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April 02, 2007

An Introduction to Film Genre

Introduction to Genre


Preface. Please note that biblographic and film references can be found under the bibliography research tag in the sidebar "Repetition or Revelation....".  


Genre has become a key way of thinking about film from both industrial and critical perspectives. Superficially the concept of genre seems straightforward, however, this introduction seeks to show that it is a rather more complex but also more fascinating concept than simple groupings of similar films. Genre can be used as a research methodology it can also be used as a marketing and production strategy by cultural industries. Below is a comment from cultural critic Franco Moretti who is trying to map out the extent of the penetration of the global film market by Hollywood. Moretti stresses that his methodology includes the use of genres.

...if you look at a newspaper, or walk into a video-store, the reality of film genres literally leaps at you, as each film is being sold as something: a comedy, a film noir, science fiction, whatever. Taxonomy is not a scholastic pastime, it’s a product of the film industry itself, which makes it easier to recognise the film, and to buy the ticket ’ (My emphasis on second emphasis. Moretti, 2001 : 92-93).

Moretti understands genre as the construction of a range of mainstream media industry products which function to safeguard the future of the industry, by maximising and controlling the marketplace. These cultural products encourage potential consumers to enter into a pact with the industry. The industry effectively offers pre-packaged products which are familiar enough to ensure the likelihood of being pleasurable. These products are also instantly recognisable as representing a particular type of pleasure. The products are sophisticated enough to ensure to be distinct from other similar media products, by giving an impression of difference.

Reducing Business Risks

Business is about maximising profits and reducing commercial risk. The ability to create and package a film which is likely to have a reasonably predictable market is part of the skills-base of that industry. Both the potential audience and exhibitors recognise a media product by its generic likeness. Cinema chains aim to maximise audiences. They can tell from past box-office records how well particular types of film have done. Films seen as ‘difficult’ by not being easy to categorise into a genre, will be hard to distribute. If they seem too demanding of audiences they will be left to the small independent cinema outlets and be branded as ‘art cinema’ which for some commentators acts as a sort of miscellaneous genre category for ‘difficult subject matter’. ‘World Cinema’ is another rather strange category found in the video shops. The sections are usually comprised of a few martial arts movies alongside one or two films considered as canonical or fundamental to film conceived of as art.

This is not meant to imply that films classified within genres are necessarily bad. Some will be fairly low budget but clever enough to play with genre categories to escape from the prison of genre and take its audience with it. Ridley Scott’s controversial Thelma and Louise (1991) often described as a ‘road movie’ broke through a genre mould for example. In the case study later in the book it is argued Thelma and Louise can be considered as having a ‘hybrid’ generic form. The section also suggests the possibility that considering Thelma and Louise in relation to Hollywood-style genres is itself a limiting category. The possibility that it should be considered as simply within the traditional literary generic category of tragedy is put forward.

Describing a film from the perspective of genre can be limiting  but it can also serve to subvert the distribution system with a more radical product that might otherwise have failed to make headway. For example, war films can end up being critical or supportive of war and as media products they can be made better or worse than other movies in terms of engaging the audience as a piece of drama. Robert Altman’s excellent M*A*S*H (1970) was a well-made and well timed antiwar film which when produced went straight to the heart of the major political crisis facing the USA in the late 1960s, the war in Vietnam. As a typical war movie it doesn’t rate. No heroic battle scenes, rather it was comprised from satirical social commentary about war and wartime culture.

Origins of the Term Genre

It is useful at this stage to get an idea of the origins of the term genre for it is a critical category taken from other art forms and it has developed its own meanings within cinema.

  • The term ‘genre’ comes from the French meaning kind or type.

  • The notion of genre has played an important role in the categorisation and evaluation of literature.

  • During the 1890’s films were usually classified by length and topic. Terms such as ‘fight pictures’ or ‘story film’ were used.

  • After about 1910 the number of films made finally outstripped the demand for them. The growth of this competition meant that genre started to be used by the industry to identify and differentiate the films: ‘early film genre terminology served as shorthand communication between film distributors and exhibitors’ (Altman, 1996 : 276).

  • At first the genre language of film borrowed heavily from literary and theatrical language before developing its own path. Prior to the 1st World War terms which related to the production practices such as ‘trick film’, ‘animated film’, ‘chase film’ were used.

