Expect the Unexpected
Genre: What’s it Actually For? ☛
Take your script to a producer or a script editor and sooner or later the question of genre will come up. “What genre do you consider this to be?” is a question that script editors like to throw at the unsuspecting writer. Maybe you’re acutely genre-aware and can answer this question in one unambiguous word. More likely you’ll have to pause, think and reply that it’s mainly ‘this’ genre crossed with a bit of ‘that’. You’ll feel your answer to be weak; surely you should be able to answer with greater clarity?
Maybe you then head for your favourite book on screenwriting – what was that thing that distinguishes a horror film from a psychological thriller? Trouble is, everyone has different ideas about genre. Some say that there are 7 basic genres, others 14… pick a number and I’m sure someone will claim it as the number of movie genres. Then they’ll argue about how you define genre: is Sci-fi a genre, a style or merely a setting…? Is there a difference between genre movies and ‘serious’ films or do all films inhabit a genre of some sort? You could tie yourself up in knots. The question few people ask is “what’s genre actually for?” Before your very eyes, I will attempt to answer that question.
There is a nickels-and-dimes answer: sales. Go to Cannes or any film market and you’ll find vast exhibition spaces full of stalls selling nothing but genre. Titles like Gothic & Lolita Psycho, while not very grammatical, do at least give you a sense of what to expect from a movie. A friend of mine once wandered these stalls trying to sell his recently completed first feature. He started pitching the story only to be stopped by the buyer: “No, no, no – who’s in it and what’s the genre?”. In sales terms, genres for live action fiction are pretty broad: action, horror, comedy, thriller… (plus a few sub-genres of the above like gangster or rom-com): pretty much anything else is lumped together as ‘drama’. ‘Drama’, they say, is hard to sell. Why this crude pigeon-holing? Simple – if British horror films have been doing well in Germany that year, a German distributor will be more likely to buy your timeless masterpiece Streatham Zombie Rampage II.
But why do you or I, or the people of Germany, go to see one film rather than the other? If we turn up at the cinema and know little or nothing about the films on offer, we’ll most likely either choose to see a favourite star or a certain genre. And why do we choose that genre? Because, on that particular evening, we want the film to affect us in a certain way. We want to be excited or scared or to be made to laugh or given that warm feeling, we might even want to think deeply about the nature of existence. So, when we place ourselves in those cinema seats, we have expectations of the film set up by previous films of that sort, and that’s what genre’s really about – audience expectations.
By adopting a genre you sign a contract with the audience: you promise to attempt to deliver the things that genre allows them to expect. If you adopt the conventions of a rom-com, you’ve got to give the audience laughs and a generally feel-good story of two people getting together. Forget these elements, or any other reasonable expectation of the genre, and the film will fail. Call your movie a rom-com, but give it a tragic ending – as did the ill-fated This Year’s Love – and people will stay away in droves. Ambiguity is not what that audience wants. So, as a filmmaker, you’ve set yourself restrictions, but the pay-off is that your film is easier to sell: first to producers, then to distributors, finally to cinema-goers.
Even if they come into the cinema not knowing the genre of your film, the audience will soon try to work out how the story’s going to develop and what might happen in the end. As most movies inhabit a genre, the viewers will try to work out your genre and work out what’s likely to happen from that. It’s a war movie – let’s hope that that guy who was talking about getting home to his sweetheart has life insurance that covers him throwing himself on a live grenade. But genre needs to be treated with respect, flirt with a genre only later to abandon it and you could inadvertently set the audience going in one direction when you really want to take them somewhere else.
What about those movies that combine a number of different genres? Take Donnie Darko, an everyday Coming of Age, Sci-Fi, Horror,Time Travel, High School Movie or District 9 – just another Action, Moc-doc, Sci-Fi, Anti-Apartheid flick. Do films like this have to satisfy the expectations of all the genres they contain? Given that the audience have come with various expectations, depending on which sort of film they wanted to see, you‘d imagine so. But here’s the trick – you can defy standard genre expectations, but only if what you’re offering exceeds those expectations.
So what about those ‘dramas’ – films that supposedly have no genre? My view is that a sets of expectations amounts to a genre, and every film creates expectations. Take a film like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank – our expectations aren’t set up as clearly as they are in a film like When Harry Met Sally…, but we soon work out that the film is British social realism. We don’t need to know much about such films to realize that there’s unlikely to be a happy ending, and if there is it will be pretty muted. We know that the story isn’t likely to stray much outside an impoverished urban environment. We expect the characters to behave in a more naturalistic way than they would in an action-adventure film. Guns, martinis, space-ships, or vampires are unlikely to put in an appearance. Fish Tank knows its audience and gives them what they’re looking for.
So there’s the challenge: expectation management. Write in an established genre and you’ll have a pretty clear idea of what the audience are likely to expect at each moment of the story. If you’ve seen enough films of that type, it’s easy to anticipate. But if you give them exactly what they’re expecting at every step of the way the result will be dull and predictable. You need to wrong-foot them every now and then, keep them guessing. However, you will need to head towards the sort of ending that fits your genre.
If you’re mixing genres or defying genre expectations you’re in less charted territory and it will take more work to understand what the audience will expect. The upside is that your film is much more likely to be fresh and original. Either way, as long as you end up delivering an ending that either fulfills the audience’s expectations, or creatively defies and exceeds those expectations, all will be well.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011