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A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them)

Jourdan Aldredge

Let’s look at genre theory, what it entails, and how to start utilizing genres with a bit more practicality and creativity in your own projects.

One of the few rare things that one can actually learn in film school is the simple trick of taking a step back to view something you already know — through a new, academic lens. As filmmakers and film fans, we already know about film genres. It wasn’t until one of the first film theory classes I took that I actually learned how to view, deconstruct, and understand something as seemingly innate as genre.

Understanding “genre theory” is both very simple and very complex. In general, we all know the basics. The Hobbit is a fantasy book. Star Trek is a sci-fi television show. When Harry Met Sally is a rom-com. So, what do all those genre names actually mean? And what exactly are the writers, filmmakers, and storytellers really doing to work within and against these modes?

Here’s a brief introduction into how filmmakers can understand and use “genre theory.”


What Are Film Genres?

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — Forbidden Planet Poster

A hybrid genre, Forbidden Planet is considered a drama/fantasy. Image via MGM.

Taking the word at its definition, genre is the “term for any category of literature or other forms of art or entertainment, e.g. music, whether written or spoken, audio or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria.”

The term dates back to ancient Greek literature. But, for writers, artists, and filmmakers, it’s usually the simplest and most practical way to categorize different styles of stories and content. We see genres while browsing through video stores or scrolling through Netflix, giving us a rough idea of what the stories are like or similar to.

It’s important to understand, though, that what we consider film genres today are, more often than not, hardly pure film genres as they were in the early days of film. The majority of content produced in the last several decades are often genre hybrids, using the rules of genre theory to produce new, unique, and different stories.


The Basic Film Genres

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind – considered a drama/romance – is a perfect example of a hybrid genre. Image via MGM.

In the early days of cinema, genres were much more uniform and defined. Just as they were in literature and other forms of art and entertainment, people would go to see a war film, a musical, or a comedy. The basic genres were well-defined and included some of the following:

  • Action
  • Comedy
  • Drama
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Romance
  • Thriller
  • Western

From there, you could dive a bit deeper. Sub-genres were developed to give names and expectations to certain types of films within each genre. Taking “thriller” for example, you could find the following sub-genres:

  • Crime Thriller
  • Disaster Thriller
  • Psychological Thriller
  • Techno Thriller

How to Use Film Genres

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction

Tarantino took hybrid genres to a new level with Pulp Fiction. Image via Miramax.

However, as the art of film evolved, more and more genres would develop as filmmakers, naturally, moved towards finding new and creative ways to subvert genres — and even begin combining them.

Concepts like the “rom-com” (or “romantic comedy”) would spring up by combining the traditional genre elements of romance films and comedy films. You’d also find new, more niche genres like the “road movie” or “disaster film,” which began to create their own paths. Even then, you’d get hybrid genres like “buddy cop” or “sci-fi western.”

By examining genre theory, filmmakers have been able to unlock different elements from each as they begin to combine them either for specific results — like George Lucas’s Star Wars, for example, which combines science fiction, samurai, western, and war genres, to name a few. Or, for more undefined results — like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which moves between genres, chapter by chapter.

As filmmakers moving forward, though, genre theory is still very much a part of how we view and create films. However, genres are also in the process of being completely radicalized. It’s up to you to not just consume, but strive to understand what other movies are doing. Then, apply your own research and inclinations towards the genres you chose to work with in your projects.


Cover image via Twentieth Century Fox.

For more genre theory and filmmaking tips and tricks, check out some of the additional articles below:

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