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 Loveand 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.

The "Donnie Darko" audience, not expecting to be joined by a man in a rabbit suit

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 Tankour 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.

"Fish Tank" star Katie Jarvis on a pointless look-out for zombies

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

5 Responses to “Expect the Unexpected”
  1. Gavin Boyter says:

    Useful and lucid piece. For my tuppence-worth, science-fiction is most definitely not a genre – there are too many variants with wildly diferent purposes and audience expectations. Think of 2001, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes and Alien and you have 4 genres in just 4 classic 60s/70s films, namely Existentialist Film, Space Opera, Dystopia and Creature-Horror. It’s more a mode than a setting as such, since the “setting” can be present, future, even past, Earth, Mars or a distant star. What all science fiction must have is a “what if” – a premise based on, if you like, a scientific premise which the film follows through – what if a sentient computer rebelled?

    What if battles were fought across galaxies (okay, the Star Wars whatif is weak)? What if apes became the dominant species instead of humans? What if a lethally aggressive alien stowed away aboard a spacecraft (again, kind of weak, possibly showing that Star Wars and Alien have more in common with action-epics and horror films than “proper” sci-fi).

    What if British directors other than Duncan Jones and Christopher Nolan started making science films?

  2. ivan says:

    I’m very clear that my films fall into the tragi-comico-docu-dramedy-romantic fiction genre for children and the elderly.

    • ivan says:

      On a more serious note: I do find this post very useful and relevant. Very much so, especially in view of the recent boom in the number of films being made, each of which must fit more than ever into a specific niche.
      A good example: my recent comedy about primary school, though a good film, was rejected by a large number of festivals. The reason given was that the film was in a ‘grey area’ of genre: despite featuring many kids, it was not a ‘childrens’ film (references to some adult themes), nor a drama for adults, nor anything else for that matter. A good film part failed because it didn’t find its niche.

  3. Another thought-provoking blog post, Guy. Keep it up!

    I was interested to see you mentioned Fish Tank. Andrea Arnold has gone on record on numerous occasions saying that she doesn’t think about the audience; a proclamation that has been met with some considerable criticism, even within the UK Film Council which has funded most of her films so far.

    There’s an absolutely fascinating case study here (opens a Powerpoint presentation) which shows the UK distributors, Artificial Eye, positioned it as an “Award winning refreshing, bold, British drama-thriller exploring the struggles triumphs and aspirations of a feisty teenage girl.” (slide 4)

    Is it stretching things to call Fish Tank a “drama-thriller”? Possibly. There were, arguably, elements of psychological thriller, but they were all very diffuse. It also seems as though there might have been slightly mixed messages as they were simultaneously trying to position it with an “emphasis on hope, warmth, youth and energy…NOT another British grim gritty kitchen sink drama”, but IMO that’s exactly what it was. Despite the ‘yoof’ theme and the dancing, it was all very downbeat. Certainly, the “aspirations” and “triumphs” were not freshest in my mind even immediately after I left the cinema.

    It was also interesting to see that their primary target audience was sophisticated, metropolitan ABC1 art-house cinema, but that they thought they might get a young mainstream audience interested too. The breakdown between arthouse cinemas and multiplexes suggests the target audience was by far the largest proportion of its box office.

    At the end of the day, I think these films rely on awards-hype and good reviews in the broadsheets to find their audience. And if the programmer of one arthouse chain is to believed, only a good review by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian has any major impact, with positive reviews in other papers and media having only negligible impact, in that chain of cinemas at any rate. Perhaps Andrea Arnold’s nascent auteur status plays a role too.

    Is it too political to wonder at the fact that these sorts of films are about working class life, but are made by metropolitan ABC1s for metropolitan ABC1s?

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