Main Film Genres

Genre Sub-Sections
Film Genres Overview | Main Film Genres | Film Sub-Genres | Other Major Film Categories | Film Sub-Genres Types (and Hybrids)
Best Pictures - Genre Biases | Summary of Top Films by Genre | Top 100 Films by Genre | AFI's Top 10 Film Genres

Definition of Film Genres
Film Genres: Film genres are various forms or identifiable types, categories, classifications or groups of films. (Genre comes from the French word meaning "kind," "category," or "type"). Genres provide a convenient way for scriptwriters and film-makers to produce, cast and structure their narratives within a manageable, well-defined framework (to speak a common 'language'). Genres also offer the studios an easily 'marketable' product, and give audiences satisfying, expected and predictable choices.

Genres refers to recurring, repeating and similar, familiar or instantly-recognizable patterns, styles, themes, syntax, templates, paradigms, motifs, rules or generic conventions that include some of the following:

Components of Film Genres

1. The creation of a

characteristic SETTING or PERIOD:

- modern day

- specific decade or year

- historical or fictional

- urban/rural, etc.

with various stereotypes, props, or icons

Horror: Dark and isolated foreboding places and unexplained things, located in forests or woods, out-of-the-way camp grounds or areas (off the beaten path), graveyards or cemeteries, basements, attics, spooky castles, haunted houses, abandoned buildings or structures, locked doors to remote rooms
Sci-Fi: Outer space, in a planetary system or on a planet, or in the future or parallel universe or dimension, or in a virtual world, or during time travel, with laser blasters and spaceships, aliens, etc.
Sports: Sports arenas or other venues (track, football baseball or soccer field, boxing ring, race track, basketball or tennis courts, etc.), with teams, athletes, referees, judges, coaches and competition or combat displaying physical skill or endurance, crowds and audiences and fans
War: battlefields or war zones, with bomber planes and tanks, involved in naval, air, or land battles; spy activities, also includes scenes with soldiers either at war or on the homefront, or in basic training (preparation for fighting), or POW camps
Westerns: on the frontier, small towns, ranches, during cattle-drives, in Native-American villages, with stagecoaches, saloons, horses, six-shooters or revolvers, rifles, Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, and ten-gallon hats

2. The use of

CHARACTERS (or stock characterizations):

Comedy: the nerd, the wise-cracker, the jock, geek, or token minority, buddies, gay best friend
Crime: the hard-boiled detective or private eye, police officer, gangsters, hoodlums, criminals, robbers, murderers, a mob boss, inmates, fugitives, a gun-for-hire, jewel robbers, arms or drug dealers, car thieves, con artists, unforgettable villain(s)
Horror: zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghosts or serial killers, slashers, witches, predators, mad scientists, demons, shape-shifters, monstrous or giant creatures, supernatural forces, large numbers or masses of something dangerous (or harmless)
Sci-Fi: aliens or monsters/killers, space or time travelers (astronauts, starship pilots, explorers, etc.), superheroes, mutants, robots (cyborgs, androids, bionic humans, humanoids, etc.), space pirates, clones or replicants
Sports: the underdog, athletes, superstars, the jock vs. the brain, the coach, the team, reenactments or docu-dramas of real-life sports figures or events (or of fictional ones)
Westerns: outlaws and cowboys, drifters, rustlers, a cattle ranch empire or RR baron-owner, the cavalry, homesteaders, bounty hunters, the Marshal or Sheriff, stereotypical 'heroic saviors' or 'good guys', saloon characters

3. The use of



(the storyline, themes, narrative or plot)

