Film genre

In film theory, genre refers to the primary method of film categorization based on similarities in the narrative elements from which films are constructed. Most theories of film genre are borrowed from literary genre criticism. As with genre in a literary context, there is a great deal of debate over how to define or categorize genres.

Film genres can be categorized according to their setting, theme topic, mood, and format . The setting is the milieu or environment where the story and action takes place. The theme or topic refers to the issues or concepts that the film revolves around. The mood is the emotional tone of the film. The film may also have been shot using particular equipment or be presented in a specific manner, or format. An additional way of categorizing film genres is by the target audience.

Film genres often branch out into subgenres, as in the case of the courtroom and trial-focused subgenre of drama known as the legal drama. As well, genres can be combined to form hybrid genres, such the melding of horror and science fiction in the Aliens movies.


Janet Staiger argues that Hollywood films are never pure genres, because most Hollywood movies blend the love-oriented plot of the romance genre with other genres.Staiger claims that the genre of a film can be defined in four ways. The "idealist method" judges films by a predetermined standard. The "empirical method" identifies the genre of a film by comparing it to a list of films already deemed to fall within a certain genre The "a priori" method uses common generic elements which are identified in advance. The "social conventions" method of identifying the genre of a film is based on the accepted cultural consensus within society. Jim Collins claims that since the 1980s, Hollywood films have been influenced by the trend towards "ironic hybridization", in which directors combine elements from different genres, as in the case of the Western-Science fiction mix in Back to the Future III.



Film genres can be categorized according to the setting of the film. Nevertheless, films with the same settings can be very different, due to the use of different themes or moods. For example, while both The Battle of Midway and All Quiet on the Western Front are set in a wartime context, the first examines the themes of honor, sacrifice, and valour, and the second is an anti-war film which emphasizes the pain and horror of war. While there is an argument that film noir movies could be deemed to be set in an urban setting, in cheap hotels and underworld bars, many classic noirs take place mainly in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road. As such, so setting can not be the genre determinant, for film noir, as with the Western.

Settings include:

  • Prison: takes place in the cells and common areas of a jail (e.g., Escape from Alcatraz).
    • Women's prison: set in a female correctional facility, often with lesbian elements.
  • Fantasy: set in a mythical or legendary world, amidst make-believe creatures, exotic landscapes, and supernatural or magic events.
    • Sword and sorcery: set in the medieval realm of castles, kings and queens, knights, and wizards (e.g., A Knight's Tale)
    • "Swords and sandals": set in the mythical realms of Greek antiquity (e.g., Hercules; Troy )
  • History: takes place in the past, based upon historical events and famous persons. Some attempt to accurately portray a historical event or biography, while other are fictionalized tales that are only loosely based on historical accounts.
  • Futuristic: set in an imaginary future, often with science fiction elements.
  • War: set during naval, air or land battles, or in other military settings, such as a prisoner of war camp or combat training facility.
  • Western: set in the wilderness on the verge of civilization, usually in the American West during the late 19th century.

Theme or topic

Film genres can also be categorized according to themes or topics. These themes can be applied to films from any setting or mood. Even seemingly unrelated genres such as horror and comedy have been paired (e.g., horror parodies such as Scary Movie ).

  • Art film: a genre characterized by ambiguous, open-ended plots and a focus on inner dialogues and thoughts.
    • Avant-garde film
    • Experimental film
    • Underground film
  • Crime: depicts the violent gangster or mobster underworld and the efforts of police and the criminal justice system, to investigate, apprehend, and prosecute lawbreakers.
  • Film noir: dark gangster or crime dramas with a nihilistic and existentialist tone.
  • Fantasy: in addition to being a setting, the speculative fiction and magic elements of fantasy can also be a theme that is incorporated into other genres (e.g., Pan's Labyrinth, a film about the Spanish Civil War which incorporates magical characters such as fairies and monsters)
  • Sports: depicts professional or amateur athletes, trainers, and coaches during training, competitions, or other related activities.
  • Espionage: depicts fictional or quasi-historical espionage carried out by spies, secret agents (e.g., the James Bond films) or covert agencies. This categorization fits better into the "Theme or topic" section than the "setting" section because spy films can be set in any time period, country, or location.
  • Science Fiction: in addition to being a setting, science fiction can also be a theme that is incorporated into other genres, in cases where films examine the effects of speculative (not yet existing) technology (i.e. future space travel, time travel, or genetic experiments)
  • War: examines themes relating to war, such as honor, sacrifice, and valour.
  • Western: the themes from Westerns can be transposed into other genres that do not use the American West setting, such as the 1980s action film Die Hard, in which Bruce Willis plays a lone cowboy-type cop.
    • Weird West: is used to describe a combination of the Western with another genre, usually horror, sci-fi, or fantasy.



