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What Are Film Genres?

Are you interested in adventure? Comedy? Romance? Do you prefer to be scared or to visit fantasy worlds?

These are all genres of filmmaking and every filmmaker needs to have a solid understanding of what the genres are, and what are the best genres for them to make.

What are the types of films?

But before I explain what the genres are and which ones you should care about I need to first explain what are all the kinds of films that get made, and where you can fit in to start your career.

What are Feature Films?

The Filmmaker's Handbook is the "bible" to creating and distributing your film. The one essential book every filmmaker needs to own.

A feature film is a full length film, about 90 minutes or longer, that tells a story and probably begins life being shown in movie theaters and later ends up on TV or Netflix. It is every filmmakers dream to make feature films with big stars and make lots of money and get awards.

Although every year some independent filmmaker manages to tell a great story in a low budget film that hits it big, Little Miss Sunshine or the Blair Witch Project, these are a one in ten thousand chance. The world of feature films mostly belongs to big studios with big budgets and for independent filmmakers is more an eventual goal than a place to start.

Creating an interesting film 90 or more minutes long is very hard work and very expensive. (Even if everyone agrees to work for free you can spend thousands feeding your crew and actors to keep them working.) The odds that any distributor will buy your first-time effort are so small that you are much better off starting in other areas while you prefect your skills.

Most feature films are distributed on expensive 35mm film, although this is rapidly changing, but they always need millions of dollars in marketing to have any chance of success. At most only a few hundred films a year get any kind of theatrical distribution because of the cost.

What are Animated Films?

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Animation is a special subset of the types of films that involve some technologies used to replace live actors and/or actual sets. If you are artistic or technical you be able to create films using some form of animation and not have to deal with the expense or hassle of real actors and sets.

The first animated films were made by photographing thousands of individual "cels" painted by artists that created the action. Even the big studios can't afford to do this anymore.

Stop-action involves using some kind of models moved a little bit then shot in a single frame. An example is the Wallace and Gromit comedies. The sequence works well if it is done carefully but again this is very expensive and time consuming.

Computer animation is now the norm for most animation films as it provides results that are both more smooth and realistic, and it costs considerably less than hand-drawn or stop-motion. But it isn't free or even cheap for a typical independent filmmaker. The hardware is expensive and considerable skill and time is required to pull it off. As one independent filmmaker once said to me: "Computer animation is a bottomless time-sink."

What are Made-for-TV Films?

TV, and especially cable TV, seems to have an insatiable appetite for films that appeal to their audience. In particular action and family films are in demand. Often a well made TV feature film will turn into a weekly series that runs for years. Made-for-TV films are often made as "pilots" with the hope of selling it as a series.

Made-for-TV movies are less expensive to produce that a feature film because they are shot with less expensive actors and a very short schedule, but that doesn't mean they are cheap or easy for a first-time filmmaker. Most of these film are developed and produced "in-house" by the networks that will be running them.

What are TV Series?

Besides made-for-TV full-length films there are the many weekly series films that need to be produced and directed. These are generally produced by networks or experienced production companies with tight budgets and even tighter schedules. Proven directors and actors are employed to make sure work is completed on time and budget.

This is not an easy are for first time filmmakers to break in, but once you have proven yourself can be a very well-paid way to learn how to create entertaining films.

What is a Documentary?

Documentaries are non-fiction films about real people or events, often with a historical or political point to make. Documentaries rarely make it into theaters or make back the cost of producing them. Most of them are a labor of love and take years to complete.

Don't start a documentary unless are are sure you are prepared to do the work to complete it.

What is a Short Film?

Short films are like a feature film that runs about 3 to 20 minutes. Short films are nearly always the best way for a beginning filmmaker to get started learning and get their foot in the door.

Short film are mostly shown at film festivals and never make any money, but they are inexpensive to produce and can make a great "calling card" for getting the connections and money do something larger.

Because a short must tell a complete story in very little time they often work best as comedy, horror or something unique and memorable. Besides showing in festivals, YouTube offers a great way to get your work to a larger audience. A short that goes viral on the Internet can get you noticed by a much larger audience.

What is a Commercial?

You've seen thousands of them. Those, often annoying, 30-second plugs for some product or service that interrupt a show you are watching on TV or the Internet. Someone has to make them and the best of them are memorable and could make you famous. Think about the "1984" ad for Apple's Macintosh or many of the commercials shown during the Super Bowl each year.

Doing commercials is high pressure but also very creative way to make a living and eventually break into feature films.

How to make a Music Video

Musicians and musical groups at all levels of success want to have music videos to promote themselves. If you are highly creative you can use music videos to get a start for yourself as well as the musicians. Some excellent work has been done on very little budgets, and since the musicians are looking for a publicity piece they are working for free and may even foot the entire bill for the production.

What are Industrials?

Many companies, large and small, often have need of video productions for publicity or training. They rarely have the in-house production expertise and that's where you can make a living. It can take some time and networking to get started but you don't need to be in Hollywood to get paid to make films.

Sometimes the assignments aren't very interesting or creative but its a way to get paid while you learn.

Related to Industrials are any number of other one-off productions, such as shooting weddings and bar-mitzvahs that can make you a living while you get to learn the ropes of production and train your creativity.

