Film Genre for the Screenwriter
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Film Genre for the Screenwriter

Jule Selbo

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eBook - ePub

Film Genre for the Screenwriter

Jule Selbo

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About This Book

Film Genre for the Screenwriter is a practical study of how classic film genre components can be used in the construction of a screenplay. Based on Jule Selbo's popular course, this accessible guide includes an examination of the historical origins of specific film genres, how and why these genres are received and appreciated by film-going audiences, and how the student and professional screenwriter alike can use the knowledge of film genre components in the ideation and execution of a screenplay.

Explaining the defining elements, characteristics and tropes of genres from romantic comedy to slasher horror, and using examples from classic films like Casablanca alongside recent blockbuster franchises like Harry Potter, Selbo offers a compelling and readable analysis of film genre in its written form. The book also offers case studies, talking points and exercises to make its content approachable and applicable to readers and writers across the creative field.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2014
ISBN
9781317695677

Chapter 1
Film Genre for the Screenwriter

Terms to understand: film genre, genre film, mode, classic, revisionist, deconstructed
The clock has struck thirteen; we had best call in the theoreticians. The more genre criticism I read, the more uncertainty I note in the choice or extent of essential critical terms.
(Altman, 1984: 27)

Film Genre vs. Genre Film

To be able to use film genre as an active element in the craft of screenwriting, it is important to identify a practical definition for the screenwriter.
Let’s look at a prevalent misunderstanding of the word “genre” in the film industry; this misunderstanding is mostly due to negligence of taking into account the vast difference between the term “film genre” and the often-negative term “genre film.”
The use of the word “genre” in literature refers to the division of work according to style, shape, subject matter and content. There is the poetry genre, within the poetry genre there is the Romantic genre, the epic genre, free verse, narrative poetry and many more. In books there is the non-fiction genre, historical fiction, detective fiction, mythology and many more. Genre, in regards to literature, refers to a type or style of artistic work.
The film industry uses the term genre in two ways: “film genre” refers to the type of story and “genre film” refers to imitative works of lesser quality and little originality.
Barry Keith Grant’s Film Genre Reader IV (1986) appeared just when the university academics’ interest in the study of film genre began to grow. Grant featured this observation: “Genre movies are those commercial feature films which, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations” (Grant, 1986: xv). Film theorist Steve Neale identifies Grant’s definition (which clearly, in my opinion, leans towards the examination of genre films) as the one that, unfortunately, most film critics, film marketers and those that categorized films began to use—sometimes interchangeably—with the term film genre (Neale, 2000: 9).
In 1999 film theorist Rick Altman provided a distinction that helps remind us of the vast difference between “film genre” and “genre film”:
Film genreis the type of story, be it science fiction, horror, comedy, drama, western or other specific family of story.
Genre filmis a film of lower artistic value due to its unoriginality and close emulation of previous work.
(Altman, 1999: 20–24)
The term “film genre” has nothing to do with repetition, close facsimiles to familiar stories and/or characters and/or familiar situations. Whereas there is often a negative connotation to the term “genre film,” there is no qualitative assumption attached to the term “film genre”; there is no “good” or “bad.” There is no “interesting” or “not interesting.”
Is this splitting hairs? No. This is an important distinction for the screenwriter.
It benefits the screenwriter to consider the distinction between film genre and genre film in relation to the building of a film narrative. By knowing the components of specific film genres, a screenwriter can help shape and focus his or her original ideas; for example—all westerns exist in the western film genre, but not all westerns are genre films. Think, for example, of the ground-breaking westerns such as The Searchers (1956) and High Noon (1952) in relation to less originally conceived “B”1 westerns such as the overly-predictable westerns featuring somewhat one-dimensional characters (think of those portrayed by Buster Crabbe, Hopalong Cassidy or Big Boy Williams) acting out familiar story patterns—ones where the hero tracks down the “bad guy” (usually a bank robber or cattle rustler or violent gambler) and, in all cases (because these are genre films), saves the day. Likewise all horror films exist in the horror film genre, but not all horror films are genre films. This equation is applicable to romantic comedy, sci-fi, war, action-adventure and all film genres. Therefore, a screenwriter (often the first creative source in the film-making process) who desires artistic respect, when approaching a story set in a specific film genre, may be wise to consider marrying a fresh perspective on the narrative—and also a fresh perspective on the film genre in order to gain a “sense of newness.”
Genre films may contain imitative or overly familiar elements, but are they all of “lesser quality?”