  • Drama: depends mostly on in-depth character development, interaction, and highly emotional themes.
    • Comedy-drama: is in which there is an equal, or nearly equal balance of humor and serious content.
    • Melodrama: a sub-type of drama films that uses plots that appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience. Melodramatic plots often deal with "crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship." Film critics sometimes use the term "pejoratively to connote an unrealistic, pathos-filled, campy tale of romance or domestic situations with stereotypical characters (often including a central female character) that would directly appeal to feminine audiences. Also called "women's movies", "weepies", tearjerkers, or "chick flicks".
    • Romance: a sub-type of dramatic film which dwells on the elements of romantic love.
    • Tragedy: a drama in which a character's downfall is caused by a flaw in their character or by a major error in judgment.


  • Comedy: a humorous intended to provoke laughter.
    • Romantic comedy: a hybrid genre which tells a light, humorous story about the attempts by two mismatched lovers to form a relationship.
    • Science fiction comedy: a hybrid genre which parodies existing science fiction films using humorous sequences and dialogue (e.g., Spaceballs, the Family Guy spoof of Star Wars entitled Blue Harvest)
    • Action comedy: a hybrid genre which fuses humorous slapstick with the fights and car chases of the action genre (e.g., the martial arts-infused Rush Hour).
    • College comedy: a humorous film based around the coming-of-age experiences of university students, often those in a fraternity or sorority (e.g., Animal House).
    • Screwball comedy: uses farcical situations, a combination of slapstick with fast-paced repartee, and usually a zany plot involving courtship and marriage (or remarriage).
    • Slapstick comedy: involves exaggerated physical violence or activities which exceed the boundaries of common sense, such as a character being hit in the face with a heavy frying pan or running into a brick wall (e.g., Mr Bean).
    • Black comedy: also known as "dark humour" or "morbid humour", treats topics such as death (e.g., Shallow Grave), suicide, war, or terrorism (e.g., Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay) in a humorous or satirical manner

Action and adventure

  • Action : generally involves a moral interplay between "good" and "bad" characters played out through violence or physical force.
    • Martial arts: depicts fights using fists, feet, and Asian weapons.
    • Sci-fi action: whereas classical science fiction films emphasized plots that dealt with philosophical questions or moral dilemmas in a futuristic setting, sci-fi action films tend to just use the setting elements from sci-fi, such as spaceships, laser blasters, and aliens, and then use them as a backdrop for a standard "good vs. evil" action film.
  • Adventure : films involve danger, risk, and/or chance, often with a high degree of fantasy.
    • Disaster Films: depict natural or human-caused catastrophes ranging from earthquakes and asteroid impacts to terrorist conspiracies and alien invasions. These films depict how the people affected must work together to respond, and they usually have extensive special effects. While some films emphasize the adventure element, others are focused on action (e.g., the terrorist attack-themed Die Hard series). Examples include the rampaging giant creature film Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954); the cruise ship disaster film The Poseidon Adventure (1972); Earthquake (1974); the virus-outbreak film Outbreak (1995); and the global warming film The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
  • Road movie: an "episodic journey or quest on the open road (or undiscovered trail), to search for escape (for example, while on the lam during a crime spree) or to engage in a quest for some kind of goal -- either a distinct destination, or the attainment of love, freedom, mobility, redemption, the finding or rediscovering of onself, or coming-of-age." In theses films, the "road often functioned as a testing ground or proving ground for the main characters." (e.g., Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.



