‘Concept Modeling’ Tries Getting to the Bottom of Things – NYTimes.com

‘Concept Modeling’ Tries Getting to the Bottom of Things – NYTimes.com

Scene Stealer

Enough With the Elevator Pitch. What’s the Concept?

  • Dec. 25, 2010


TALK with Winston J. 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 finding an elegant approach to heat protection — hence, the sleeve.

And in that, says Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Perez explains, pure concepts dwell somewhere beyond words. But they can be approached with the help of deep thought, complex diagrams and simple maxims. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Winston J. Perez is emerging as the guru of “Concept Modeling.Credit…Jamie Rector for The New York Times

By devising a concept model for the James Bond films, for instance — it was an exercise, not a paid gig — Mr. 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 $586 million, because it wandered off-concept, at least as Mr. Perez sees it.

The example is pretty basic — the sort of perception that screenwriters and executives have long reached intuitively, acknowledged Mr. 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 Mr. Shane and his business partner Anthony Romano, on a budget of just under $20 million, through their Handpicked Films.

In the course of three or four sessions, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

“We’ve actually started using it,” Mr. Shane said. An elaborate model from Mr. Perez is helping him to develop marketing tools, including a planned social network-style Web site, built around the core concepts of “Band on the Run.”

Now 52, Mr. Perez started his professional life by publishing newspapers for teenagers when he was in high school and at the University of Maryland. He got to know the entertainment industry in the early 1990s, when he worked as an management consultant, specializing in helping out-of-work executives find new jobs.

In a diagram, Mr. Perez applies the process to “Band on the Run,” a film in development.Credit…Jamie Rector for The New York Times

He later became an executive coach, sometimes writing dialogue for businesspeople to use in high-pressure meetings. For a time, he tried his hand at screenwriting, but in a eureka moment he came to believe that executives and writers often failed to understand the concepts underlying their own work.

Looking conceptually at “The Shawshank Redemption,” one early exercise, he saw not a prison-break film, but a movie with interlocking stories that were all about one thing: hope.

Eventually, units of companies as big as Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers and NBC Universal enlisted Mr. Perez to analyze various entertainment properties.

Some of what he discovers can seem obvious. Hired by a prospective supplier to Starbucks for some modeling connected to a product, Mr. Perez figured out that the smell of fresh-ground beans was integral to the coffee-house experience, and noted that stores went off-concept when they stopped grinding on the premises. It might not have taken a guru to figure that out.

But there is surely a benefit in reminding entertainment types to think more clearly about what they are actually peddling. By and large, movies should be about something — a concept as simple as hope, for instance. But often, they’re not.

MR. PEREZ figures that Warner’s movie “Speed Racer,” based on a Japanese comic book, should have been about a “boy and his dog” — the “dog” being his extraordinarily forceful and faithful Mach 5 car. But the movie slipped off-concept, he says, because the car wasn’t special enough, hurting the film’s emotional impact.

And James Bond really should have gizmos. That was another aperçu by Mr. Perez, as he examined the off-concept, and relatively gadget-free, “Quantum of Solace.”

Sometimes, too, Mr. Perez churns up a more startling discovery, as when he recently figured out that the “Terminator” series and “A Christmas Carol” are built on the very same concept. They are both time-travel stories, he notes, and they share an impulse that is common to virtually every such story that has ever charmed an audience: “Let’s go back and fix things.”

The rest of the time-travel model Mr. Perez is keeping to himself. “I’m writing a script,” he says.