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15 Types of Film Styles and Genres (And How They Differ)

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When you watch a film, you might notice its characters, actions and visuals have a common theme. These combined elements can form the film's style or determine its genre. Researching the different styles and genres producers use in films can help you successfully visualize your story and connect with your audience. In this article, we define the terms film style and genre, compare them and list 15 types of film styles and genres.

What is a film style?

A film's style refers to the techniques a director uses to create a movie, and it can include themes, sound, dialogue, cinematography and lighting. All the aspects of production that provide value to the film and help determine how the audience perceives it goes into its style. You often can credit the film's style as a director's way to reflect the narrative or communicate a mood. They can guide the audience to notice important elements in the story and affect the way viewers experience the film. Common film styles rely on similar techniques, which can help you identify the style.

What is a film genre?

A film's genre is a definitive category based on its narrative elements. Filmmakers can structure their stories to the framework of a genre by including familiar patterns, themes, motifs and conventions. The narrative is typically the deciding factor in categorizing a film into a genre. You can discover a film's genre by analyzing the story's setting, characters and representative content, such as storylines and themes. Typically, films within the same genre have similar moods and story elements.

You can also combine genres to create a subgenre that allows a film to be compatible with multiple. Genres and subgenres can change over time, and they characterize each other through their influence over distinct elements in a film. The combinations are seemingly endless, and there still are blends of genres that have yet to be discovered.

Film style vs. genre

Identifying the film style involves analyzing production techniques, and identifying the film genre involves analyzing narrative elements, which is the key distinction between these terms. There isn't a direct relationship between these terms, though movies of some genres may have more common styles directors use.

Two films shot in the same style can be part of different genres, and two films that are in the same genre could use vastly different styles. For example, directors could make films in the horror and comedy genres that both use a documentary style. Conversely, films in the noir and German expressionist styles both can be in the drama genre.

5 types of film styles

Many films follow at least one film style, and several are a combination of styles a director creates. Each style defines how the story's told to the viewer to make them feel a certain way. Here are five of the main film styles:

1. Film noir

One of the most popular styles in cinema is film noir. It's usually associated with fictional crime stories and emphasizes cynical attitudes and motivations. A major characteristic of film noir is its black-and-white visual style, which uses a high-contrast lighting technique called chiaroscuro to create dramatic shadows and striking scenes. Characters in film noir are often morally ambiguous, and their dialogue usually contains a significant use of exposition, which is an explanation of elements in the story. This is because film noirs can obscure the narrative sequence, and exposition can help as a structuring device.

2. Documentary

The purpose of documentary filmmaking is to chronicle an authentic depiction of reality with the intent to instruct, educate or maintain a historical record. In these films, the camera often acts as a passive observer and appears to react to the events on camera. Two familiar camera techniques in this film style are handheld and observational. These generally connect well with improvisation and can cause feelings of spontaneity in the audience.

3. German expressionism

German expressionist films typically explore a subjective experience of the world by attempting to visualize anxiety through distorted and unusual imagery. They rose in popularity after the First World War because their tones often reflected the collective emotion of society. This style is also notable for its use of chiaroscuro and extreme camera angles to provide visual depth or distortion in the frame. People often associate the horror genre with the German expressionist film style.

4. Italian neorealism

Italian neorealist films became popular after the Second World War because their stories focus on mostly poor and working-class people. These movies often represent the complex economic and moral conditions of society during that time, and many include children in major narrative roles. Filmmakers almost exclusively shoot scenes on-location, and characters often share the primary goal of survival. Directors typically use the resources available on location, such as props, wardrobe or locals cast as extras.

5. Spaghetti western

The spaghetti western film type derives from the Western genre and features high-action sequences, anti-hero protagonists and commentary on social issues along with common Western tropes, like happy endings and clear moral duality. These films often contain a main villain who represents the worst of humanity and an imperfect hero with selfish morals, and they have a reputation for including unique and powerful musical scores in their scenes. Directors film many spaghetti westerns on-location in desert landscapes and small towns, and they normally have a distinct, visual grain in their shots.