  • Live action: The most common format of films, live action films are created by filming actors with cameras.
  • Animation: the rapid display of a sequence of 2-D artwork or model positions in order to create an illusion of movement.
  • Biography: also known as "biopic", a format that tells the story of a historic figure or an inspirational story about real people. This genre is arguably the most controversial, because the majority of biopics show fictionalized events.
  • Documentary: a genre that portrays reality.
  • Musical: songs are sung by the characters and interwoven into the narrative.

The editors of argue that animation, children's films, and so on are non-genre-based film categories. The non-genre based categories they list include:

Linda Williams argues that horror, melodrama, and pornography all fall into the category of "body genres", since they are each designed to elicit physical reactions on the part of viewers.


Alternative approaches

There are other methods of dividing films into groups besides genre. For example auteur critics group films according to their directors. Some groupings may be casually described as genres but this definition is questionable. For example, while independent films are sometimes discussed as if they are a genre in-and-of themselves independent productions can belong to any genre. Similarly, art films are referred to as a genre, even though an art film can be in a number of genres.

Genre can also be distinguished from film style, which concerns the choices made about cinematography, editing, and sound. A particular style can be applied to any genre. Whereas film genres identify the manifest content of film, film styles identify the manner by which any given film's genre(s) is/are rendered for the screen. Style may be determined by plot structure, scenic design, lighting, cinematography, acting, and other intentional artistic components of the finished film product. Others argue that this distinction is too simplistic, since some genres are primarily recognizable by their styles.

Many film historians and film critics debate whether film noir is a genre or a style of film-making often emulated in the period's heyday. Indeed, film noir films from the 1940s and 1950s were made in a range of genres, such as gangster films, police procedural dramas, and thrillers.

Definitional vagueness

A genre is always a vague term with no fixed boundaries. Many works also cross into multiple genres. In this respect film theorist Robert Stam has noted whether genres really exist, or whether they are merely made up by critics:

A number of perennial doubts plague genre theory. Are genres really 'out there' in the world, or are they merely the constructions of analysts? Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite? Are genres timeless Platonic essences or ephemeral, time-bound entities? Are genres culture-bound or trans-cultural?... Should genre analysis be descriptive or prescriptive? .... While some genres are based on story content (the war film), other are borrowed from literature (comedy, melodrama) or from other media (the musical). Some are performer-based (the Astaire-Rogers films) or budget-based (blockbusters), while others are based on artistic status (the art film), racial identity (Black cinema), location (the Western) or sexual orientation (Queer Cinema).

Many genres have built-in audiences and corresponding publications that support them, such as magazines and websites. Films that are difficult to categorize into a genre are often less successful. As such, film genres are also useful in areas of marketing, criticism and consumption.

Hollywood story consultant John Truby states that " have to know how to transcend the forms [genres] so you can give the audience a sense of originality and surprise. Some screenwriters use genre as a means of determining what kind of plot or content to put into a screenplay. They may study films of specific genres to find examples. This is a way that some screenwriters are able to copy elements of successful movies and pass them off in a new screenplay. It is likely that such screenplays fall short in originality. As Truby says, "Writers know enough to write a genre script but they haven’t twisted the story beats of that genre in such a way that it gives an original face to it".

It makes sense for writers to defy the elements found in past works and come up with something different or opposite to what's been done before. Originality and surprise are the elements that make for good movie stories. For example, European-filmed spaghetti westerns changed the western film genre by eschewing many of the conventions of earlier Westerns.

Sometimes, however, it is up to the public to make decisions how films are defined. For example, many people are now aficionados of films deemed 'so bad it's good', and indeed there are even award ceremonies devoted to this class of film, e.g. The Golden Raspberries. Notable examples include B movies such as Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and films such as Show Girls and The Rocky Horror Picture Show . However this categorisation is deemed on subjectve basis of quality, not on particular narrative or stylistic elements, making it contentious to view it as a genre.


Further reading

  • Altman, Rick. Film/Genre . BFI Publishing (1999). ISBN-10: 0851707173; ISBN-13: 978-0851707174
  • Grant, Barry. Film Genre Reader
  • Keith, Barry. Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. Wallflower Press: 2007.
  • Neale, Steve. Genre and Contemporary Hollywood
  • Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood (Sightlines)
  • Langford, Barry. Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond

External links

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