An Introduction to Movie Genres

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Photo Source: Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures/New Line Cinema/Sony Pictures/Chiabella James

From sci-fi to rom-com, action to thriller, and everything in between, movie genres are a way of categorizing films according to their thematic elements and stylistic hallmarks. The dramatic screams needed to sell the fear of a slasher film and the deep technical work illuminating subconscious motivations in a character study require different approaches to the craft—so it’s important that actors understand the differences between film genres. Here’s a breakdown of the main movie genres and their tropes, with examples from each.


What is a movie genre?

Frozen Anchor Bay Films/Walt Disney Studios

A movie genre categorizes films according to their core elements. Genres provide filmmakers with structures, patterns, settings, characters, narratives, and cinematography to play within and push against while crafting their films. They give actors a good idea of the type of performance that will be required of them for a role. Finally, genres make it so that audience members have an idea of what they’re getting into when they decide to watch a movie. For example, “Frozen” (2010) the horror movie is a vastly different beast than “Frozen” (2013) the family-friendly musical.

Action films

Action films are characterized by their heightened pace and—you guessed it—action scenes. The protagonist is often forced to fight a series of opponents until ultimately confronting the primary foe toward the end of the film. This type of film is usually driven either by villains taking something from the hero, forcing them to fight to reclaim it, or by the hero having an assigned task that involves dispatching villains who have conspired against them or their organization. 

Exemplars of the genre include:

  • “The Great Train Robbery”: This fast-paced 12-minute film shot in 1903 is often credited by film historians as the first action film.
  • The “James Bond” franchise: Agent 007 is tasked with saving the world from any number of evil villains and nefarious plots.
  • “Commando”: Army Colonel John Matrix must fight to find and save his kidnapped daughter.
  • “Die Hard”: Terrorists and explosions and secret plots, oh my! Detective John McClane fights a seemingly endless swarm of foes in this iconic action film.

Adventure films

In an adventure film, the hero’s journey may take them across a variety of exotic locales, where they must solve clues and engage in subterfuge. The adventure film can intersect with other genres, including action, comedy, horror, and science fiction, as the concept of a hero on a quest can be shaded in a myriad of ways. 

Some examples of adventure films are:

  • The “Zorro” franchise: The swashbuckler character seen in this film helped define the subgenre.
  • The “Indiana Jones” franchise: The iconic professor of archeology, artifact-finder, and whip-wielder fights enemies in exotic locales.

Martial arts films

Martial arts films fit the style of traditional action films, except the majority of fight scenes showcase hand-to-hand combat instead of projectile weapons such as a gun or bow and arrow. 

Martial arts action films include:

  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once”: The awards show darling employs elements from multiple genres, including martial arts, to portray the hero’s journey of saving their family. 
  • “Enter the Dragon”: Martial artist Lee competes in a tournament on a private island, dispatching dozens of minions with his combat skills. 

Thriller films

Thrillers create a mood of heightened intensity that puts the audience on an emotional roller coaster. These films usually feature a protagonist or their loved ones in constant imminent danger. Thrillers bear many similarities to suspense films, according to film critic Nell Minow. Popular subgenres cover the range of psychological, action, crime, mystery, and legal. 

Films that help define the genre include:

  • “Gone Girl”: Amy Dunne goes missing, and all fingers point at her husband, Nick—but all is not as it appears.
  • “The Talented Mr. Ripley”: The man impersonating Mr. Ripley is a fraud, and murder is just a boat ride away.
  • “Rear Window”: Alfred Hitchcock was a master at keeping the audience in suspense with a dizzying array of films, including this iconic thriller about a wheelchair-bound man who thinks he witnesses a murder. 

Comedy films

The goal of a comedy is simple: to make the audience laugh. The genre as a whole emphasizes humor and encompasses many subgenres, including action comedy, “buddy” picture, mockumentary, slapstick, romantic comedy, satire, farce, black comedy, and parody. 