Genre Films

It is my opinion that there are laudable “genre films” and there are also weak and disappointing genre films. The lowest form (and the one least likely to gain artistic respect) is the re-telling of familiar material that does not feature new or original characters, motivations or points of view (most prevalent in “B” westerns or horror or sci-fi films); what film historian Leo Braudy describes as films where the “creator is gone and only the audience is present” (Braudy, 1976: 104). Consider the glut of giant monster “genre” movies in the 1950s; the storylines basically featured a giant monster terrorizing a community or city or nation of humans—the monster was out of control and destructive and man, somehow (through scientific hubris or by not paying attention to the environment), was partly—or wholly—responsible for creating the dire situation. The storyline and “genre” were set; the fun for the audience of these films—at the time of their releases—was in the special effects. Perhaps a clear example are the films of the era that explored the results of the atom bomb: as a result of nuclear fallout, there were giant insects attacking the world—such as the giant spider in Tarantula (1955), giant ants in Them (1954), a giant spider in Earth Vs. Spider (1958), a giant man in The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and a giant woman in The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). Similar stories, similar backstories, similar destructions, all told in similar fashion—except for a change of “monster.” Think of all the “teen” coming-of-age films that followed screenwriter/filmmaker John Hughes’ breakout film Sixteen Candles (1984). Hughes himself followed it with Pretty in Pink (1986) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), essentially creating “genre films” from his own original blockbuster. Teen coming-of-age films such as Can’t Buy Me Love (1987), Calendar Girl (1993) and Can’t Hardly Wait (1998) basically covered comparable narrative territory. Similar stories, similar backstories, similar problems. Then new ground in this film genre was explored in Clueless (1995) and American Pie (1999). Note that Clueless and American Pie “live” in the teen coming-of-age film genre but they contain fresh elements, fresh points of view and fresh authorial voices.
A group of genre films that may garner more critical interest are in the “franchise” category—popular series such as the Indiana Jones films, the Back to the Future films, the Pirates of the Caribbean films or the James Bond films.
There are also the lampoons such as Airplane! (1980), Scary Movie (2000) and Tropic Thunder (2008)—these films feature generic genre elements and plot points but are exaggerated for humor and sometimes for social commentary and rise above the negative “genre film” category.
Genre films, no matter the production values, rarely enjoy kudos for narrative excellence at the film industry’s requisite awards ceremonies (the Academy Awards, Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA Awards and others) and rarely gain a high artistic reputation, but their appeal to audiences is often evident at the box office. Certain genre films, despite lack of critical acclaim, may inexplicably achieve “cult status” if they catch the imagination of the audience.
Those who understand the decision-making process of financing commercial films as well as the vagaries of film production, comprehend that even “genre films” demand vast amounts of time, energy, talent and financial resources—thus grouping all types of genre films in one pejorative category seems inaccurate. However, no matter their artistic values, it is important for the screenwriter to note that all genre films exist in and employ elements of specific film genres; at its core a film in the horror film genre examines evil and its existence in an ordinary world; a western is set in a specific time frame in a specific area of the American West; a romantic comedy has, at its heart, a journey towards true love. The films that closely ape those that have gone before are likely to be termed “genre films.” The film narratives that embrace a sense of newness in storyline, character motivation, themes and genre revisionism represent a stellar use of the components of “film genre.”
There is value for the screenwriter in Altman’s distinction between genre films and film genres, especially in the examination of films that have already been produced. However, the constructive use of film genre that a screenwriter can employ has yet to be fully explored. What, for example, are the unique building blocks of the horror film genre? (Or western or adventure or sci-fi or buddy or…?) What areas of film genre need to be examined on a more multifaceted level—areas that go beyond a general definition and beyond the study of groups of produced films and into an exploration to aid the screenwriter in the creation process? Accepting that certain audiences are attracted to certain genres, what are the audiences’ expectations and the reasons for those expectations?

Mode

An important concept for a screenwriter’s deeper understanding of film genre is David Bordwell’s distinction between mode and film genre: mode is the vehicle of delivery (Bordwell, 1989: 147). Is it a documentary? Is it an animated film? Is the film made with computer generated images (CGIs)? Is it a short film? A web-series? The vehicle of delivery (form or mode) does not tell us anything about the type of story or the film genre content of the story (drama, comedy, buddy, disaster, romance or other genres). Film genre is an integral part of the film narrative and alerts the audience to the type of content of the story they will be experiencing. The mode is the delivery system and, for the most part, does not imply specifics about content or types of narrative.
Consider Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1999); it is an adventure/romance/fantasy/musical film presented in an animation mode. Finding Sugarman (2012) is a mystery/drama presented in a documentary mode. Likewise, Game of Thrones (2011–2014) is a fantasy/epic/war/drama delivered in a mini-series mode on television.
Simply letting the potential viewer know that the film narrative will be an animated movie does not inform about the type of story; it could be a war/drama such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988) or a fantastical comedy like Cars (2006) or a dark and bloody horror movie like Blue (2000). A documentary may explore a sports event such as Bicycle Dreams (2009) or it may explore a disaster like the Katrina Hurricane in Trouble With the Water (2008) or it may be comedic like Good Hair (2009). Obviously, television shows come in all sorts of genres, as do web-series.
In order for film genre to be a working tool for the screenwriter, it is advantageous to concentrate on the story and tonal elements that are inherent in each film genre. Let the delivery system be just that— the mode in which the story is presented.

Film Genre and Building the Screenplay

Screenwriter Nora Ephron (1941–2012), whose credits include Sleepless in Seattle (1993), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Heartburn (1986), Silkwood (1983) and other films, likened the filmmaking process to making a pizza. She was alluding to the contributions of writer, director, cinematographer, actors and others, but I would like to extrapolate her analogy to focus on the creation of the screenplay.
Let us say you start with the crust—everyone understands the pizza crust. It supports all the pizza elements—sauce, spices and toppings. It depends on what you add to the pizza that makes it unique. The crust is the form—just as the feature film is the form (mode) and is, in most cases, 90 to 120 minutes of story. There are likely ingredients that most people enjoy about pizza—for instance, the sauce and the cheese—these ingredients keep people coming back for pizza over and over and over. This is similar to certain film genres; audiences will return over and over to experience a story in their favorite film genre. Now it is time to make the film unique, to show the screenwriter’s personal artistry. The chosen elements to enhance each particular film are unique characters, locations, dilemmas, conflicts and choice of supporting film genres to elucidate the story and make th...

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