I am a frequent user of the Internet Movie Database, or “IMDb” for short. An absolute behemoth of a website, IMDb holds information on every movie ever released, and this information includes everything from the movie’s synopsis and runtime to the heights of its actors. It goes without saying that the site is an essential resource for anyone with an interest in pop culture – or just a proclivity to correct friends about release years. However, I have one major problem with IMDb, and that is the genres that it uses to categorize movies. Every movie listed in the database is labeled with at least one of the following 24 genres:
At first glance, they look quite straightforward. I don’t doubt that you could easily think up a handful of movies for every genre on the list. Quick, name three that would fit under “Sci-Fi”. Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the more recent Arrival. Simple. So what could my problem possibly be? Well, let’s divide the genres into groups, based on what they really pertain to. First, we have the ones that are concerned with the emotion that the movie seeks to elicit. A “Comedy” wants to make you laugh, a “Drama” wants to make you emotionally invested in its characters, a “Horror” wants to scare you, and a “Thriller” wants to thrill you, unsurprisingly. Then we have genres named after the subject matter of the movie, including “Crime”, “Music”, “Sport”, “Superhero”, and “War”. Other genres refer to the movie’s degree of fiction: “Biography”, “Documentary”, “Sci-Fi”, and “Fantasy”. Others are more about the structure of the story, such as “Adventure” and “Mystery”. Others still concern the artistic medium, like “Animation” and “Musical”. And “Family” refers to the intended audience. And ”Short film” refers to the format. And “Film Noir” and “Western” are merely movie styles.
Are you starting to see my problem? Almost every genre on IMDb pertains to a different variable of film. There is no go-to aspect of the medium that can reliably help you classify a movie. No, this list of 24 genres is incredibly haphazard, a patchwork façade for a sprawl of wildly different concepts. That wouldn’t be too bad, if the list was even remotely exhaustive. Which it is not. If we are including movie styles, why stop at “Film Noir” and “Western”? What about Italian giallo horror? Grindhouse? Costume drama? Miyazaki magic? Spielberg schmaltz? What makes them less deserving of genre status? Heck, if “Animation” is a genre, why not “Live-Action” or “Sock Puppets”? And as for the subject-oriented genres, well, those are limitless. “Sport” and “Superhero” are popular topics for sure, but so are “Aliens”, “Disaster”, “High School” and “Time Travel”. Why are they missing? Indeed, IMDb’s genre list is simultaneously too varied and too short. You could claim that this is a non-issue, but what can I say, arbitrarily constructed systems bother me. Therefore, I’ve put together my own arrangement of movie genres, which I outline below. Not only do I think it would bring much-needed order into one of the largest public databases on the web; it forms a solid framework for classification of cinema in general. Feel free to use it!
My definition of genre refers exclusively to the emotional response the movie tries to get out of you. As with any form of art, emotion is central to film, and I think it makes sense to have it form the basis of my primary classification. Naturally, a good movie tends to evoke many different emotions, but this system is concerned only with the most prominent few, the ones that can be said to carry the film.
Wants to: amuse you
Examples: Police Academy, Office Space, Yes Man
Wants to: evoke serious emotional investment
Examples: To Kill A Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, Bohemian Rhapsody
Wants to: make you happy
Examples: City Lights, Rocky, Monsters Inc.
Wants to: make you sad
Examples: Grave of the Fireflies, Titanic, Requiem for a Dream
Wants to: sexually excite you
Examples: wouldn’t you like to know?
Wants to: exhilarate you
Examples: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Inception
Wants to: get you totally pumped up
Examples: RoboCop, Speed, 2012
Wants to: disturb you
Examples: Suspiria, The Thing, Midsommar
Now, the example movies I’ve listed are relatively “pure” in terms of genre, but combinations are of course very prevalent. Annie Hall is a comedic drama, Don’t Look Now is a tragic horror, Hot Fuzz is an action comedy, and Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic drama. My system does in no way prevent genre overlap; in fact, considering the highly reduced number of genres, I’d say it encourages it.
One of the more substantial changes I’ve made is to dispense with “Adventure” and “Mystery”. I find the former too vague, and the latter is not sufficiently tied to a specific emotion to count as a genre. My decision to count action and horror as subgenres of thriller is similarly subversive, and wouldn’t be liked by everyone. I don’t think people are anxious to call, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a thriller just because it contains reptile violence. But I decided that action and horror rely on the thrill of simulated danger, hence their belonging to that genre.
What then, you might ask, about all the other genres I ditched? What happened to “Animation”, “Fantasy”, “Musical”, and the rest? Aren’t they worth bringing up? Well, yes, they certainly are, but not as genres. In my system, any classification that isn’t directly pertinent to a film’s emotional center is not a genre, but rather a type, a style or a topic.
A film’s type has to do with the nature of its medium. How long is the movie? Through which methods was it made? To what degree is it fiction? And how is its story conveyed to the audience – through song, through dialogue, or through different, experimental methods? Unlike genres, types have little to do with the emotions of the film, although some types naturally lend themselves to certain genres more than others (there are far more musical comedies and dramas than there are musical thrillers, for instance). Below are the types I’ve come up with so far; let me know if I’ve missed any obvious ones. As with genres, types are more than welcome to overlap.
A film’s style has to do with its presentation. How does it look? How does it sound? How do the actors say their lines? How many seconds does the average shot last? What is the target audience? What are some of the tropes and motifs that the viewer can expect? As with the previous two classifications, combinations of styles are commonplace, and any style could be combined with just about any genre and type. Since new styles are developed at a much higher rate than genres and types, and since many directors could be said to have created distinct styles of their own, there is no way I could present a complete list, but here are some popular examples:
- Film noir
- Magic realism
Finally, topics are exactly what they sound like. They are the subject matter, the primary themes being discussed in the film. The line between topics and styles is admittedly a blurry one, since many topics are closely associated with a certain tradition of cinematography, a specific acting method, or a set of visual motifs. However, the connection is optional; it is entirely possible to make a war movie without muted colors and shaky cam, for example. Similarly to styles, topics are virtually endless in number, but below are some of the more prominent ones.
- High school
So, in my idea of the perfect world, an IMDb page wouldn’t look like this:
Starship Troopers (1997)
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-fi, War
But rather like this:
Starship Troopers (1997)
Style: Sci-fi, Satire, Mature
Topics: Aliens, War, Future, Fascism, Romance
And that was, more or less, all I had to say on this topic (too much, many would probably agree)! I’m very aware that I switched out a perfectly simple system for like four complex ones, and that they’ll never catch on, but a perfectionist can dream, can’t he? That said, if you still think this is a total non-issue, well, I don’t disagree with you.