resonant with other films in the genre category

Action: the chase or pursuit sequence or extended fight scene (sometimes in slo-mo), gun violence, race against time, various life-threatening situations, a mad killer on the loose, a bigger-than-life brawny and/or heroic action character, high body counts, display of martial arts, extensive stunts, mindless violence (secondary character development) and use of CGI
Comedy: witty dialogue, spoofs, parodies (i.e. Mel Brooks, Airplane! (1980), the Scream trilogy), gross-out humor and slapstick (pratfalls, sight-gags), clownish comedies with central comic figure(s) (Marx Bros., Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Mae West, Martin & Lewis, Bob Hope, Harold Lloyd, Danny Kaye, Robin Williams, Woody Allen, Will Ferrell, Pee-Wee Herman, Eddie Murphy, etc.), rites of passage, fish-out-of-water, mistaken identity, traditional dating rituals (will he/she or won't he/she?), cross-dressing, 'screwball' comedies, romantic comedies, sex comedies, black comedies (absurdist situations)
Crime: who-dun-its, heists or capers, robberies, rival gangs, police procedurals, the FBI, an avenging detective, arch-villains, organized crime and criminal syndicates, gangster and mob family tales, hit-men, gang-race warfare, bootlegging, counter-cultural heroes, tension with a ticking clock, real-life criminal portraits, violence and nihilism
Horror: fear inducing situations, the 'final girl' survivor, urban legends, ghost stories, the mysterious and unknown, revenge beyond the grave, the paranormal and occult, bloody gore and torture with killing instruments, survival-horror, possessions, exorcism, "found-footage" tales, body violations, death during sex, horror in abandoned or run-down places, buried alive, serial killings, good vs. evil, psychological terror
Melodramas: the self-sacrificial maternal figure, family crises, suffering, emotional conflict, terminal illness or death, loss, broken or failed relationships, overwrought emotions, tragedy, unrequited love, toxic friendships
Musicals: singing (solos, duets, choruses, ensembles) and dancing, 'putting on a show', spectacular stage productions with beautiful costuming, orchestra or band accompaniment, often with a romantic subplot
Romance: stages of courtship, 'falling in love' and the subsequent break-up and reconciliation, forbidden love, searching for love, Cyrano tales, sacrificial love, true love, fairy tales, love at 'first sight', love triangles, "weepies", unconditional love, escapist dramas, romantic comedies (identity switches)
Sci-Fi: interstellar travel, 'space operas', doomsday and apocalyptic scenarios after an eco- or nuclear disaster, invasion of Earth by hostile aliens (or other creatures), extensive visual effects
War: combat or war scenarios, including actual battle conflict or traing and preparation for war between nations or factions; also POW situations, spy or Resistance fighter activities, veterans vs. rookies, tight-knit teams or groups of soldiers, conflict against incredible odds, PTSD, fight or flight scenarios, generals in war rooms or on battlefield, men on a heroic mission, victory or defeat
Westerns: conflicts between native Americans and frontier encroachments or US cavalry, hero (white hat) vs. villains or outlaws (black hat) plots, 'spaghetti' westerns; 'revisionist' westerns, B-westerns, musical and comedy westerns, cattle drives

4. The use of


  • camera angles (use of low and high angles) and shooting style (hand-held or stationary, POV, or 'found footage')
  • lighting (high-key, or low/dark lighting)
  • the style of editing (length of edits, use of jump cuts)
  • color schemes
  • make-up and costuming (use of blood, masks, special effects)

5. The use of


- to enhance or emphasize various characteristics

- to advance the plot

- to create a mood or atmosphere (danger, adventure, laughter, fear, sensual, excitement)

  • Romance or Comedy: upbeat
  • Horror: foreboding, eerie
  • Drama: depressing, dramatic
  • Sci-Fi: other-worldly

Main Film Genres

Main Film Genres: Listed below are some of the most common and identifiable film genre categories, with descriptions of each type or category. If you're interested in the chronological history of film by decade - visit the section on Film History - by Decade or the multi-part section on Milestones in Film History.

