Film Genre

Film genre is an important concept for critics, film-makers and audiences, as well as media theorists. Film genre has both academic and practical applications as films are categorised by genre at every stage of their existence, from the initial approach the screenwriter takes, to where they end up on the shelves of your local store, to how their impact on cultural history is assessed. A lot of formal study has been conducted into the categorisation of film through various paradigms, and into how that categorisation informs our understanding of the film as text. There is also a lot of commercial interest in the way people classify and choose to watch movies — this is very important for the initial marketing of a movie, and for companies like Netflix or LoveFilm, who rely on genre categories to help their customers make their picks.

There are two basic approaches to the study of film genre:

Descriptive Approach to Film Genre

The first, and most straightforward approach to analysing film genre is descriptive, which involves viewing a film as belonging to a category, or as being an example of an established type. The film is perceived as sharing aspects and attributes (such as structure, theme, or visual style) with other films in the same category, and is analysed comparatively. This approach relies heavily on the use of genre paradigms, or readily identifiable elements such as costume, location, character archetypes, shot transitions, or plot content.

The descriptive approach involves putting a large number of films into a small number of groups — sometimes individual movies defy this kind of rigid categorization. Depending on how genre boundaries are drawn, a single film can be defined as belonging to several different genres at once. The descriptive approach sometimes means an over-emphasis on the formal and stylistic qualities of films, and doesn't take into account how a film's meaning and impact may change over time, and when viewed by different audiences. Genres can be as much about the differences between two films as about the similarities — if films are too similar to other examples within their genre, they're likely to be rejected by audiences as unoriginal.

Functional Approach to Film Genre

The second approach is functional, where the genre film is perceived as "collective expressions of contemporary life that strike a particularly resonant chord with audiences" (Experience & Meaning in Genre Films BK Grant, Film Genre Reader 1986). The repetitions of patterns in a genre film are the repetitions of social questions that we need answers to as part of our shared social experience e.g.

  • What is frightening, or what possibilities do we fear? (horror films)
  • What is criminal, or what are the boundaries of social morality that we must not cross? (gangster films)
  • What is morality? (melodramas)
  • What is acceptance and belonging? (romantic comedies)
  • What is alien? (science fiction)
  • What is the future? (science fiction again)

These questions get repeated from generation to generation, as values change. Therefore genre films are a product of their socio-historic context; watching them becomes a cultural ritual whereby hegemonic values are examined, and either shift or are reinforced.

A combination of these two approaches is perhaps the most successful one - whereby a film is considered as both part of a paradigmatic set, and as the product of a time and place.

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Sub Genres

Film genres derive from literary genres in the first instance. However, film genres must constantly evolve and mutate, spawning sub-genres, otherwise they will inevitably stagnate and become very repetitive. There are only a finite number of plots, after all, and telling a similar story over and over again within the same set of genre paradigms gets very dull. Subgenres can develop in response to a movie that pushes genre paradigms, and is successful, or in response to external socio-historic factors, and can cross traditional genre boundaries. For instance, the recent global economic meltdown has created a whole subgenre of movies about recession, from Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell (horror), to Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story (documentary) to Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Genre Hybrids

Film genres need to be fluid, consisting of a shifting, constantly evolving set of paradigms, otherwise cinema as a form would stagnate, with film-makers forced to tell the same stories, in the same style, over and over again. Given that there are only seven basic plots, the only way to keep thrilling and surprising audiences is to keep framing those plots in fresh genre combinations. Often these combinations are something of a 'mash-up', the putting together of conflicting genres that might not, initially, seem like a good match.

As horror movies are perennially popular, film-makers might start with a set of horror paradigms to guarantee audience interest, before throwing other tropes into the mix. This gives us genre hybrids like:

  • Horror Romance (e.g. Twilight)
  • Horror War (e.g. R-Point, Dead Snow)
  • Horror Historical Drama (e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)
  • Horror RomCom (e.g. Shaun of the Dead)

Further Reading