Thursday, December 06, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 1: Choose a Genre

So what is genre, and what are the pros and cons of aligning your movie with one or the other?  Unfortunately, like everything else in this series, the definition is fuzzy…

“Genre” can be defined by a movie’s setting (western), type of action (kung fu), type of concept (sci-fi), type of situation (thriller), the presence of a certain type of scene (musical) or its overall feeling (comedy and drama).  As a result, almost every movie falls into more than one genre, and yet the fine folks at Blockbuster Video, back in the day, had no problem sorting each box into only one slot.  How did they do that?

When thinking about genre, you need to put yourself in the shoes of that Blockbuster clerk, which will remind you that “genre” is all about marketing: it’s a way of connecting you to the customers who are interested in the story you want to tell. 

First a foremost a genre is a set of pre-established expectations that lives in the head of an audience.  When you choose to associate your story with a certain genre (and almost everybody does), then you’re implicitly promising that you will fulfill most of those expectations.

Many writers falsely assume that the audience always wants to see a movie where “anything can happen”, but audiences actually fear and shun those movies.  We select a genre for the same reason that we select a type of restaurant: to limit the menu.  We want to be re-assured that only a certain number of things can happen. 

Curry, for some reason, makes my stomach lurch, so I have to order carefully at Indian restaurants.  At every other type of restaurant, I don’t worry about it: I can simply presume that my favorite Italian place will never use curry.  Likewise, if you don’t like song-and-dance numbers, then you’ll carefully avoid musicals, but you won’t even worry when you watch a thriller, comfortable that you’re in safe hands. 

More than that, most genres lend themselves to certain thematic dilemmas: westerns tend to be about individualism vs. societal needs, sci-fi is often about innovation vs. tradition, comedies are about fun vs. responsibility, while dramas pit two incompatible responsibilities against each other.  These also become part of what an audience expects when they choose that genre. 

Genres also establish how the characters will act. In most genres, we expect the behavior of the characters to reflect human nature, but there are exceptions. As I pointed out before, nobody in the real world has ever said, “a serial killer is obsessed with me, so I’ll kill him myself without going to the cops”, but it happens all the time in thrillers.  At the end of Strangers on a Train, it’s ridiculous for Guy to go after Bruno himself, except for the fact that thriller fans would be disappointed if he didn’t.  

Mixing genres can be done, but there’s always a danger that you’ll lose the metaphor. Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slater” masterfully combined realistic coming-of-age stories with outlandish horror by using each to comment on the other: in one the world feels like it’s ending, and in the other it actually is.  But Whedon had less success with his next two shows, both of which combined two outlandish genres.  “Angel” was Horror / Private Eye, and “Firefly” was Western / Sci-Fi.  Both shows had a lot of neat stuff on the screen, but neither resonated with me.  Those genres work well as metaphors, but mixing the genres just mixed those metaphors, until lost any connection to real emotions in my life. 

Most importantly, if you’re going to mix genres, you have to do it from the beginning.  Nothing kills a movie faster than switching genres later on in the process. Both “Lost” and “Battleship Galactica” appealed primarily to science fiction fans, but after the writers lost control of those stories they decided to end them with some version of, “Well, there is no plausible explanation for what’s happened at this point, so let’s just say God was responsible for all the weirdness for some reason that we cannot divine.”  In both cases, the fans were not happy. 

Every genre is a trade off: you agree to write within certain pre-established expectations, and in return you get a pre-selected audience.  It’s a great power that comes with great responsibility.  

Up next: Subgenre.


j.s. said...

"All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one." -- Walter Benjamin

I'm hoping you'll write more about genre founding, genre dissolving and successful genre mashing/busting films. As I think it's at these extremes where writers can really test what resonates and what doesn't about any given set of genre expectations. You're right that most of the times most audiences don't want curry in their pasta fagioli. But sometimes they love that spicy surprise. Look at Quentin Tarantino's career. And, sure, he's the ultimate exception to every rule. And yeah he does find ways to satisfy his audience's genre expectations -- just not in the way they expect. Maybe that's the key.

Though I'm also talking about taking up the challenge of the bigtime heavy hitters. Like what exactly was Poe's intention when he invented the detective story? Or what about those soon after who codified it, like Arthur Conan Doyle? How do you go about making the ultimate -- as in last and best -- Western, as Peckinpah pretty much did with THE WILD BUNCH, where everything after, even films as great as his own PAT GARRETT or THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD feel like footnotes?


My favorite makes-no-sense Blockbuster genre designation was Foreign, where I could find John Woo's HARD BOILED and Luc Besson's LA FEMME NIKITA rubbing shoulders with Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL and Fellini's 81/2. And I scoffed at that every time I saw it up until today. You're right, though, for Americans, subtitles -- at least in the era when Blockbuster still existed -- render even the most kickass balls to the wall action films irredeemably "foreign." It's absolutely a marketing category. Which is why, I suppose, John Woo and Luc Besson begin to make English language films as soon as they could.

Btw, I hope you were able to see the new Blu-ray of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, which looks amazing.

Parker said...

Maybe what you're saying is that you can match up a genre with a structure (horror, coming of age) but you can't mash-up two different genres (sf, western)? Although I liked Firefly, so...

