No doubt, the producer tries to control the audience. But it is evident that in the end the audience controls the producer; for it is the audience that decides which films, stars, directors, themes, genres will endure. The audience is far from passive. It seizes from the movies what it needs for its own purposes…. — Arthur Schlesinger, Historian
THE GENRE FILM
Genre (a French word meaning “type” or “class”) refers to film stories that have been repeated again and again in the same way, with slight variations. They follow the same pattern or formula and include the same basic ingredients.
Setting, characters, plot (conflict and resolution), images, cinematic techniques and conventions are practically interchangeable (and predictable) from one film to another in the same genre. To understand how genre works in film, we must restrict our definition to mean only formula movies, not general categories such as “war films,” “comedies,” “romance pictures,” etc.
It isn’t hard to understand how genre films came into being or why they continue to be so successful. The repetition of basic formula plots grew out of the business relationship between film producers and the appetite of the mass audience.
Hollywood producers want to guarantee a profit on their investment in a movie project that means they have to draw a large audience. Studio executives know that formula pictures (westerns, detective action, musicals, gangster, horror, etc.) consistently pay off big at the box office.
For example, the first Spiderman film, a standard formula action movie, made over $300 million in domestic ticket sales during its first twelve weeks of release. Additional millions were earned from foreign distribution, merchandising fees, videocassette/DVD sales/rentals, and potential TV revenues.
To get an idea of how the formula approach to entertainment operates, watch television for a week. Notice how similar many of the weekly series are in style, content and approach. TV genres include sit-coms, action/adventure, quiz shows, talk shows, soap operas, lawyer shows and detective/police programs.
Most of these have interchangeable plots and characters within their specific formula. Sometimes its impossible to know which program you’re watching unless you recognize the actors or catch the title sequence. TV learned from Hollywood.
TV repeats successful formulas because familiar programming attracts big audiences while new series like “M*A*S*H”, “All in the Family,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Miami Vice,” “Cheers,” “Everyone Loves Raymond,” “The Simpsons,” and “Friends” failed miserably during their first season. They succeed only because the networks were brave enough to give them a chance to find an audience.
The Strengths of the Genre Film: Directors have a relatively easy time working with a formula script because the characters, plot formula and conventions are already established,
The best directors don’t simply copy the patterns and string them together into a predictable quilt of stock situations and images. Accepting the limitations and formal requirements of the formula as a challenge, directors such as John Ford (“Stagecoach” — western), Steven Speilberg (“Jaws” — monster), John Houston (“Maltese Falcon” — private eye), Stanley Kubrick (“The Shining” — horror), Tim Burton (“Batman I — action), and Martin Scorcese (“Goodfellas” — gangster) provided creative variations, refinements and complexities that made their version of the formula unique and memorable.
The formula approach also makes it easy to watch such films. We don’t have to think very much or pay close attention to the details of the plot or the complexity of the characters in a genre picture because of the instantly recognizable ingredients.
Because of their comfortable familiarity, watching a formula movie can also be more fun. Since we know what is going to happen and who is going to do it, we gain a type of childish pleasure from being able to predict each character’s reactions, the pattern of the action and the structure of the conflict.
The fact that the formulas are familiar intensifies another kind of pleasure. Settled into a predictable storyline, we are more aware and responsive to the creative variations, refinements and complexities that make a particular genre film a new and exciting experience each time it exceeds our expectations.
Perhaps this is the reason movies like “Jaws” are such a huge box office success. Despite its overwhelming impact, Speilberg’s tale of a giant man-eating shark is one of thousands of monster movies following the typical genre formula: 1) mysterious monster is killing people; 2) hero discovers true nature of the threat, but no-one believes him; 3) hero begins solitary pursuit of monster 4) hero and monster clash in pulse-pounding battle for survival; 5) hero kills monster.
So, why did “Jaws” earn more than $200 million and attract viewers from 12 to 60; hardly the typical audience response compared to monster movies like “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” “Them,” “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “It Came From Beneath the Sea,” and “The Thing” that had previously been released to far less public approval.
The answer is simple. Speilberg used our familiarity with the monster formula to create events that lured us into dangerous expectations. Each time we were positive we knew what was going to happen, the movie popped open with a “Jack in the Box” surprise that made us scream and shriek with shock.
