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SCRIPT NOTES: Genre Gone Wrong

One WGA writer's take on how the standard practice and application of genre can be used in ways that may adversely affect a screenplay.

WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Michael's new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: a Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, is available now. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb, Instagram @michaeltabbwga, and Pinterest.

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Genre has played a role in film marketing since the studio system days. Studios once controlled all three aspects of its assembly line (production, distribution, and exhibition). Because the studios owned a percentage of the movie theaters, they didn’t have to fight one another for screens. They owned everything they needed to reach their audience, from creative inception to the venues of consumption. They always had a place to show their movies to make their money back. Just like writers today are pitched because of their specialty skills, each studio specialized in specific genres, carving out individual audiences for themselves, investing their branding dollars in selling the studios’ niche genres. MGM sold epic spectacle films, Paramount was synonymous with glamour, Warner Brothers sold grittier crime films, and Universal cornered the horror market.

The old MGM studio lot.

The old MGM studio lot.

It took a while for the anti-trust laws that passed in the 1948 Supreme Court ruling (outlawing the studio system’s monopoly on the motion picture industry) to take effect. When the studios did fork over control of the exhibition part of the pipeline (and the writers and actors became independent contractors instead of bound to one studio), anyone could make any kind of movie. The types of films each studio could produce became competitive and diluted. Each lost its stronghold on its genre. It became a free-for-all, yet the business of advertising film product did not change. Studios had already conditioned its audiences to picking films based on the genre the studio specialized in hocking. That was how they sold their brand then, and they never stopped. From the beginning, studios sold films based on genre, and so it remained long after the studios diversified their production slates.

So, no matter how good you think you are as an artist and scribe, you cannot ignore a century of audience conditioning. Since that’s how they sell movies, you can affect a screenplay's potential if you make common mistakes in executing genre. A movie audience has expectations, and the screenwriter must recognize this at the inception of any story idea he or she intends to pursue. If the writer creates within the genre construct, it provides a valuable tool that helps an inspired scribe to determine the best approach to establish and explore premise.


Pablo Picasso's portrait of Dora Maar.

Even the most unique artists understand and work within the conformity of applying rules to their own creations. Individualists like Pablo Picasso painted within a set canvas of art classifications, including still life and portraits. Picasso then infused that with his unique style within the classifications, playing with perspectives, shapes, angles and color. Even a true artiste figures out how to meld the concept of individual artistry with the good, common business sense of knowing what people pay artists for within the world of their craft. Nobody in their right mind wants to struggle their whole lives as an artist; we all want some level of success if for no other reason than to afford us the time to keep doing it. Therefore, a smart artist understands where and how to get their bread buttered. This is the part of our creative toolbox that serves the business half of the term show business. Studios spend millions upon millions to make a single movie, and then they double that figure on advertising it. If you plan on asking the studios to buy and green light your script, it's not an illogical assumption that you should write one that they can sell, which means writing it within a known and marketable genre.

Picasso's Still-Life Nature Morte

Picasso's Still-Life Nature Morte

For everything we should know about our craft, part of that knowledge includes knowing how not to screw it up. Just as weak story plotting and poor character development can throw off a film, so can the misuse of genre. When someone commissions a portrait of a person, can you imagine the buyer's response if the painting is of a hand or the back of the subject's head? You'd laugh and think, "Duh," but there are basic precepts about genre just as fundamental that some writers still get wrong in filmmaking. It's hard to believe that something so taken for granted, like the standard operating procedure of applying genre to story, can adversely affect a script’s execution or box office potential. Yet, it happens all the time. It costs studios tens... hundreds of millions of dollars per film when they make such mistakes.

The 3 Most Common Genre Concerns

Let's take a hard look at the potential potholes in the road ahead with regards to genre misuse. We'll explore the most common genre pitfalls, starting with the most obvious:

1)  Lack of Genre Genius

The key proponent to being a genius is the ability to bring innovation to something. A lack of originality and imagination is the most common and universal cinematic problem with writing at any step in the creative process, but it has very specific and clear ramifications within the execution of any specific genre. So the trick is to be original within the genre. Franchises are built upon doing something within that genre so new that an audience wants more of it. Star Trek is the franchise about the future of humanity where cultures have come together and explore infinity for understanding and peace. It perfectly fits the science fiction genre.

SCRIPT NOTES: Genre Gone Wrong by Michael Tabb | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting #amwriting

Groundhog's Day... As a science-fiction, action film.

Let’s talk about science fiction for a moment. It was how Spielberg broached the classic motif of "first contact" stories that made Close Encounters of the Third Kind so viscerally original and gripping. Films such as Contact, Edge of Tomorrow, and Interstellar get green lit because they take the genre to places they had never been before. The Martian did something we have not often seen since Robinson Caruso on Mars. Whether you like those movies or not, they broke new ground in science fiction, and those properties would not have been developed at the studio level otherwise. New scripts need to be fresh, even in old genres. Obviously, this need for a little genius goes for all genres. For example, the author reinvented some of the rules we all knew about vampires in Twilight, like why they do not go out in sunlight.

