Film Genres

Genre is the term used that categorises the different films that are produced for the public.  Genre production is not unique to US filmmaking. We can identify genres from other countries, such as Hong Kong martial arts films and the classic Bollywood dance films.  The Hollywood genre system has been praised as it helped provide a useful framework for Hollywood directors to follow when creating movies.

Genre production created the basis of the Hollywood studio system in the 1920s. During the Hollywood Golden Era (1930s-late 1940s) each of the Hollywood studios would be known for producing a certain genre of film.  This would be set by the production value, budgets, subject matter and quality. Some of the genres were considered to be of a higher value with regards to box office success.  These were known as ‘A’ list pictures and starred the most popular actors that guaranteed popularity and ensured box office success. The larger studios also supported their ‘A’ films with a schedule of ‘B’ pictures.  The ‘B’ category refers to a genre of films that were produced cheaply, with lesser known stars and a considerably lower publicity budget.

Film Genres Mind Map
Not all studios during the Golden Era produced ‘A’ genres. There was a studio hierarchy, with the most influential producing most of the A genre movies.  They were nicknamed the “Big 5”, and they tended to produce the majority of the ‘A’ genres and some ‘B’ genres. Next in line were known as the “Little 3” who made some ‘A’ genres, but mostly ‘B’ genres”. At the bottom of the pile came “Poverty Row”, who produced only ‘B’ films.

The table below illustrates the hierarchy with an example of a movie they produced and the actors we as an audience would expect to see coming from the various studios I have listed.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 9.45.05 PM

Independent Film Production Companies Mind Map

Approaches In Identifying Genre:
There are a number of ways we can identify and categorise the different film genres. In the following four methods (industry, audiences, popular criticism and textual), we look at the different ways that the film genre is understood.  The main focus is on the narrative and visual patterns that create a film within a specific genre.

Film industries such as Hollywood cater to the masses and respond to audience demand for certain genres.  Their financial success hinges on repeating specific genre formulas that do well at the box office. Like fashion, popularity for certain genres change with time, and movie houses change with the change in demand. The Hollywood studio system takes a very commercial, conservative approach to genre filmmaking.  They do this in order to maximize and guarantee their profits by guaranteeing a worldwide audience for these films.  The bigger the box office hit, the higher their profits, which is their ultimate goal.

Audiences have certain expectations and demand certain actors and actresses within particular genres. The hype for an upcoming summer movie starts well before the movie is due to release.  The industry is depending on the audience expectations of their A list stars and popular film franchises to generate interest and ticket sales.  More often than not who is cast dictates the genre, which in turn dictates the expectation from the audience of that genre.  No one goes to watch Vin Diesel in the Fast and Furious franchise movies expecting to see a serious movie looking at the impact of fracking on the ecology.  We want, and expect to see an action movie jam-packed with lots of explosions, car chases and fight scenes.

Popular criticism:
More often than not reviews of films have been catagorised according to their genre for the audience.  This helps us as the reader or listener when searching for something specific to our tastes if the reviews in the popular press online, or in newspapers, magazines, or on the radio, or television/movie refers to a film’s genre in their description of it.

Video/DVD stores would be another popular place in which genres are identified for the customer. The organisation of store shelving would be laid out specifically according to the genre, thus labeling the films placed on the shelves as presenting those broad traits for the customer.  Video and DVD stores are obsolete now, but a more current example would be seen online or on systems like OSN where movies and television series are catagorised according to their genre to make the search parameters easier when looking for something specific.


The most obvious method for identifying a film genre is through the codes and conventions present in a particular film that makes it an example of a specific genre.

In terms of genre theory, how we approach the film textually is through identifying the semantic and syntactic elements.
– Semantic elements: the common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets.
– Syntactic elements: the constitutive relationships between semantic elements and how they are structured.

Semantic Elements

Location and setting:
– Normally set at night.
– Dark, rain soaked streets that are usually empty.
– Urban or city landscapes.

Visual style:
– Chiaroscuro lighting (lit for night, low key).
– Creation of heavy shadows, particularly for partially obscuring characters.
– Tight or claustrophobic framing and composition.
– Use of vertical and tilted compositional lines.
– Composition established around the character, rather than the character controlling the space.

Character archetypes:
– Anti-hero detective/private investigator.
– Femme fatale.

Narrative structure:
– Complex, non-linear structure; generally, the film begins with the crime/murder, and then flashes back.
– Revolves around a crime, normally a murder.
– Involves a romantic entanglement.


Syntactic Elements:
– Feelings of individual hopelessness, loneliness and alienation.
– Corruption of authority.
– Meaninglessness of social justice.

Problematising Genre:
These days it isn’t so easy to define the characteristics of any given genre. It is very rare that there is a ‘pure’ genre film in present day film production.

Within in some genres, there are also sub-genres, which can make finding a clear definition or description of a genre difficult. Horror films are the perfect example of this, as they can contain many different sub-genres including:
– Splatter.
– Slasher.
– Supernatural.
– Torture.
– Giallo.
– Monster.
– Animal.
– Zombie/virus.


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