One of the best examples in the film happens after the scientist (Richard Dreyfus) tries to convince the sheriff (Roy Scheider) that the mysterious ocean killings are the work of a giant white shark. The duo goes out at night to investigate a sunken boat for evidence to prove Dreyfus’ theory.
We watch Dreyfus dive into the dark, murky ocean as the musical theme which has been repeatedly played during previous shark attacks thunders on the sound track.
The music warns us (as we know from watching thousands of monster movies) that the beast is lying in wait for the helpless Dreyfus. He spots the sunken boat with a huge hole ripped in its hull. He swims closer to the wreck as the music gets louder and louder. We see the black, cavernous hole from his POV.
We know the shark will lunge out of the opening. We sit back comfortably waiting for his appearance. However, our moment of relaxed anticipation ends as we see, not the shark, but the totally unexpected screen-filling image of a severed head staring us straight in the face with its one remaining eye. And we scream in real fright and surprise.
Although each genre has its own set of predictable elements, let’s take a close look at the six basic ingredients of a Western to understand how genre patterns actually work.
The action takes place in the American West usually at the edge of the frontier, where civilization ends and the empty land stretches to the horizon. The time span is set between 1865 and 1900.
He is a rugged individualist, a “natural” man, often a loner. He acts in accordance with his own personal code, not in response to community pressures or for personal gain. Quick and accurate with a gun, he is also an expert horseman and barroom brawler.
There are two kinds of western evildoers. The first includes savages and outlaws who bully, threaten and generally terrorize the respectable citizens of a small frontier town, taking what they want by force. The second group is composed of those who look respectable (bankers, ranch owners, sheriffs) who are motivated by greed or lust for power. Slick, devious and smart they hire outlaws to do their dirty work for them.
Three types of females are seen in westerns: 1) the rancher’s daughter, beautiful but tough; 2) the schoolteacher from the East who brings good manners to the untamed West; and 3) the dance-hall girl (town prostitute) with a tough exterior but a heart of gold.
If the hero doesn’t ride alone, he is often accompanied by either an older sidekick who provides the comedy relief (Gabby Hayes) or a younger partner who plays a son figure struggling to imitate the hero.
Society (town, ranches, wagon trains, stagecoaches or forts) is threatened from within by corruption and greed or faces external threats from outlaws.
Led by the hero, the “decent” citizens get rid of the corrupt villains in the community or fight off attacking outlaws/indians.. With the threat removed, the hero’s job is finished and he rides off into the sunset looking for his next rescue mission.
Justice triumphs, civilization conquers savagery, and good wins over evil. Law and order are restored and progress toward a better life resumes.
The ingredients in westerns are so familiar from movies and TV shows they need little description. There is a clear and simple definition of character types by conventions of costume and grooming. The hero wears a white or light-colored hat, the villain a black one. Heroes are clean-shaven; mustaches and beards are reserved for villains. Sidekicks may have beards but they are grey and rustic.
There are also conventions of action. Most westerns have one or more of the following: a climactic shoot-out between hero and villain in the town’s main street, a long horseback chase, a barroom brawl, and the cavalry-to-the-rescue.
Although there may be a romantic attraction between the hero and the heroine, it never gets serious and the hero moves on at the end of the picture. To create tension and direct attention to the love theme, the heroine often misunderstands the hero’s motives or his actions until the final scene, when he regains her trust and respect before saying goodbye.
There is another common convention in westerns. Almost all of them are structured so they begin with the hero riding into view from the left side of the screen and end with him riding off towards the right, usually into a fading sunset.
How many western movies or TV shows can you remember that follows the above conventions? Even a modern western like Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven” contains many formula elements of the western genre. Genre satires such as “Blazing Saddles” (Western), “Airplane” (Disaster), “Scary Movie” (Horror), “Shaun of the Dead” (Zombie), etc. work because we are so familiar with the conventions of each genre they become easy targets for humor.
REMAKES AND SEQUELS
The primary reason Hollywood produces remakes and sequels is, as you might have guessed, financial. As the cost of making movies increases, the gamble becomes greater.
Since it is impossible to guarantee the success of a film (the $80 million dollar “Collateral Damage” (2002) with Arnold Schwarzenegger died at the box office leaving its producers with a huge loss), remakes and sequels at least offer worried executives and investors some degree of predictability in an unpredictable marketplace.
Most remakes and sequels are based on movies that have proven their moneymaking popularity; films that don’t really need to be remade at all and usually don’t cry out for a sequel.
