Legally Speaking, It Depends: Genres

Genres are big. Or little. Niche or mainstream. Depending on who you talk to you’ll likely get varying opinions about just what is genre and how important, or not, it is in the industry. But whatever the definition, it is important for a writer to know about them, how to use them and, importantly, how NOT to use them in order to make the most of a career.

SIDEBAR: The Definition of Genre
What is genre? Is it a meme? Sales pitch? Category? Sign on the aisle in a video store where your DVD will be shelved (supposing they still have those by the time the movie gets made)? All of the above? Regardless of what definition I put here, one thing is for certain. There will be people who will say, “You got it wrong!” There are as many definitions of genre as there are people who rely on the term. They’re all kind of similar but the differences matter to those who are affected by them. So, when you use the term make sure you are familiar with the particular way it is defined by those around you. For this article, genre is defined as any shorthand term that brings to the mind of an audience a particular familiarity of place, scene, setting and/or atmosphere within which a story is told.

Expectation is Key to Genre

Horror has to be scary. Comedy has to be funny. Vampire films have to suck. Well, you know what I mean. Be they broadly defined or very specific a genre serves a particular purpose of setting expectations. Now it doesn’t mean that you have to fulfill those expectations, or follow a genre’s parameters to the letter, in order to tell a good story. Cross genre stories or films that turn a genre on its head are appealing and popular. Just look at the description of the new movie, The Heat in the L.A. Times to see how a genre– in this case the buddy movie cop genre– can be messed with. It can be a smoke screen used to deliver something completely different than what’s expected by the audience. It’s the process of supplying something familiar and either using it as a stepping stone for a new story or as a turning point for something completely different.

Genre: Is It Good, Bad or Indifferent?

genre rouletteSome people tell writers, “Stay away from genres. You’ll end up a pigeonholed hack.” Others will tell you, “The ONLY way to break in and stay in is to pick a genre and stick with it.” So is writing genre good or bad for a career? (Can you guess my answer?) It depends.

It depends on who you are talking to and what they mean by genre. There are some who say, I never write genre, I stick to strict drama. Sorry, my dear, to some people that’s a genre. Go back and read the definition I’m using and realize that it is pretty broad. Everything can be viewed as genre when looked at from a certain perspective.

Agent’s perspective – Genre sells. (More specifically, the genre the agent specializes in, sells.) The contacts an agent make take time to develop and generally fall into like minded groups. These groups makes similar style films. And that genre is what the agent is most likely willing to attempt to sell. Even if the genre is as specialized as left handed, underwater vampires with a lisp slasher films, those are the “scripts that sell”. It doesn’t even have to be that good (and don’t you hate all the schlock underwater vampire movies out there?)

Distributor’s perspective – Genre lets me know who I’m going to be selling to in my market. It’s not the personal one to one knowledge like an agent that is cultivated and rarely changes. A distributor’s genre preferences are dictated by recent prior sales of similar films. To them the “hot” genre is whatever made money. I hear left handed slasher films do well in Lichtenstein. Got any of those?

Studio’s perspective – Genre is what we’ve done before and know how to do again. The groundwork is already laid, for marketing, for asset acquisition, so they don’t have to start from scratch, can learn from their mistakes, can use what’s in storage again with a fresh can of paint. That’s why studios get known for putting out a certain kind of film. They’ve got the process down. The studio that has diversified with a couple of genres, will then be the perfect place to pitch those crossover genre scripts. If the studio makes navy seal movies and horror, go ahead and pitch them the sea-going vampire spec you’ve written. It’s the perfect genre-bender and they’ll know just how to market it.

Writer’s perspective – Genre is all or any of the above, depending on the audience. Knowing what someone means when they use the term genre in context will go a long way to putting you in a position to pitch them what you’ve got to sell. The trick is getting it to look just like what they’ve just finished selling/making/distributing. The problem to look out for is making it TOO familiar, too like something that’s come before infringing on someone else’s property.

Our Old Friend Scènes-à-Faire

If you recall one of my previous columns on idea theft touched on the concept of scènes-à-faire. You can think of the analogy of what’s available in a studio prop shop. If you want to do a cheap pirate movie you walk in and find all kinds of props that perfectly fit a generic pirate’s needs. Swords, leather and frilly clothing, eye patches, etc. (I really don’t have a pirate obsession, just lazy finding examples.) As long as you use the tools of the genre without the specifics of any pre-existing story within the genre you should be able to steer clear of the rocks of infringement on other’s works.

Think of it like a baseball game. You can play on the same field, use the same bats, balls and gloves and abide by the same rules as all the other baseball teams out there and find fans that will come to see you perform. What you can’t do is dress up like a famous team or player and try to fake out the audience into thinking they’re watching a poor man’s version of the original. The closer the depiction gets to borrowing and not bringing something new, the more trouble you could get into.

And you always have to keep abreast of what’s changing within a genre because sometimes what used to be fair game is suddenly off the table. Consider prior to the 1980s it was perfectly appropriate to take all the tropes of the 40s and 50s serial series and through them into your movie. Take a fedora hat that never comes off in a fight, an archeologist with weak social skills in regular settings but becomes a brash adventurer when placed in exotic locals seeking out lost treasure and you would have had yourself the scènes-à-faire of a common storytelling genre. That’s exactly what Lucas and Speilberg set out to pay homage to when they made their little genre entry. They just got very successful at making that kind of movie that today any attempt to portray that genre has to steer clear of any hint of “borrowing” the Indy mystique.

So What’s a Writer to Do?

So your best bet is to pitch a uniquely original idea that’s full cached in the genre expectations of the entity you are pitching to. Simple, right? How about, “A vampire pirate first mate for 500 years, takes command after his captain is washed over board. His crew doesn’t trust him because 1) he’s left handed and 2) he talks with a lisp. He has to prove his metal by raiding the sea side village and slashing through the entire community. Only a single, mute, ambidextrous mermaid stands in his way! It’ll be a blockbuster in Lichtenstein!”

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