Genre Types
(represented by icons)
Genre Descriptions
Select an icon or film genre category below, read about the development and history of the genre, and view chronological lists of selected, representative greatest films for each one (with links to detailed descriptions of individual films).
Action Films
Action films usually include high energy, big-budget physical stunts and chases, possibly with rescues, battles, fights, escapes, destructive crises (floods, explosions, natural disasters, fires, etc.), non-stop motion, spectacular rhythm and pacing, and adventurous, often two-dimensional 'good-guy' heroes (or recently, heroines) battling 'bad guys' - all designed for pure audience escapism. Includes the James Bond 'fantasy' spy/espionage series, martial arts films, video-game films, so-called 'blaxploitation' films, and some superhero films. (See Superheroes on Film: History.) A major sub-genre is the disaster film. See also Greatest Disaster and Crowd Film Scenes and Greatest Classic Chase Scenes in Films.
Adventure Films
Adventure films are usually exciting stories, with new experiences or exotic locales, very similar to or often paired with the action film genre. They can include traditional swashbucklers or pirate films, serialized films, and historical spectacles (similar to the epics film genre), searches or expeditions for lost continents, "jungle" and "desert" epics, treasure hunts, disaster films, or searches for the unknown.
Comedy Films
Comedies are light-hearted plots consistently and deliberately designed to amuse and provoke laughter (with one-liners, jokes, etc.) by exaggerating the situation, the language, action, relationships and characters. This section describes various forms of comedy through cinematic history, including slapstick, screwball, spoofs and parodies, romantic comedies, black comedy (dark satirical comedy), and more. See this site's Funniest Film Moments and Scenes collection - illustrated, also Premiere Magazine's 50 Greatest Comedies of All Time, and WGA's 101 Funniest Screenplays of All Time.
Crime Films
Crime (gangster) films are developed around the sinister actions of criminals or mobsters, particularly bankrobbers, underworld figures, or ruthless hoodlums who operate outside the law, stealing and murdering their way through life. The criminals or gangsters are often counteracted by a detective-protagonist with a who-dun-it plot. Hard-boiled detective films reached their peak during the 40s and 50s (classic film noir), although have continued to the present day. Therefore, crime and gangster films are often categorized as film noir or detective-mystery films, and sometimes as courtroom/crime legal thrillers - because of underlying similarities between these cinematic forms. This category also includes various 'serial killer' films.
Drama Films
Dramas are serious, plot-driven presentations, portraying realistic characters, settings, life situations, and stories involving intense character development and interaction. Usually, they are not focused on special-effects, comedy, or action, Dramatic films are probably the largest film genre, with many subsets. See also melodramas, epics (historical dramas), courtroom dramas, or romantic genres. Dramatic biographical films (or "biopics") are a major sub-genre, as are 'adult' films (with mature subject content or sexual content).
Epics Films
Epics include costume dramas, historical dramas, war films, medieval romps, or 'period pictures' that often cover a large expanse of time set against a vast, panoramic backdrop. Epics often share elements of the elaborate adventure films genre. Epics take an historical or imagined event, mythic, legendary, or heroic figure, and add an extravagant setting or period, lavish costumes, and accompany everything with grandeur and spectacle, dramatic scope, high production values, and a sweeping musical score. Epics are often a more spectacular, lavish version of a biopic film. Some 'sword and sandal' films (Biblical epics or films occuring during antiquity) qualify as a sub-genre.
Horror Films
Horror films are designed to frighten and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience. Horror films feature a wide range of styles, from the earliest silent Nosferatu classic, to today's CGI monsters and deranged humans. They are often combined with science fiction when the menace or monster is related to a corruption of technology, or when Earth is threatened by aliens. The fantasy and supernatural film genres are not always synonymous with the horror genre. There are many sub-genres of horror: slasher, splatter, psychological, survival, teen terror, 'found footage,' serial killers, paranormal/occult, zombies, Satanic, monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. See this site's Scariest Film Moments and Scenes collection - illustrated.
Musicals/Dance Films
Musical/dance films are cinematic forms that emphasize full-scale scores or song and dance routines in a significant way (usually with a musical or dance performance integrated as part of the film narrative), or they are films that are centered on combinations of music, dance, song or choreography. Major subgenres include the musical comedy or the concert film. See this site's Greatest Musical Song/Dance Movie Moments and Scenes collection - illustrated.
Sci-Fi Films

Sci-fi films are often quasi-scientific, visionary, comic-strip like and imaginative - and usually visualized through fanciful, imaginative settings, expert film production design, advanced technology gadgets (i.e., robots and spaceships, futuristic weapons), scientific developments, or by fantastic special effects. They are sometimes an offshoot of the more mystical fantasy films (or superhero films), or they share some similarities with action /adventure films. Science fiction often expresses the potential of technology to destroy humankind and easily overlaps with horror films, particularly when technology or alien life forms become malevolent, as in the "Atomic Age" of sci-fi films in the 1950s. Science-Fiction sub-categories abound: apocalyptic or dystopic, space-opera, futuristic noirs, speculative, etc.

