The Generic Stuff: How to Make Film Genre Work, Or Not Work, For You

Talking about film genre is an exercise in stilted speech. Ever had one of those conversations, trying to describe a particular film? “Oh, it’s this family drama but also kind of a crime mystery, with this, um, metaphysical thing going on too—I don’t know, just watch it yourself.”

Genre broadly refers to an arrangement of films that share some narrative, thematic and stylistic conventions. While a film may not hit every convention in a genre, it will hit some. For the audience, it’s shorthand that indicates what they’re getting themselves into.

But what is genre to filmmakers? Is it a hindrance to creativity, or a handy tool to keep things simple? For the more adventurous, perhaps, it’s a magician’s sexy assistant: i.e. an element of misdirection that enables the unexpected. After all, defying genre is how the greats made their names. Andrei Tarkovsky said it best:

“What is Bresson’s genre? He doesn’t have one. Bresson is Bresson. He is a genre in himself. Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Bunuel—each is identified with himself. The very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb. And is Chaplin—comedy? No: he is Chaplin, pure and simple; a unique phenomenon, never to be repeated.”

Sometimes the real-life application of genre can feel like a caste system—not all are equal in the eyes of the industry. Tell someone, “I’m writing a thriller,” and you’ll often get a positive response. But in the wild west of independent film financing, if you let slip the dreaded “D” word—“drama”—you may well find a curious lack of response to emails and phone calls…

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