discovered through a new medium — that lie under all such movies.

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