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

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, 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 the theater to watch 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. The “thriller” genre, for example, had the following sub-genres:

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

However, before we get too much into how to use film genres and begin mixing and matching them, let’s go over some of the biggest and most notable.

The Action Film Genre

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — Keanu Reeves in John Wick

The action genre has been a staple in epic filmmaking from the beginning of cinema. Image via Lionsgate.

One of the earliest film genres in existence, the action genre has close ties to classic strife and struggle narratives that you find across all manner of art and literature. With some of the earliest examples dating back to everything from historical war epics to some basic portrayals of dastardly train robberies, action films have been popular with cinema audiences since the very beginning. It’s also one of our best examples of the evolution of our cinematic hero’s journey and the classic hero vs. villain narratives, which you’ll find across cinema and genres.

Some of the main sub-genres include:

  • War and Military Action
  • Spy and Espionage Action
  • Martial Arts Action
  • Western Shoot ‘Em Up Action
  • Action Hybrid Genres

You can read a good deal more about the evolution of the action genre, its many sub-genres and examples, and some tips for creating modern action films today in our full action genre breakdown.

The Comedy Film Genre

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — The Three Stooges

Historically, the comedy genre has been a favorite attraction for audiences of all ages. Image via American Movie Classics.

A favorite genre of film audiences young and old, from the very beginning of cinema, the comedy genre has been a fun-loving, quite sophisticated, and innovative genre that’s delighted viewers for decades. Some of the biggest names in the history of filmmaking include comedy genre pioneers — like Buster KeatonCharlie Chaplin, and Lucille Ball — who made successful careers out of finding new and unique ways to make audiences laugh. The comedy genre has also been one of the most flexible, as its roots have made their way into the very fabric of cinema and the many other genres contained within. The art of warming a heart and bringing a smile to a viewer’s face will never be lost, nor should it be considered anything but truly powerful.

Some of the main sub-genres include:

  • Slapstick Comedy
  • Screwball Comedy
  • Parody Comedy
  • Black Comedy

You can check out a more in-depth dive into the comedy film genre, including its vast history and many famous examples, in our full comedy genre breakdown.

The Horror Film Genre

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

The horror genre dates back to the early days of cinema, and continues to be a treasured pastime. Image via Warner Bros.

While perhaps considered one of the more recent film genres to come into existence, elements of horror have long been a bedrock of classic cinema, dating back to some of the earliest — and eeriest — days of filmmaking. Examples like 1898’s Shinin No Sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse) come to mind, as well as several early horror iterations across the globe that captured the imagination of an audience hungry for creepy, occult fun. Taking cues from classic horror literature, big name horror franchises (of sorts) like Dracula and Frankenstein have existed within cinema for decades. However, it’s in the rise of newer horror genres featuring zombies, slashers, found footage, and haunted dolls that horror has really found its hold, from the 1970s into modern times.

Some of the main sub-genres include:

  • Zombie Horror
  • Folk Horror
  • Body Horror
  • Found Footage Horror

If you’d like to explore a great deal more about the origins and modern portrayals of the horror film genre, check out our full horror genre breakdown.

The Sci-Fi Film Genre

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

Man’s place in the universe has always been a point of interest, often investigated through the sci-fi genre. Image via Star Film Company.

One of the most experimental and thought-provoking of the classic genres, the science-fiction (popularized as “sci-fi”) film genre goes all the way back to the silent film era. Some of the earliest films ever created focused on man’s fascination with outer space and the scientific unknown,  like the Georges Méliès film A Trip to the Moon (1902). The sci-fi genre has stayed strong throughout cinematic history, as film has remained one of the most popular mediums for showcasing mankind’s technical advancements, as well as a means to wrestle with higher concepts like alien life forms, artificial intelligence, and humanity’s place in the universe.

Some of the main sub-genres include:

  • Space Travel
  • Time Travel
  • Cerebral Science
  • Robot and Monster Films
  • Disaster and Alien Invasion

Find out more about the early sci-fi genre, and explore the depths of its many iterations and styles in our full sci-fi genre breakdown.

The Western Film Genre

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — John Wayne in The Searchers

The western genre has been reinterpreted, as well as reinvented, throughout the history of cinema. Image via Warner Bros.

The western could technically be considered a sub-genre of the action film genre, in large part due to its huge popularity and its own exploits. Really, the various sub-genres within the western have essentially become classic film genres themselves.

In many ways, the western genre is very much the narrative of classic Hollywood, which pulled itself up by its own bootstraps to turn a recently settled California town into a pioneer of the modern movie industry. Westerns stampeded towards box office success throughout the early days of cinema, and well into the late 1960s and 1970s, before eventually transforming into some of our favorite modern blockbuster franchises.

Some of the main sub-genres include:

  • Classic Western
  • The Revisionist and Anti-Western
  • Contemporary and Neo-Western
  • Fantasy and Space Western
  • Modern Western

To truly appreciate the western genre’s considerable influence on the greater cinema tradition, be sure to read our full western genre breakdown.

The Romance Film Genre

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic

The romance genre has underlying themes that branch into every single film genre. Image via Paramount Pictures.

Ah, what would the great cinema tradition be if it weren’t for the countless stories of love and courtship. Since the advent of the movie theater experience, cinema has long been a favored pastime for couples looking to escape into a world of romance.

Similar to the action and comedy genres, the romance genre has become a central force in pretty much every other film genre under the sun. (Try to think of the last mainstream blockbuster you went to that didn’t have a love story at its core.) Still, even as early cinema was filled with classic romance examples and many hybridizations like the “rom-com,” the genre has certainly shifted over the years. Nonetheless, it remains a hugely significant genre for filmmakers and film fans, alike.

Some of the main sub-genres include:

  • Historical Romance
  • Romantic Drama
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Chick Flick
  • Paranormal Romance

For more information into how the romance film genre has shaped the history of cinema, check out our full romance genre breakdown.

The Thriller Film Genre

A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them) — Roger Moore and Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me

The thriller genre encapsulates the audience’s curiosity and reservations dealing with governmental conspiracy theory. Image via United Artists.

Once a stylized niche genre, the thriller film has gone so mainstream that it might be time to change the genre’s name to Summer Blockbuster Event. The thriller’s rise coincides with the rise of the spy and detective pulp novels of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s been one of the best cinematic vehicles for exploring the sometimes upsetting and underrepresented truths about our governments and society at large. Owing some of its biggest successes to famous filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, and including some of our favorite characters like James Bond, the thriller has become a popular and important part of the cinema tradition.

Some of the main sub-genres include:

  • Conspiracy Thriller
  • Crime Thriller
  • Legal Thriller
  • Spy Thriller
  • Supernatural Thriller

If you’d like to look deeper into the thriller genre, its development, and the many ways you can subvert its sub-genres for your own projects, read our full thriller genre breakdown.

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

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

As the art of film evolved, more and more genres developed as filmmakers moved towards finding new and creative ways to subvert and combine them. Concepts like the “rom-com” appeared, combining the traditional genre elements of romance films and comedy films. Newer, more niche genres like the “road movie” and “disaster film” popped up alongside hybrid genres like “buddy cop” and “sci-fi western.”

By examining and mashing up genre theory, filmmakers have unlocked and combined different elements from disparate genres to create legendary results — like George Lucas’s Star Wars, which combines science fiction, samurai, western, and war genres, to name a few. Some take it further — Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction glides between genres chapter by chapter.

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 also strive to understand what other movies are doing. Then, apply your own research and inclinations toward the genres you choose to work with in your projects.

For more genre theory and filmmaking tips and tricks, check out these articles:

Cover image via Twentieth Century Fox.

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