And I was definitely flabbergasted when LOST ended with a made-up explanation. For years we waited to learn how these crazy things could be happening... only to learn it was thanks to the gods. What?? What gods? You never told us this was a world in which gods could come into play--no one would have ever assumed that! So it's really not a fair explanation.

You're right: Lost didn't stick to sf conventions--it didn't even stick to it's OWN rules--so it didn't make sense.

Parker said...

And J.S.--I think what you're hitting on is that really great writers often use the conventions to change the conventions. But you can't just set up expectations for a convention and then completely ignore those expectations.

Daniel Smith said...

Great post Matt. Recently, I starting thinking of all genres as emotions. Maybe it was one of your previous posts. Regardless, it seems to work. Any thoughts?

The Eight Main Movie Genres:
* Action - Aggression
* Comedy - Delight
* Drama - Anger, Remorse, Shame, Pessimism
* Family - Trust, Hope, Love
* Fantasy - Surprise
* Horror - Anticipation, Cynicism, Despair,

Dominance, Morbidity
* Science Fiction - Curiosity
* Thriller - Fear, Alarm, Submission, Anxiety

Select Sub-Genres:
Western - Sentimentality
Musical - Joy, Sadness

Some emotions we like to experience ourselves (Anger) while others we like to watch others experience (Shame). Certainly this list is incomplete and some emotions overlap but this has the feel of fertile ground.

And for anyone interested in the list of emotions, they're from a guest post I wrote several years back on a researcher named Robert Plutchik. The full post (in two parts) is on my blog. Google "Plutchik's Eight Primary Emotions". It's the first result. (BTW, there are more than 8.)

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

Cowboy Bebop is a masterpiece of genre mixing, until it creates, as the show calls it, "a genre unto itself."

Drive is a good recent example of a movie that starts out a tense action film and evolves into something that some audiences loved, and others were totally baffled by. They were pissed off because they didn't get what they thought they were getting, and checked out when that became evident.

I think part of the key to mixing genres well is to set the rules early and often. Yes Buffy is fantasy/horror, but it's also "Buffy", and that DNA is set forth in the first two episodes and present throughout most of the show. After the audience is used to the rhythms, then Whedon begins to bend and break his rules, subverting expectations--kind of like he's not only riffing on established genre rules, but his own major chords. I think one of the big reasons the show suffered in S6-7 was because the writers started thinking that because they had done crazy fantasy plots, crazy fantasy plots were what the show was supposed to be. And then suddenly, they're playing a slightly different kind of music that's more cheesy melodrama than enlightened metaphor.

One show that seems to be losing its way with tone right now is Homeland. Mainly because after S1, the dramatic potential was totally deflated, and now they're struggling to remanufacture that drama with plot cheats that push the characters into conflicts that seem to break the reality of the show.

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

@j.s. regarding Poe, ACD and the detective story... I'm not sure what Poe's intention was with The Purloined Letter, but I know that the genre evolved because these guys established the standard structure (detective, sidekick, policeman who explains why the mystery can't be solved, detective matches wits with the criminal, sets trap, solves problem, then explains it) and kept pushing it forward. The first half was the problem, the second half the denouement where the detective explains how he figured it out. Audiences started to get bored with this structure, so the authors slowly began pushing the denouement further and further towards the end of the story. Agatha Christie pushed the denouement all the way to the end, until she blew people's minds/completely polarized readers with The Murder of Roger Akroyd. You could say she went too far and broke the rules, and you could also say she pioneered a new way of looking at that genre.

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

One last thought. Why was the Avengers so insanely successful? Because audiences got exactly what they wanted out of it, plus a dose of Whedon's ability to subvert expectations at the most opportune moments. The best example is the moment when Hulk bashes Loki in the midst of his villainous "how dare you" monologue. We think we're in for another cliched staple of the action-adventure/superhero movie, but then we're surprised and insanely satisfied by getting what we want more than anything else, and when we least expect it--for Hulk to just rage crush that guy out of existence.

j.s. said...

@Jay Rosenkrantz, DRIVE is a good example of the sort of edgy genre-bending/mashing/defying that I'm interested in understanding. The source novel is more straightforwardly hardboiled, and so was the next to last version of the script -- the one that got it greenlit. The literary sources do have an original and unusual protagonist, a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man. And that first action scene in the film -- a cat and mouse non-chase tenser than most chase scenes -- seems to promise the audience that it will get what it has come for though perhaps not in the usual way it expects. Thrilling anti-thrills. But the film devolves from there into a weird hyper romantic psychodrama with a protagonist who's own idea of himself and the reality in which he's caught up is increasingly divorced from our own. It's almost like a disintegrating thriller. Still there's a fascination in the film that (for me just barely) holds it all together by way of the director's idiosyncratic and precise command of a completely unique tone.

Contrast that with something like RESERVOIR DOGS, also masterfully directed, but not at all dependent strictly on the direction for its pleasures. The script is conceived with such a deep understanding and total command of its genre that even the innovations serve not just to make things fresh for a jaded audience but to deliver those same old goods we were expecting in new ways we couldn't anticipate. A heist thriller in the vein of THE KILLING and CITY ON FIRE where chronology is mixed up, where the big central heist is omitted and where dissension in the ranks of the thieves does them all in. The same but different. And different enough that it still seems fresh after all these years.