Genre is a critical tool, a concept that helps
scholars to study films and filmmaking as
well as audiences’ response to film. It has
been used since Ancient Greek times when
plays and poetry were arranged into
tragedies or comedies.
Genre study allows a form of scientific
methodology to be used in studying things,
which display similarities. Comparing films
within the same group and between groups
has several benefits.
Uses of genre theory
• Trying to decide the criteria for grouping a film
encourages us to study it closely.
• Looking at similarities and differences between films,
within groups and across different groups, helps us
think about how films are understood and what their
meanings might be.
• By comparing similar groups of films produced at
different periods in film history or in different countries,
we can begin to see the importance of economic,
social and cultural influences and the context of each
film’s production and reception.
This scientific approach is found in many Social
Sciences and Anthropology and they also inform genre
work in Media Studies.
Genres are dynamic and
so is genre theory
Genres are not fixed and it is not the
intention to provide a definitive
definition of a film’s essential
elements, rather it is useful in
understanding a film’s process
towards meaning. Any film will reveal
a pattern of similarities but even a re-
make will also reveal a pattern of
Genre Theory &
The alternative way of understanding film is to focus
exclusively on the role of the director (Auteurism). This
traditional Artistic approach to film theory suggests that
great Art is made by individuals and that if you wanted
to talk academically about films you needed to discuss
However it was soon seen that auteurs tended to
produce films within certain genres and one way of
identifying artistic merit in these distinctive films was to
compare them to the other films by lesser-known
directors in the genre.
By the mid 1970’s genre study had replaced
authorship as the critical approach to film study.
Genre and ‘Art’ films
Genre is associated with commercial film
making, for mainstream commercial
cinemas. Art films are made for specific
audiences and are usually keen to avoid the
narrative features of commercial cinema.
Critics would argue that this in turn makes
Art movies into a form of genre. In addition
Art movies often play with the convention of
mainstream movies in order to make their
Genres are not fixed categories: Take “Charlie’s
Angels” for example, it might be classified as: A mixed
genre action comedy. The action refers to martial arts
and modern technology; the comedy is parody or
spoof. In addition the film is consciously adapted from
the 1970s TV series and therefore includes elements
of nostalgia and a range of other appeals to the target
audience not least the “Baywatch” exploitation
A modern genre critic would categorise this as a hybrid
film but don’t think hybrid films are a new phenomena;
silent movies were often packed with as many
elements as they could hold.
Repertoire of elements
In the last few years genre theorists have
begun to talk about a repertoire of elements
from which generic descriptions might be
constructed (Branston and Stafford 1999,
What kind of elements might be considered
to be characteristic of a particular genre?
• Films contain visual and audio images,
which become instantly recognisable
and associated with the genre. E.g.:
Gangster films feature the iconic
‘Tommy’ gun spraying bullets in the
hands of a man in a sharp suit usually
standing on the running board of a
Iconography refers to the objects but
style describes the way they are
presented. Camera angles, editing,
lighting and the use of colour all
contribute to the style of a film.
Some genres have a distinct location
but this can be subject to change, for
example horror films have moved
from the gothic to the suburban.
Genres can also be associated with
time periods like the gangster films set
during prohibition in America but
successful films have updated this.
This refers to the story structure as
well as the specific narrative devices,
which genres employ. (Car chases,
gunfights, weddings etc). Narrative
theories explain the underlying
structures, which inform the way
audiences make meaning from
Narrative is usually developed
through characters and their functions
(hero, villain etc). Some characters
are so closely associated with a genre
that they become generic types. For
example, in horror movies, the ‘final
girl,’ who maintains her personal
dignity, usually defeats the
Critics talk about a film’s discourse when
they are discussing the topics, which the
film is making comments about. These can
be explicit in the case of Gangster films
which directly address the problems of
violence in society or implicit in the case of
Romantic Comedies which may comment
on capitalism and the increasing isolation of
individuals in society.
The pleasures offered by genres can be
very immediate and non-intellectual. We
often go to receive sensation, an immediate
emotional response. The adrenalin of
adventure, the anxiety of a thriller or the
release of tension through comedy. In the
two most extreme genres, horror and
erotica, critics argue (Clover 1987) that we
want to watch our deepest desires and
fears being played out.
Every film has a ‘mode of address,’ the way it speaks
to its audience. There is an assumption that certain
genres appeal more to one gender than another and
there is good research to support this. However, there
is some evidence that hybrid movies are changing
these assumptions. E.g: Female interest in female
heroine figures in action movies.
For two specific genres though the target audience is
crucial. Teen movies must appear to alienate an adult
audience in order to appeal to the rebellious image of
the audience. Women from the 1940 onwards formed
a strong audience willing to go without male partners
to see a woman’s movie. ‘Erin Brockovich,’ (2000) can
be seen as a modern version of the woman’s movie.
Genre is a way of maximising profit through
specialisation. Either through franchising a
successful concept or producing films which
can draw upon the talents and aptitudes of
the studio workforce and facilities (conveyor
belt production process)
A key marketing tool throughout the
distribution and reception cycle.