Therefore, producers who remake movies are guaranteed a strange combination of success and failure. Many of us go to see remakes of movies we know and love just out of curiosity.
The urge to produce a remake or sequel of a well-known film is irresistible. It is based on one of the few laws of audience behavior the studios can predict with reasonable certainty.
The more popular the original, the greater the number of people who can be counted on to buy tickets for the remake or sequel. Thus remakes and sequels guarantee a certain level of profit, especially if the production budget is kept low enough.
They also, however, guarantee a kind of artistic failure, for the better the original, the higher are our expectations for the remake or sequel, which usually fails to meet those expectations. Although there are exceptions (“Godfather II” but not “Godfather III”), remakes and sequels lack the elements of surprise and creative dynamics of the original, so our disappointment is usually justified.
Taking for granted that profit is the prime reason for remakes and sequels, it must be pointed out that there are other reasons for the practice and there is a creative challenge involved. Directors of remakes want to make artistic changes in the new version; they never set out to make a carbon copy.
One of the most often used reasons for remaking a film is to “update” it. When interviewed, remake directors say their goal is to improve the original by giving it “more contemporary values” or providing a “new sensibility for modern audiences.” A film can be updated in a number of ways.
Changes in Life Style or Popular Tastes:
“A Star is Born” (1937/1954/1976) — new music, new lifestyle to appeal to new generation of viewers; and “The Wizard of Oz/”The Wiz” (1939/1978) – modern music, a black cast, and a change in location from the fantasy world of Oz to New York City;
Changes in Film Technology:
“Stagecoach” (1939/1966) -color, wide screen, stereophonic sound; “Ben Hur (1926/1959) -color, sound <1926 version was silent>; “King Kong” (1933/1976) – color, wide screen, stereophonic sound, special EFX; “The Thing” (1951/ 1982) — change in identity of space alien, improvement and special EFX; and “The Blob” (1958/1990) — special EFX, stereophonic sound.
Changes in Censorship:
“Postman Always Rings Twice (1946/1981) — explicit treatment of erotic activity, more graphic language; “The Blue Lagoon” (1949/1980) — emphasis on sexual awakening of young couple.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956/78) — from subconscious fears of communist takeover in the original to fears of a Moonie (a religious cult popular in the 70’s) takeover in the remake. Meanwhile, in the remake of the thriller “Manchurian Candidate,” (1963/2004) the enemy was changed from the Chinese Communists (villains of the Cold War era) to a multi-national corporation (a more contemporary threat).
The Musical Version:
A remake that usually means a greater challenge and creative freedom for the filmmaker who must integrate words and music into the dramatic framework of the original. “Oliver Twist” to “Oliver” (1948/1968); “The Philadelphia Story” to “High Society” (1940/1956); “Lost Horizon” (1937/1973); “Anna and the King of Siam” to “The King and I” (1945/1954); and “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960/1990).
Change in Format:
Hollywood has made a nice profit remaking classic films into “Made-for-TV” versions. “Of Mice and Men,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Frankenstein,” “Sea Wolf,” and many others.
Remakes of Foreign Films:
The creative challenge of transplanting a film from one culture to another has produced some interesting results. “Seven Samurai” (Japan, 1954) became “The Magnificent Seven” (USA, 1960); “Smiles of a Summer Night (Sweden, 1954) became “A Little Night Music” (USA, 1978); “Three Men and a Cradle (France, 1985) became “Three Men and a Baby” (USA, 1990) and The Japanese films entitled ‘Ju-On” became “The Grudge” (USA 2004)
Sequels have the best chance of success when they follow the original quickly enough to capitalize on the original’s success. Audiences attend sequels for the same reason they go to remakes. If they enjoyed the original, they are looking for more of the same.
There are only a few good reasons for making a sequel other than profit. Nevertheless, there are some very natural sequels — made because there was more story to tell — and these can match the original in quality if the story is continued. Examples include “The Godfather,” and “The French Connection.” But these are the exceptions, rather than the rule when it comes to the quality of sequels.
Because sequels don’t try to tell the same story again but build on characters developed in the original, they give filmmakers a chance to be creative. As long as the director uses some or all of the characters from the original, maintains a certain degree of consistency in the treatment of those characters, a sequel can (and does) take off in almost any direction the new scriptwriters want to go. A good example of this can be found in the two popular horror series “Friday the 13th” and “Scream.”