Sci-fi films are complete with heroes, distant planets, impossible quests, aliens or androids (extra-terrestrials), mutants or giant and extraordinary monsters ('things or creatures from space'), improbable settings, fantastic places, dystopic (apocalyptic or post-holocaust) worlds, great dark and shadowy villains, futuristic technology and gizmos, nightmarish and unreal worlds, pandemics, climate disasters or plagues, and unknown or inexplicable forces either created by mad scientists or by nuclear havoc. Many SF films feature interstellar or time travels and fantastic journeys, and are set either on Earth, into outer space, or (most often) into the future time. Quite a few examples of science-fiction cinema owe their origins to writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

War Films
War (and anti-war) films acknowledge the horror and heartbreak of war, letting the actual combat fighting (against nations or humankind) on land, sea, or in the air provide the primary plot or background for the action of the film. War films are often paired with other genres, such as action, adventure, drama, romance, comedy (black), suspense, and even historical epics and westerns, and they often take a denunciatory approach toward warfare. They may include POW tales, stories of military operations, and training. See this site's Greatest War Movies (in multiple parts).
Westerns Films
Westerns are the major defining genre of the American film industry - a eulogy to the early days of the expansive American frontier. They are one of the oldest, most enduring genres with very recognizable plots, elements, and characters (six-guns, horses, dusty towns and trails, cowboys, Indians, etc.). They have evolved over time, however, and have often been re-defined, re-invented and expanded, dismissed, re-discovered, and spoofed. Variations have included Italian 'spaghetti' westerns, epic westerns, comic westerns, westerns with outlaws or marshals as the main characters, revenge westerns, and revisionist westerns.

Genre Categories:
They are broad enough to accommodate practically any film ever made, although film categories can never be precise. By isolating the various elements in a film and categorizing them in genres, it is possible to easily evaluate a film within its genre and allow for meaningful comparisons and some judgments on greatness. Films were not really subjected to genre analysis by film historians until the 1970s. All films have at least one major genre, although there are a number of films that are considered crossbreeds or hybrids with three or four overlapping genre (or sub-genre) types that identify them.

The Auteur System:
The auteur system can be contrasted with genre categories, in which films are rated on the basis of the expression of one person, usually the director, because his/her indelible style, authoring vision or 'signature' dictates the personality, look, and feel of the film. Certain directors (and actors) are known for certain types of films, for example, Woody Allen and comedy, the Arthur Freed unit with musicals, Alfred Hitchcock for suspense and thrillers, John Ford and John Wayne with westerns, or Errol Flynn for classic swashbuckler adventure films.

History of the Genre Development:
By the end of the silent era, many of the main genres were established: the melodrama, the western, the horror film, comedies, and action-adventure films (from swashbucklers to war movies). Musicals were inaugurated with the era of the Talkies, and the genre of science-fiction films wasn't generally popularized until the 1950s. One problem with genre films is that they can become stale, cliche-ridden, and over-imitated. A traditional genre that has been reinterpreted, challenged, or subjected to scrutiny may be termed revisionist.

Many films currently do not fit into one genre classification. Many films are considered hybrids - they straddle several film genres. There are many examples of present-day filmmakers reflecting familiar elements of traditional or classical genres, while putting a unique twist on them.

There are many genres or film types that were once popular staples but have mostly fallen out of fashion nowadays, such as big-budget musicals (stolen from Broadway), large-scale romantic epics, classic film noirs, nature documentaries, spoof or parody comedies, 'spaghetti westerns,' YA (young adult) book adaptations, Devil/Satanic or vampire horror films, classic 'creature feature' or 'monster' movies, political-election campaign films, 'found footage,' mockumentaries, inner-city 'hood' films, adult-rated animations, Cold War thrillers, various sports films, women-in-prison (WIP) and other exploitational sub-types such as 'torture porn' and 'slasher' films, and classic who-dun-its. The two mainstream genre areas of war epics and westerns have also struggled in recent years.

Stages of Genres: There are basically five different stages of genres as they have progressed and developed through cinematic history:

  1. Primitive or Early: the earliest and purest genre form with iconography, themes, and patterns starting to develop
  2. Classical or Traditional: this stage marked the growth, popularity and solidification of the genre and clear establishment of its characteristics and prototypes, setting a 'benchmark'
  3. Revisionist: a reinterpretation, recasting, or questioning of the original genre, with greater complexity of themes while retaining many of its characteristics and iconographic elements
  4. Parodic: the spoofing or mocking of the genre by over-exaggeration of the characters and the genre's traditional themes
  5. Extended or Mixed as Hybrids: the blending, modification or creative extension or melding of various genre elements as the genre categories evolved, i.e., a sci-fi western, a comedic war film, etc.