The few film genres that existed in the early days of Hollywood filmmaking were clearly defined. Now, there are less clearly defined film genres due to the existence of hybrid and crossover films. Filmmakers use viewer assumptions and the philosophy of film genres to tell unique stories.
When discussing film theory, it is helpful to have a firm grasp of the many film genres since this allows for more informed comparisons of aspects common to each genre and the individual films of different directors. In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of film genres and present a comprehensive list of the most important subgenres.
At A Glance
- Why are films categorised into Genres?
- Film Genres and Subgenres
- What are Pure and Hybrid Genres?
Why are films categorised into Genres?
Classifying films into genres allows for the easy organisation of works with comparable themes and plots.
If a user is exploring a streaming site, for instance, being able to sort films into categories will make it easier to find ones that they would enjoy. Critics evaluate films’ creative decisions, including the quality of the cinematography, in light of the conventions of their respective genres, which they use to compare films. Discussions of film theory and history can be organised around the various film genres and subgenres.
Film Genres and Subgenres
The protagonist of an action film is forced into a series of events, including violence and extraordinary physical prowess. Genre stories typically centre on a heroic protagonist who overcomes enormous obstacles—such as death, an evil villain, or a harrowing chase—to ultimately triumph.
Fights, chases, risks, dangers, explosions, gunfire, stunts, and disasters of all kinds are the hallmarks of this genre. Much of the film is devoted to action, which can be further classified by subgenre labels such as martial arts or military action.
Some of the subgenres of action are:
- Disaster film
- Heroic bloodshed
- Martial arts film
- Spy film
- Superhero film
- War film
- Action comedy
Examples of action films:
- Commando (1985)
- Face/Off (1997)
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- Bad Boys (1995)
- Abduction (2011)
- The Avengers (2012)
- Nobody (2021)
You can read more about the Action Genre here.
In animation, static images are digitally altered to provide the impression of motion. For the purpose of traditional animation, images are drawn or painted by hand on sheets of transparent celluloid, which are then photographed and shown on film. Virtually all cartoons produced recently have been CGI productions (CGI). Depending on the project’s needs, computer animation can be either highly complex 3D animation or simpler 2D animation (which might resemble traditional animation) for style, bandwidth, or speedier real-time renderings. Stop motion animation is another prevalent approach in which two- or three-dimensional objects, such as puppets or clay figurines, are moved in sequence.
The subgenres of animated films are:
- CGI animation
- Cutout animation
- Live-action animated film
- Stop motion film
- Traditional animation
Examples of animated films:
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Toy Story (1995)
- The Flight of Dragons (1982)
- A Bug’s Life (1998)
- South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
- Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
The best way to describe a comedy picture is as a hilarious and exciting time. The comedy theme of these films typically involves placing the main character in an absurd or humorous scenario that they are ill-equipped to manage.
Rather than relying on a steady stream of jokes, a good comedy film should focus on telling a realistic story about interesting individuals who grow and change during the course of the film.
Subgenres of comedy include mockumentary, dark, romantic, parody/spoof, and slapstick. For example, Steve Martin stars in The Jerk (1979). It is a comedy about a clumsy white man who joins a Black sharecropper family and soon discovers he is not black.
Some of the main subgenres of comedy films include the following:
- Action-comedy film
- Parody film
- Romantic comedy
- Slapstick film
- Buddy comedy
- Dark/Black comedy film
Examples of comedy films:
- Some Like It Hot (1959)
- Three Amigos (1986)
- Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
- Very Bad Things (1998)
- Charlie’s Angels (2000)
- David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)
You can read more about the Comedy Genre here.
The dramatic stories have a lot of tension and high stakes. Every character and event must serve the plot in some way. Dramas have a well-defined narrative arc, depicting realistic or severe situations and individuals motivated by strong emotions. Sub-genres of drama include historical drama, romantic drama, young adult drama, teen drama, medical drama, docudrama, noir, and neo-noir.
The following are examples of common subgenres of drama films:
- Legal drama
- Political drama
- Teen drama
- Medical drama
Examples of drama films:
- Marty (1955)
- The Fault in our Stars (2012)
- I Heart Huckabees (2004)
- Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
- Changeling (2008)
Fantasy films often include fantastical elements that are impossible in the actual world. Some films mix real-world settings with magical aspects, but many others build new worlds with their own rules and logic and are populated by made-up species.
Fantasy films, like science fiction films, are speculative but have nothing to do with reality or science. There are several subgenres of fantasy fiction, including high fantasy, fairy tales, and magical realism.
Despite its use of non-scientific themes like magic, legendary beings, and the supernatural, the genre frequently adheres to general human psychology and societal behaviour.
The following are examples of some of the most common subgenres in fantasy films:
- Contemporary fantasy
- Dark fantasy
- High/epic fantasy
- Urban fantasy
Examples of fantasy films:
- Labyrinth (1986)
- Dungeons & Dragons (2000)
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (film) (2001)
- The Muppet Movie (1979)
- Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- The Chronicles of Narnia (2005)
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
You can read more about the Fantasy Genre here.
There are two distinct subgenres within the historical fiction category. Accurate portrayals of the past are what one must deal with when writing a biography, autobiography, or memoir. The third grouping features fictitious films but is set in a historically realistic environment.