The unimaginative use or boring clichés that viewers have seen a million times in the same genre will not excite an audience. Setting a script in space with laser guns will not make a strong sci-fi film unless you do something with it that people have not seen in recent cinematic history. A film cannot simply copy everything we’ve seen in other movies. There's recycling, and then there's just plain copying. I’ll never forget the stories about how everyone was pitching movies back in the eighties. Die Hard at sea (Under Siege), Die Hard in a bus (Speed), Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57)… And then I heard the funniest thing. Someone was going around pitching Die Hard in an office building. Without the new, inventive twist on an idea or genre, you don’t have a new movie.

To sum up, make it like everything we've seen before by classifying it within a known genre so distributors can market it, but be original enough within that genre to make it worth paying for the new product with fresh capital. Make it the same but different. This is the catch-22 of our job. Being creative for a living is not as easy as it looks from afar. So every writer needs a little bit of innovative genius inside them and their work to not fall into the traps of tired and played genre clichés.

2) Misguided Genre Pairings

Some genres pair up exceptionally well because the mood and tone they instill are very compatible. It was early on that films like It Happened One Night illustrated how romance and comedy paired well. Disaster films are almost always action movies with the exception of a few dramas like: World Trade Center, The Road, and Alive. Mystery, crime and thrillers play nicely in the same sandbox together. Erotic marries well with either romance or thrillers because all three of those genres are really about elevating heart rate. These genres share certain qualities, creating perfect market overlap. They have chemistry because their kindred audiences are naturally very similar. Therefore, when a professional writer hones in on two principal genres for a script, we think about whether the genres will be butting heads or walking in tandem together.

Many artists say, “Never say never.”

So, what I will say is that some pairings simply don’t mix well, like oil and vinegar or trying to force square pegs into round holes. Some think that because a certain genre pairing may have worked in other mediums, a movie audience will pay to see it as a film, but they are frequently disappointed at the box office. As examples of this, let’s look at a couple of the biggest box office fiascos in the western genre when trying to pair it with science fiction or supernatural. Movies like the comic book and television show inspired adaptations of Jonah Hex, Cowboys & Aliens, and Wild, Wild West come to mind. The major conceit of these films is a meshing of genres that really don’t fit well together. They try valiantly to force fresh genre pairings to find a new spin on a classic genre, but it works no better decades after the release of Billy The Kid Versus Dracula.

A western knows what it is and knows what it isn't.

A western knows what it is and what it isn't.

A great western possesses qualities that the world associates with that genre. Keeping the script true to a period piece is one of those necessary qualities when it’s set in the American West. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t room for steam punk in the western since it fits the period, but it needs to be done in a way that still feels like a western and not a wannabe spy movie with James-Bond-like train cars, spy gadgets, and plans of world domination as they did in Wild, Wild West.

Mixing westerns and science fiction are like trying to force together two opposite polarity magnets. Westerns are about a much simpler time that's over a century old, and sci-fi explores the complexities of technology that's far more advanced than we even have today. Literally, each one of them draws upon the exact opposite audience and mood. You couldn’t ask for a pair of genres to repel one another more than sci-fi and western, since the concepts of each are totally opposed to one another. Some opposites simply do not attract. In fact, the wrong pairings cancel out one another’s audiences.

Star Wars' own western space gunslinger with leather hip holster included.

Star Wars' own western space gunslinger with leather hip holster included.

Film concepts need be understood by audiences in a television-friendly trailer (under thirty seconds). You can really only do that by pitching a concept that falls neatly into a clean, genre-specific tone that viewers can quickly quantify. I occasionally get readers who like to argue, so let me head off something at the pass. Since westerns are set in the historical, American West, science-fiction films such as 1973’s Westworld, Firefly/Serenity, and Star Wars with its resident, saloon-regular, quick-draw cowboy in the form of Han Solo, are not westerns. They are not set in the west. These are science-fiction films.

Throwing dragons into a western is probably not going to often work either. It’s not that either dragons or westerns aren’t awesome; the flaw is in the pairing.

Filmmaking risks are an expensive gamble. For the record, I’m glad we never stop trying to reimagine how to make things work. That’s the heart of art. It’s always a bold choice to try something new, and what I’m saying is that some gambles are bolder than others.

The key in genre-pairing situations is for the writer to craft complementary action that fits the promise of the genres. For example, westerns pair exceptionally well with specific other genres. It has inherent action elements with shootouts... crime elements with robberies of stagecoaches, trains and banks... and, because it was an era of colonization and westward expansion, it’s perfect for road films. In a solid pairing, the elements of one genre naturally feed into the visual roots and needs of the other. Those genres make sense and can be packaged and sold together. The key is finding where audiences cross over.