  • “The Hangover”: Three friends retrace their steps to put together what happened the night before and find their friend before his wedding; hilarious hijinks abound. 
  • “The Waterer Watered”: This 1895 short, considered the first example of comedy on film, exemplifies the genre with its quick, easy-to-understand action of someone playing a joke on a gardener by stepping on the water hose and stopping the flow of water. 
  • “Battling Butler” and “City Lights”: Comedies were among the most popular genres of the silent film era, as the broad slapstick action and exaggerated faces of comedy actors such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were easy to understand with or without subtitles. The following clip, a mash-up of two different boxing scenes from Keaton in “Battling Butler” and Chaplin in “City Lights,” is a good side-by-side illustration of how seriously the two masters approached their craft to keep viewers laughing the whole time.

Drama films

A drama is characterized by conflict that builds and builds until ending in some sort of resolution. Dramas are grounded in reality and often conclude with an emotional payoff. Dramatic filmmaking hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, and many films at the time reflected contemporaneous tensions. Subgenres include the teen drama, legal drama, police drama, and melodrama. 

Some well-known dramas are:

  • “Moonlight”: An emotional exploration of identity, sexuality, and growing up, this film scored an Oscar for best picture.
  • “The Story of the Kelly Gang”: The 1906 film is regarded as the world’s first full-length dramatic film. 
  • “Citizen Kane”: Kane’s ambition leads to corruption, as told through the use of flashbacks, multiple narrators, and the haunting symbolism of “Rosebud.”

Fantasy films

This genre is defined by the presence of magical creatures (dragons, fairies, elves), otherworldly situations (magic, the supernatural, myth), and other elements that don’t exist in real life. Each fantasy has its own internal logic that may only exist within the world of the film—for example, the Hogwarts train in the “Harry Potter” franchise, or the desperate plea not to feed creatures after midnight from “Gremlins.” Subgenres include dark fantasy, which combines elements of horror or thriller with fantasy; epic fantasy, which deals with grand sweeping themes; and contemporary fantasy, which places fantasy themes in modern settings. 

Examples of fantasy films include:

  • “The Wizard of Oz”: Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow (and her little dog, too) must travel to Oz to find the Wizard.
  • “Enchanted”: This fantasy musical rom-com extends the legacy of animated Disney films to the live-action realm.
  • “The Lord of the Rings” franchise: Wizards, hobbits, elves, a cursed ring, and ancient magic create an adventure-packed fantasy. 

Horror films

The horror film is intended to scare and disgust audiences, allowing them to live out their worst nightmares in a safe way. Horror and sci-fi often experience crossover in content, but according to film critic Michael Atkinson, “Sci-fi has some kind of scientific basis, while horror hinges entirely on the irrational and paranormal. Thus, ‘Frankenstein’ is sci-fi, while ‘Dracula’ is horror. (The experience they deliver is irrelevant.)” There is plenty of room for overlap, though. Films such as “Alien” and “Annihilation” invoke a sense of horror through the lens of sci-fi. Other subgenres include creature features, psychological horror, slashers, and body horror. 

Famous horror films include:

  • “Dracula”: The vampire Count Dracula faces off against Van Helsing, leaving a trail of death and newly turned vampires in his wake. 
  • “Hereditary”: After her daughter’s violent death, a mother discovers that her family belongs to a demon-worshiping coven. 
  • “The Ring”: A ghost with a grudge kills her victims in nightmarish ways, only sparing them if they spread her curse to others.


A screen musical is defined by its multiple music numbers, replete with singing and dancing. Some musicals are almost entirely song- and dance-based, with the plot being narrated through music, while others have more straightforward narratives with occasional musical numbers. 

Standouts from the genre include:

  • “The Jazz Singer”: This 1927 production, the first musical film, portrays the plight of a young musician torn between family expectations and modern music.
  • “West Side Story”: Young romance blooms, the Jets and the Sharks clash, and quintessential musical numbers abound.
  • “Moulin Rouge!”: Impoverished bohemian poet Christian falls for ailing courtesan Satine and must fight—with the power of song—for her love.