What are the types of genres?

Now that you have an idea of what are the various types of video productions being made lets go over the "genre" types.

Although it's clear that films can be divided into rough groupings very few films fit entirely into a single group. Most films are a blend of several genres. Romances and comedies become romantic-comedies like When Harry Met Sally. Action and science-fiction combine to make films such as Star Wars.

Why are Genres Important?

People go to movies wanting to see certain kinds of stories and with certain plot elements that resonate with them. How you combine the elements of the various genres will determine whether your audience leaves the theater feeling satisfied or not.

Every filmmaker has types of storytelling that they are most interested in, and best at. Doing what you do best increases your odds of success in the long run.

Understand what the genres are, and what audiences expect from a genre, and you are well on your way to understanding how to make a success of yourself in the film industry.

What are Family Friendly Films?

Many beginning filmmakers seem to feel drawn to serious drama or action stories, but they shouldn't overlook the opportunities with Family Friendly Films. There is always a huge and rarely satisfied audience for films that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

Films from The Wizard of Oz to the Harry Potter series have found enormous success. Filmmakers that can produce films that are enjoyable and "non-controversial" for people of all ages and backgrounds will always be popular.

How to make a Musical?

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The great age of movie musicals was decades ago but every now and then a musical film is made, such as Chicago, that goes on to make a lot of money and gather many awards.

Movies are all about entertainment, and music is one of the oldest forms of entertainment along with storytelling.

Most musical films require very big budgets and highly talented, therefore expensive, performers. Don't rule out the musical genre, however.

If you have access to musicians with original material and an interesting story you could create a hit such as the Irish film, Once on a tiny budget with unknown actors.

How to make Crime Films?

Films that combine the who-done-it element of crime, with the suspense of pursuit and capture have always been popular. Audiences like to try piecing together the puzzle pieces.

Many crime dramas also contain elements of film noir, French for "black film" because of the dark shadows and odd filming angles. In film noir the good guy often gets punished and the bad guy goes free, at least for a time.

What are Suspense Films?

Audiences love to be scared and thrilled. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of suspense. He pointed out that the element of suspense was the audience knowing that a bomb is about to go off but they don't know when. Surprise is when a bomb goes off that the audience wasn't expecting. Suspense is usually a lot more entertaining than surprise.

What about War Films and Westerns?

Many of the best films have been war films, but war films are expensive and dangerous to make. They often require "period" details that add even more to the cost.

Films about current films can be too uncomfortable for audiences, so pick your subject and timing very carefully.

Westerns where once the most popular of all the genres. Audiences loved the heroic image of the lone cowboy fighting against the elements of nature as well as human and animal dangers to survive and conquer. Most of the latest attempts at making westerns have bombed badly at the box office. Observe and learn.

What are Fantasy and Science Fiction Films?

Films that include elements of magic and fantasy worlds have strong appeal, especially to younger audiences (which make up most of today's audiences). Fantasy films often include elements of Science Fiction.

The special effects often required for fantasy and science fiction can keep this genre out of the budget reach of beginning filmmakers. But if science fiction and fantasy interest you don't miss the 2004 film Primer which delivered an exciting and suspenseful plot on a ridiculously low budget.

A rich imagination is the key here. Just look at the old classic It's a Wonderful Life that told a heart-warming fantasy story with no special effects at all.

What are Action and Adventure Films?

Action and adventure constitute another genre that is pretty hard to do on a small budget and can present a lot of danger for the film crew and actors. Stunt actors, explosions and special effects get expensive very quickly and audiences are always looking for more and better.

As popular as action films are filmmakers should think twice before making an action film until they are sure they know what they are doing and have the budget and experts to pull it off.

What about Romance and Comedy?

Romance and comedy are two separate genres but are often combined.

Pure romance is either heart-warming with a happy ending, or sadly tragic, and almost always aimed at a female audience. Where action films may be escape for the little boy in every man, romance is escape for the dreaming little girl in every woman.

Comedy is probably the hardest of the genres to do well. Some people are funny and some just don't get how humor works. Even people who get jokes may not understand how they work.

Comedy is all about timing. If you are really good at telling jokes that's a good sign. The question is whether you can direct other people to be funny and keep the laughs coming for a full 90 minutes. Comedy, like family friendly family films, is always in demand.

What about Horror?

Horror tends to fall into two categories. Suspenseful horror where the audience knows something scary is about to happen but doesn't know exactly what or exactly when, and slasher horror where we see brutality directly with all the blood and guts showing.

The audiences for these two different types of horror are often very different. Usually a more intellectual sort of person likes to see suspenseful horror because it allows them to try to figure out what is going on.

Some of the best horror films are very subtle, and horror is a genre that can be made on small budgets. In the most basic case just put a bunch of college women in a remote cabin at night, then kill them off one-by-one.

What about Drama?

Drama is the catch-all for non-comedies that tell a story touching on human emotions. In fact every film should be about human emotions and the human condition.

Storytelling, and films are a kind of storytelling, is how we all learn from the wisdom of storytellers. The more a storyteller has experienced life the more they will have to share in the way of stories. If you want to become a successful filmmaker then first get out and experience life so you will have wisdom and stories to share.


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