  • After the First World War genre terminology became much more specialised. The two major genres of film were melodramas and comedies and a range of sub-genres appeared which related to these thus : ‘ ‘slapstick’, ‘ farce’, and burlesque’ became separate genres rather than simply types of comedy’ (Altman, 1996 : 276).

Functions of Genre within the Cinematic Process

Genre has been seen as an important concept for each of the levels of the structure of cinema which the sections of this ebook elaborate upon in more detail:

  • Production. The concept of genre provided a template for production decisions. It was a form of tacit knowledge among members of the production team which laid out the general parameters of style and content.
  • Distribution and Marketing. The notion of genre was an important way of differentiating products. It became a mode of communication between producer and distributor, and between distributor and exhibitor. It also helped film reviewers, often non-specialists, place the product and measure it against other similar products. Reviewing is an essential part of the marketing of a film. In terms of distribution categories all films belong to some genre. It could be loose, such as ‘art-house movie’, or quite ‘tight’ such as ‘teen-pic’ movie. It immediately tells the exhibitor whether they are likely to be interested.
  • Consumption. Describes standard patterns of spectator involvement. The idea of genre facilitates communication between exhibitor and audience. Importantly this works between members of the audience and potential audience. Generic ideas create a ready-made vocabulary of concepts to describe the nature and style of the film at a relatively simple level. This can attract larger audiences.


Those critics who have worked upon genre in depth argue that some films are: ‘Self-consciously produced and consumed according to (or against ) a specific generic model’ (Altman, 1997 : 277). This book doesn’t disagree with that approach however it does consider that films along with any other cultural products which have been developed with a commercial formula in mind frequently do this to cover up for lack of skills, imagination, finance or a combination of these elements.

The argument is developed particularly in relation to Hollywood that there is an auteur-genre continuum along which the budget and personnel of a film are chosen to meet an industry created audience ‘need’. Higher budget films are less formulaic and appeal to wider audiences many of which are culturally and intellectually sophisticated and who are not interested in low quality films. In these films  stars and high production values are as important as  any genre assignations.

In terms of national cinemas, film industries which are just starting out are weak on establishing genre films. Once an industry is more mature it will have established a generic output such as comedies for example. Hollywood has become hegemonic or dominant at producing strong genres imposing them on world-wide audiences. Genres from other national industries have generated fewer films with a more limited audience and are often strongly influenced by Hollywood genres.

Growth of Genres

As a more generically-based production system grows so there is often a shift from defining genre mainly by content to: ‘genre definitions based on repeated plot motifs, recurrent image patterns, standardised narrative configurations and predictable reception conventions’ ( Altman, 1997 : 277).

The use of genre films combined with more industrialised methods of production became very important in the rescue of the one-time largest European film-making company UFA in Germany. Originally the directors were allowed a great deal of artistic freedom which produced fine films now considered canonical. The artistic freedom meant that there were huge budget and time overruns which meant in Germany that UFA was threatened with bankruptcy by Deutsche Bank unless it changed its methods of production. New management methods based upon Hollywood industrial practices were introduced. Finance was separate from and in control of production.  New filmmakers were introduced who concentrated upon genre development.

Efficient genre directors such as Karl Hartl, Gustav Ucicky and above all Hans Schwarz put UFA back in the black, the latter with six films, among them some of the biggest box-office successes until then’. (My emphasis :Thomas Elsaesser, 1997 : 150)

This German example shows how important the development and maintenance of the concept of genre is, to mainstream film production. The example also supports the argument that the quality of these films was instantly forgettable. Few, other than professional researchers, now have an interest in this type of film. In a world overdosing from ‘informational output’ the criteria of quality seems increasingly important given the limited consumption time available.

Elsaesser’s position highlights how the institution of cinema is an industrial process which requires investment and profits to operate within a capitalist oriented ‘free-market’ system of production. Developing an understanding of the various aspects of genre takes on a particularly important role in helping us to understand the range of film choice and the type of content which is regularly available.

Other institutional factors creating and controlling genres

Content of course is not entirely limited to genre demands. Censorship and other governmental priorities regarding cultural policy can effect what genres are produced and how they are produced. This is particularly the case in countries which take a stance in their cultural policy which is concerned to rise above the market in some way. This can be the case in authoritarian regimes, or else in countries such as France which have prioritised a defence of a well established national cinema . As a consequence it tends to make more individualised films.

