A writer is free, of course, to write any story they want. Hopefully fortune smiles upon them and they sell a script to Hollywood or elsewhere. However, if they have any realistic chance of developing a career as a professional screenwriter, they need to understand the mindset of people involved in the acquisition and development part of the filmmaking process – agents, managers, producers, studio executives. Comprehending how these industry insiders look at movies can help a writer make more informed choices about the stories they choose to write.
Genre is an all-important tool in understanding and writing the types of stories studios and producers want to buy. But what do we mean by ‘genre’? Genre is “a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.” In relation to movies, that means the categorisation of a story in terms of its premise, setting, and mood.
So what are the main movie genres? There is no official list, but here are eight of them we can say with confidence that pretty much cover the spectrum of stories studios and producers routinely buy, develop, and produce:
Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction and Thriller
What do we mean by ‘cross genre’? These are movies in which the story has narrative elements representative of more than one genre (e.g., Action-Thriller, Comedy-Drama).
What do we mean by ‘sub-genre’? These are specific story types within a genre (e.g., Romantic Comedy, Action Adventure).
Why are genres important to movie studios and producers? A studio has what they call a development slate. In that slate of potential movies, they seek a balance of genres. Independent producers may do the same, or in contrast, may specialise in one particular genre. This is why it is always worth doing one’s research into what independent producers actually produce, not least watching their actual movies!
While some studios may focus more on one genre over another, if you looked at a studio’s slate, you’d more than likely see projects representing most if not all these aforementioned eight main genres. One way of discerning a studio’s development inclinations is to look at the movies they release in a given year. For example, here is the slate of movies Warner Bros. released in 2010 listed chronologically and with their genres, cross genres, and sub-genres.
While there is a focus on Action and Comedy, you will note a wide mix of genres, cross genres, and sub-genres. Why do studios seek this mix? Three primary reasons:
- Seasonal programming: There are two big ‘seasons’ for movies in the United States and Canada: Summer (May-August) and Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays (November-December). Since these are periods where some age groups have more free time (i.e., no school), typically studios schedule movies for release that target children (like Cats & Dogs and Yogi Bear) or teens (like Splice or Jonah Hex), or so-called “four quadrant movies” that appeal to adults, children, males and females like Harry Potter. During the other months (January-April, September-October), the studios tend to develop movies with a narrower targeted audience like Edge of Darkness and The Town (adults) or Going the Distance or Life as We Know It (females). In addition there are special holidays when the studios develop movies like Valentine’s Day.
- Counter-programming: If all six major movie studios (20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros) schedule the release of big blockbuster action-adventure movies on Memorial Day weekend, they know that makes no sense because there simply isn’t a big enough audience to support six movies in the same genre at the same time. So the studios develop movies they can slot against other genre pictures. For example on the weekend of July 9, 2010, when 20th Century Fox went wide in opening Predators, an Action-Science Fiction movie, Universal Pictures counter-programmed with Despicable Me, targeting the family audience, and The Kids Are All Right, released through its specialty division Focus Films, which went after the adult crowd.
- Minimise risk: Just as mutual funds reduce risk by investing in a variety of different types of companies, so it is with development slates. If, for example, action movies suddenly tank at the box office, would a studio be better suited to survive with a slate filled with action movies or one that has some action projects, along with comedy, dramas, thrillers, etc? Having a number of movie projects representing different genres allows a studio greater flexibility in terms of what it chooses to produce and when it decides to release those films.
Note: The movies you see released in theaters today represent the studio’s acquisition and development philosophy anywhere from 2-5 years previous as that’s generally how long it takes to go from purchase of script to the movie premiere.
What does all this mean to me as a screenwriter? Practically speaking it means whenever you come up with a story idea, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is, “what genre is it?” This is important from a creative standpoint to help steer how you develop the characters and plot. But it’s equally valuable in terms of maximising the viability of your script with buyers. For example, if you come up with an idea you think feels like a Mystery, perhaps you can make it a more marketable script if you shift its genre to Action or Thriller.