If a studio is going to try and make opposite genres fit together, the smart move would be through understanding the absurdity of the pairing. Comedy is fabulous genre glue. If Cowboys and Aliens was a comedy… because the situation is totally ridiculous... that might have worked better. Unlike the rigidity of some genres, comedies pair well with almost everything, but even comedy has a hard time pairing with thrillers because those genres have nothing tonally in common. In fact, one is about sustaining suspense, and the other is about releasing it. It’s been done a few times, but most were considered by many to have not delivered on their potential when measured against expectations. People go to the movies either wanting suspense or a comedy. Like science fiction and westerns, they are opposite genres.

When an audience can’t get a clear picture on what singular mood you are trying to sell them with the trailer, it's hard to get them to spend money on it. There’s always something else playing in the Cineplex in which they'll know exactly what they’re paying for with their time and money.

3) The Genre Goulash

Goulash is a Hungarian stew made with whatever ingredients are left lying around the kitchen. So, this is when there is a lack of specificity and cohesion of tone, making for a hot mess of genres and ideas. Hodgepodge genre movies can be great fun to write and watch, but they lack the clarity and specificity needed to target an audience. When the script could be advertised several different ways to several different audiences, looking like a different film to each demographic… It’s not a solution. It’s a problem. When you look at the top 100 grossing films of all-time, never did you question what genre each film was based on its commercials. It was always crystal clear.

The comedy western road crime chase action film many Jewish boys were exposed to while growing up, The Frisco Kid.

The comedy western road crime chase film many Jewish boys were exposed to while growing up, The Frisco Kid.

Therefore, when someone pitches that they have everything in their movie that anybody could want… be afraid. Quantity is not necessarily quality when it comes to marketability. It’s hard to mix three or more genres and still be able to market it well. Look at the sci-fi, disaster, action-comedy film Mars Attacks! I love the western, road, crime, chase comedyThe Frisco Kid, but can you sell it?Too many genres thrown together will not necessarily mean that the movie isn’t good. Don’t confuse good for marketable. I enjoyed the fantasy, action, romantic comedy Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. The characters were dynamic, the visual effects were spot on, the outer journey love story was crystal clear, the action was fun, the video game fantasy elements were clever and cinematic, it had fun twists, etc. It just becomes infinitely harder to sell and pinpoint a marketplace.

As the old saying goes, a Jack-of-all-trades is an ace of none. It applies to films; a film of all genres has an audience of none. Such movies rarely live up to box office expectation.

If you can’t be clear in a commercial what the product is, who’s going to buy it? Therefore, if you want to think of the studio’s interests, the script should be primarily one or two genres because that’s really all they can effectively market in a trailer. It’s what a mass audience can digest and understand is being sold to them in a short teaser. Finding someone in the mood for one or two genres is hard enough, but, in the case of Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, the people that want to see a rom-com are not those who want to see a nerd-tastic, action-fantasy film. Nerd culture is famously anti-romantic comedy. Again, back to common concern number two, the genres are repelling one another.

Audiences go to movies for a feeling they hope to experience. If there is too much going on, they don't know what to make of it. Put simply, too many cooks spoil the broth. It's important to know exactly what you are writing, and the script should stick close to its chosen genre.

The exception to the rules

Sequels have a track record and momentum going into them that creates some marketing leeway. The rule of originality is limited in sequels in some degree. For Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, the story has to still be fresh, but the audience is paying more of the same. They do not require a new twist on the world or genre. The Avengers qualifies as a genre hot mess with more than two primary genres, but it works because it’s built off of the joining of pre-established cinematic worlds with two genres each, which combine to include: science fiction, fantasy and action.


In summation

Audiences spend X-amount of dollars to see, rent, or buy this product so that it will give you the desired feelings. It’s the promise of the product. Genre is the guarantee that the audience will get what it’s paying for when they pay for it. They buy tickets to experience what was sold to them in the previews. Genre affects and manipulates viewers exactly the way you promise them in the trailer. This is a double-edged sword. A writer must master the conventions of genre or risks losing the audience, having left a promise unfulfilled. When a writer violates the conventions and content an audience has come to identify with that genre... and if the writer can't create a script within the context they expect to see, confusion and loss of interest in the film often ensues, even if it's well written in a ton of other ways. All the above errors stem from the exact genre being confused or underexplored. This is why it's so important to know, understand, and employ genre thoroughly and thoughtfully. Choose wisely.

The inner-spark from premise meets the rainbow color palatte of genre to elevate both of them.

The inner-spark from premise meets the rainbow color palette of genre to elevate both of them.

  • More articles by Michael Tabb
  • Q&A with WGA writer Michael Tabb
  • Michael Tabb's first article focusing on genre
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