Romance films

Will they or won’t they? That’s the question asked in romantic films as the protagonists dance around their mutual attraction, while outside circumstances often force them apart until the final act. A common subgenre is the romantic comedy, better known as a rom-com, which puts two characters destined to be together through comedic situations. 

Romances that helped define the genre include:

  • “The Kiss”: The first appearance of romance onscreen took place in this 1896 18-second movie. Its portrayal of a series of kisses caused a public outcry —and led the Roman Catholic Church to denounce the film. 
  • “Gone With the Wind”: By the time the historical romance arrived onscreen, audiences were more accepting of depictions of romance. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara’s doomed affair ends with Rhett’s famous departing line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” 
  • “Roman Holiday”: This production starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in 1953 began the modern rom-com genre, leading to classics such as “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Science-fiction films

The science-fiction film genre usually portrays advanced technology and speculative science that does not currently exist in our world. The science-fiction novels of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were very popular and influential during the early period of filmmaking. The genre produced movies across a landscape of subgenres including steampunk, space opera, dystopian, and post-apocalyptic.

Notable sci-fi films include:

  • “A Trip to the Moon”: With its iconic image of a rocket crashing into the eye of the moon, this first-known sci-fi movie from 1902 proves that the limits of what can be shown onscreen are as big as the imagination. Since then, science fiction has taken us to the moon and back with expanded technology that has only broadened the storytelling available. 
  • “Blade Runner”: Rick Deckard is a blade runner tasked with tracking down and “retiring” artificially intelligent humanoid replicants, against a dystopian futuristic Los Angeles.
  •  “Arrival”: A linguist must decode an alien language that disrupts linear time as humankind knows it.

Sports films

Films that revolve around a sporting competition as the main vehicle for storytelling belong in the sports film genre. Typically, there is an underdog character or group of characters facing the challenge of an upcoming sporting event that seems impossible to win. They go through some sort of trial or difficulty that helps them grow as people and in their sport. There is often a romantic or family subplot, as well, that shows what these characters are fighting for and provides a redemptive arc to the story. The sports genre can encompass other genres within its framework as long as some kind of athletic competition plays a central role. Sporting events themselves have been captured on film since the invention of film, as seen in this 1894 boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. Other films that gave the genre a fighting chance are:

  • “The Knockout”: Film historians tend to cite this 1914 Charlie Chaplin comedy film as the moment when the sports film genre began in earnest. 
  • “The Mighty Ducks”: The underdog hockey team the Ducks finds inspiration in a surprising source. 
  • The “Rocky” franchise: Rocky trains to take down any series of villainous opponents in the boxing ring. 


The Western film genre tells and retells legends of the American West. They are almost always set in locations west of the Mississippi River, and are usually set from the 1850s up until the turn of the century when the American cowboy began to take on less iconographic significance. The Western can include many other genres, but it is most known for the epic, revisionist, and spaghetti subgenres. An epic Western keeps a lot of the themes and characters of a classic Western, but does so on a larger scale with a larger budget. Revisionist Westerns frame the cowboy as an antihero; John Ford is often credited with starting this genre with John Wayne in 1956’s “The Searchers.” The term spaghetti Western was used by American film critics to mockingly deride Western films shot in Italy (such as those of Sergio Leone) in reference to the country’s cuisine. Significant examples of the genre include:

  • “The Iron Horse”: Director John Ford made the Western his own with the 1924 silent film “The Iron Horse,” a classic tale of revenge. Fifteen years later, he directed John Wayne for the first of many times in “Stagecoach,” and the actor would go on to set the template for the classic Western hero with his brash and cocky characters who never missed a shot. 
  • “Unforgiven”: Clint Eastwood gives a devastating performance as gunslinger William Munny, who must reckon with any variety of banal evils. 
  • “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”: The titular outlaw characters’ journey to their doom is fatalistic yet funny, nihilistic yet nuanced.