Genre also exists as a critical construction which can invent genres by identifying content and cultural linkages. It also exists as an industry practice. As such the concept of genre is a double-edged weapon which can be turned to the advantage of the film industry or against the film industry.

The complexity of film noir is a case in point. Film Noir was not an industry invented category but a critical category emerging from French critics in the aftermath of war when they saw some of the US thrillers which had been produced during the war but banned in France. Since that time many books and articles have been generated debating whether the genre exists at all and what the limits of this ‘genre’ might be. Critics suggested that the ’genre’ proffered a critique of urban American modern society and the ‘American Dream’.

Film noir has been considered as too complex to deal with in depth in an introductory work. It is worth noting that the trajectory of what started as a critical category into a commercial category is unusual. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s a range of ‘knowing’ films were deliberately produced as neo-noirs. Deliberately copying the visual style and frequently violent content of the original films and frequently having intensely pessimistic endings these films were targeted at a ‘knowing’ critical market. This shows that even the critical thought can be drawn into the marketplace.


The case of film noir highlights the shifting relationship between the industry and the critics in which the boundaries between industry, critic and audience rather than being fixed are being continuously redefined and contested. Originally genre meant films which produced by a cultural industry primarily to make money rather than to open up new ways of knowing and thinking about the world. The concept of genre can be used critically to bring into existence challenges to these ways of thinking by making different links between films to the industry. The idea of "Heritage Cinema" from British critics in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s saw costume dramas and literary adaptations as a conservative 'genre' which served the aims of the then current Conservative government well.  It then also shows that the original criticism of society can itself be turned into a commercial product perhaps based upon irony.


The relationship between the industry, the critics and the audience is an asymmetrical one. The industry holds most of the powerful cards. It can always control and even take advantage of criticism. Whilst the industry must create audiences by seducing viewers it is always on the industry terms rather than the viewers'.


Thinking of genre-based films as an asymmetrical arena of cultural negotiation can be useful. The multiple experiences of viewing publics who are differently positioned in terms of class, ethnicity, gender and territorial location. Because this cultural arena is subject to negotiation, the parameters of genre are constantly shifting as the industry tries to retain and recreate its audiences. This book has concentrated upon the dual aspects of genre as a tool of the film industry and as methodological way of researching the importance of film as a whole

The original book was set out in three main sections. Firstly it mapped out key genres and examined general aspects of genre theory touched upon above. It then proceeded to examine the wider cultural and industrial context in which genre operates. The final main section dealt with more specific genre areas, offering a few readings and possibilities for the reader to develop.   This blog  will by the nature of the way it is built differ slightly. A contents page with links will be added after the other sections have been posted. 

Genres themselves are always in a state of flux, emerging and dying away as wider social conditions change. There is a mutual performativity, operating through the asymmetrical communications system, between industry and consumer. The asymmetric weighting by the very nature of genre is in favour of the industry. This in itself can be seen as a part of the greater hegemonic process by which liberal democracies function.

Cinema organised and funded in ways which represent the global complexity of our social, cultural and economic lives in different ways has been possible to only a very limited extent. The study of genre necessarily needs to consider the contextual aspects of society and its relationship to cultural production rather than be limited to pure textual analysis. These kind of issues are raised in the second part.


Many cultural critics defend cinematic genres, but more critical cinema could, and should be available. When no alternative is offered it is difficult to see beyond the horizons of what is culturally possible when these horizons are policed by genre norms. Genre can be a beneficial critical category up to a point. All films can be described by highly generalised generic categories such as comedy or tragedy. Genre boundaries instituted by the industry frequently act to limit the cultural imaginations of audiences. This attitude discourages risk-taking as producers and consumers. This is because genre is by its very nature intimately bound up with the construction of a sophisticated marketplace organised to promote certain cultural products at the expense of others.


Issues of what is now being understood as cultural citizenship are not often raised within film and cinema studies.  A useful critical perspective to be constantly thinking of is the question of whether cinema alongside other cultural products produced primarily for profit is in the best interests of society as a whole and offers a wide diversity of representations of the society in which the viewers are based. Perhaps a cultural production system which is less market-oriented and more citizen oriented is what is required for advanced democracies?




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