Since there can never be a totally factual description of any event without first-hand experience, the correctness of a historical story is measured against historical accounts, not fact.
Examples of the historical film are:
- Alternate history
- Historical event
- Historical fiction
- Period piece
- Historical epic
Examples of historical films:
- The Longest Day (1962)
- Lincoln (2012)
- The Patriot (2000)
- Catch Me If You Can (2002)
- O Jerusalem (2006)
- The Butler (2013)
It’s common for horror films to induce a profound feeling of dread and terror in the audience. In many horror films, serial killers and monsters are recurring bad guys, preying on the audience’s worst fantasies. Horror fans go to the cinema to get a high from the ghosts, gore, monsters, and jump scares they crave.
Here are a few examples of major subgenres in the horror film genre:
- Found footage
- Ghost films
- Body Horror
- Zombie film
- Monster film (i.e., vampire films, werewolf films)
- Slasher film
- Splatter film
Examples of horror films:
- Psycho (1960)
- The Wolfman (1941)
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Halloween (1978)
- The Others (2001)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
- Pumpkinhead (1988)
- Shaun of the Dead (2004)
- Friday the 13th (1980)
- Videodrome (1983)
You can read more about the Horror Genre here.
Typically, a western hero is a cowboy or gunslinger on the trail of a criminal in the American West. It’s not uncommon for the protagonist to have a vendetta against the villain, culminating in a gunfight or a duel.
The landscapes of the American West, whether desert, mountain, or plain, are often used as inspiration and as backdrops for the stories told in Westerns. There are many subgenres of Westerns, including spaghetti westerns, space westerns, and sci-fi westerns.
The following are examples of popular Western film subgenres:
- Marshal Western
- Revisionist Western
- Epic Western
- Outlaw Western
- Spaghetti Western
Examples of western films:
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
- A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
- True Grit (1969)
- Tombstone (1993)
The best thrillers include suspenseful elements like a mystery and a tense buildup to a climax. Good thrillers know how to keep the suspense going by dropping hints, exposing new material, and dropping red herrings at just the perfect times. In many thrillers, there is a race against the clock where the stakes are high.
The following are examples of common subgenres in the thriller film genre:
- Mystery film
- Psychological thriller
Examples of thriller films:
- Joker (2019)
- Unhinged (2020)
- Fight Club (1999)
- Runaway Jury (2003)
- Misery (1990)
You can read more about the Thriller Genre here.
Science fiction frequently creates fantastical settings and alternate dimensions that feature fantastical aspects that do not exist in the real world. Science fiction covers a wide range of topics, including time travel, space travel, the future, and ethical implications.
Science fiction is among the most forward-thinking. The evolution of what we now call science has affected art and society at least as far back as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods. It was slow to catch on, but by the time motion pictures appeared, people worldwide were eager to add science fiction to their list of preferred genres.
Science fiction films presumably take place in a future where humanity has mastered such feats of science as interstellar flight, time travel, and the like.
The following are examples of some of the most common subgenres of science fiction films:
- Post-apocalyptic film
- Utopian film
- Military science fiction
- Tech noir
- Dystopian film
- Steampunk film
- Space opera
Examples of science fiction films:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- 28 Days Later (2002)
- Back to the Future (1985)
- Total Recall (1990)
- Star Wars (1977)
- Tomorrowland (2015)
- E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
- Minority Report (2002)
- Gravity (2013)
You can read more about the Science Fiction Genre here.
Intimate connections are what set romance apart as a genre. Some of these films may take a darker turn than others, but they all rely on the inherent tensions of trying to become close to someone.
As with action and comedy, the romance genre has become an integral part of virtually every other type of cinema.
However, even though the early cinema was rife with classic romance examples and various hybridisations like the rom-com, the genre has surely changed through the years. Nevertheless, it is still a very important genre in the movie industry and among moviegoers.
Some of the main subgenres of romance films include the following:
- Romance drama
- Historical romance
- Romantic comedy
- Fantasy romance
- Romance thriller
Examples of romance films:
- Twilight (2008)
- Dirty Dancing (1987)
- The Philadelphia Story (1940)
- The English Patient (1996)
What are Pure and Hybrid Genres?
The cinema has varied and derivative roots—inspired by vaudeville, music-hall, theatre, photography, and novels—meaning that films rarely stick to a single genre.
According to American film scholar Janet Staiger, there are four ways to classify a movie’s genre. In the idealist technique, films are evaluated using set criteria. A film’s genre can be determined using the empirical method, which involves comparing it to a canon of like-themed films.
The apriori technique makes use of predetermined generic components. Film genre can be determined using the social conventions method by looking at what people generally agree is typical of that genre.
Since most Hollywood films combine the love-oriented plot of the romance genre with other genres, Martin Loop argues that Hollywood films are not pure genres. According to Jim Collins, ironic hybridisation has been a trend in Hollywood since the 1980s, inspiring directors to fuse aspects from disparate genres like in Back to the Future Part III’s Western/science fiction mashup.
Genres are more easily detected than defined, and scholars agree there is no way to classify them precisely. Furthermore, genres are defined differently in many countries. However, the act of classifying films in this way gives us a starting point for film discussion and analysis.