10 types of film genres

There are many film genres available that classify movies and even more subgenres. Here are 10 of the most common genres in filmmaking:

1. Action

Action films traditionally contain dangerous situations and high-stake risks, and many require the use of physical stunts, fight choreography or disaster sequences. The high-energy elements in these films can aid in achieving audience escapism because viewers often appeal to the story of a hero who struggles against all odds and still achieves victory. The films in this category share a common theme, which is most of their content is action-oriented. They often include having some sense of danger through a majority of their scenes. Some familiar subgenres of the action genre are superhero, disaster and espionage.

2. Adventure

Adventure films typically involve a journey, and some may include a pursuit. They might also have action-oriented scenes like action films, but the travels and conquests of the main characters primarily define them. This emphasis on a character's adventure can help the audience imagine themselves in those experiences. You can create an adventure film in any setting, as long as your narrative involves a journey.

3. Comedy

Comedies are films intended to make the audience laugh through their use of exaggeration of language, action or characters who add humor to a situation. Many comedies use everyday situations in their stories to provide a funny commentary on a common life frustration to relate to the audience. Two common comedy formats are comedian-led and situational comedies. There are many subgenres of comedy, including romantic comedy, spoof, parody, satire, sitcom, sketch comedy and mockumentary.

4. Drama

Films in the drama genre often include realistic settings and defining conflict between one or more characters and themselves, others or forces of nature. Dramas usually have the intention to provoke powerful emotions in the audience by including societal ills, such as addiction, poverty, racial prejudice, sexual inequality, classism or corruption. There are several subgenres within drama, including melodramas, docudramas and medical, legal and philosophical dramas.

5. Horror

The purpose of horror films is to cause an audience to feel frightened or have a sense of dread. They usually center their stories on unsettling situations, alarming events or the audience's fears. Many include elements that alert primal fears, like nightmares, vulnerability, alienation and fear of death or injury, which aim to attract and repulse the audience. Some subgenres of horror include supernatural, found footage, slasher, occult, vampire and monster films. These can have a variety of settings, ranging from realistic to wildly imaginative.

6. Romance

Films in the romance genre typically involve intimate relationships and a journey of the love between the main characters. The conflicts that occur during the pursuit of intimacy or love often drive the narrative in these films. The main characters usually confront obstacles, such as hardships, illnesses, infidelity, family problems or common relationship issues, and in many romance films, they ultimately reunite to create their perfect life together. Their love is a narrative device that acts as a shield to help them overcome challenges and develop the journey of their love.

7. Science fiction

Science fiction movies are often a blend of science and imagination. You're likely to see films in this genre that portray advanced technology and scientific developments, and they normally contain special or visual effects. Directors often choose from several observable sciences, like astronomy, physics, geology and biology to provide a sense of logic in a film's proposed reality. Some common themes in science fiction films are the consequences of knowledge, the nature of humanity in existential crisis and interpreting science-based conspiracies.

8. Fantasy

Fantasies are films directors set in imaginary worlds that have little or no representation of reality. These movies often include magical, mythological and extraordinary elements, and they can transcend physical laws and have endless possibilities. The main characters in a fantasy film usually undergo a mystical experience that requires superhuman aid. Many fantasies derive from fairy tales, myths or legends and incorporate unique characters and odd phenomena in their stories.

9. Historical

There generally are two distinct sections of films in the historical genre, which are accurate representation and historical fiction. Some accurate representations include biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. Historical fiction movies typically limit their accuracy to the depiction of their setting, like period pieces, and they often present main characters in the context of great historical events. Many historical films recreate past events by having large casts, performing actions on a massive scale and incorporating elaborate settings and costumes as an attempt to rewrite history.

10. Crime

Films in the crime genre can portray either side of the criminal justice system. Many crime movies often entertain the idea of moral uncertainty, which makes identifying the hero and the villain more complex. Directors often derive crime stories from real-life historical accounts or provide a criminal's point of view with the gangster subgenre. Some crime films glorify a certain criminal and their rise against personal power struggles, while others highlight criminals' conflict and fall through law and order. 

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