The underlying principle here from a writing perspective is that the same idea can be a different movie if you switch genres. For example, let’s look at the logline of the Warner Bros. hit comedy Due Date:
High-strung father-to-be Peter Highman is forced to hitch a ride cross-country with aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay in order to make it to his child’s birth on time.
Let’s go down the list of the other main genres to see what variations we come up with:
Action: Peter is forced to hitch a ride with Ethan on a road trip in order to make it to his child’s birth on time, only to discover Ethan is wanted by the FBI, sparking a frenzied cross-country manhunt.
Drama: Filled with self-doubts about his ability to be a father, Peter discovers heretofore unknown parental instincts by tending to Ethan’s emotional needs and psychological wounds on their cross-country trip to get Peter home in time for the birth of his child.
Family: Peter is forced to hitch a ride with Ethan, a single father traveling with his infant septuplets creating hijinks and mayhem on a cross-country trek to get Peter home in time for the birth of his child.
Fantasy: Desperate to get back in time for the birth of his child, Peter’s cry for help is answered when Ethan shows up, claiming to be the Stork King, patron saint of fathers-to-be, driving Peter on a magical cross-country trip home.
Horror: Driving cross-country to get home in time for the birth of his child, Peter stops at a backwater town to get his car repaired, only to discover the mechanic Ethan is a psychopath with deep-seated father issues.
Science Fiction: Peter desperately tries to get home for the birth of his child, but he begins to believe he has been abducted by aliens who have implanted the story of his potential fatherhood in his brain – for some ulterior motive.
Thriller: Peter is forced to drive a rental car across country to get home in time for the birth of his child, but runs afoul of a hostile motorcycle driver Ethan who pursues Peter in a deadly game of chase.
Okay, not the greatest ideas in the world and doubtless you could come up with some better ones. But these variations make the point: an idea becomes a different story if you switch its genre.
Three more reasons to think genre when you think story ideas:
- Indie films: Let’s say your interests lie not so much in writing mainstream Hollywood movies, but rather independent cinema. Even here genre is an important consideration, in fact perhaps even more so. The name of the game in the indie film world boils down to two things: funding and distribution. You are more likely to be able nail both of those if your script has a strong story concept and a popular genre. For example, successful indie films like The King’s Speech (Drama), Black Swan (Drama-Thriller), and 127 Hours (Drama Adventure) fall into major genre, cross genre, and sub-genre categories.
- Writing assignments: Let’s assume you sell your spec script, line up a few other projects, and you’re settling in as a Hollywood screenwriter. Something like this will happen. The phone rings. It’s your agent. “Hey, Sony is looking to develop an action-comedy for Will Smith and Ben Stiller. Can you work up something?” So you’ve got two actors and a cross genre. If you’re used to brainstorming story concepts and working within genres, you’re more likely to put yourself in the position to go up for open writing assignments.
- Find your voice: Perhaps you already know (A) you like this genre and (B) you’re good at writing this genre. Great. That makes things much simpler. What if you do not know what type of genre for which you have that right mix – interest and talent? The best way to find out is to write scripts in various genres to test your chops. But you can also get a good idea by working up story concepts within certain genres. The goal is to find your voice. In what type of stories and genres does your distinctive writing style and approach emerge? Determining that will make it much more likely you will write strong, evocative, and entertaining scripts.
Concluding, it is vital for a screenwriter to think “genre” when you think “story”. It can help you creatively in multiple ways, plus it mirrors a key approach the studios and independent producers use in the process of script acquisition and development.
About the author: Scott has written nearly 30 projects for every major Hollywood studio and broadcast network. His film writing credits include K-9 starring Jim Belushi, Alaska starring Vincent Kartheisher, and Trojan War starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. He is co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class, a unique online resource for writers, and host of the blog www.GoIntoTheStory.com which has been named Best Blog for Aspiring Screenwriters.