Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Essence of Genre Part 2 - At The Movies

When you go to the movies, you don't find them listed by genre.  I mean, yes, you can find sites devoted to certain genres which will show you all the recent and upcoming releases in that genre.  But when you actually go to the movies, you don't find the movie times listed by genre.  You don't say, "what's playing in science fiction this week?"  You say "what's playing at the Roxy?"

And you look down the whole list for something of a flavor that appeals to you.

Part of the reason for this is because the "shelf" for movies is even more limited than in bookstores.  In our mid-sized urban are, we have three multiplexes and even the biggest isn't going to play more than twenty pictures at a time. (And even with that, some will be limited runs which only get a few times out of the week.)

Even if you live in a very big town, with more venues, the specialty houses tend not to be split up by genre.

And there is an ironic result to this:while shelf limitations which created genre ghettos in bookstores, at the movies, genre is seen a whole different way.  It's a flavor, a descriptor -- and mix-and-match is not only common, it's actually sought.

Movies are marketed first by star, poster, and logline (including title).  The hook is more important than the genre, and crossed-genres make for great hooks.  And hard-core movie goers may have a favorite flavor of movie -- say Action -- but they don't care about the division between tentpole, comic book, and science fiction.  There is no line between these.

And heck, mainstream movie goers may only be vaguely aware that The Avengers is science fiction, but that's not how they think of it.  And they would be very upset if you claimed James Bond was SF -- even the most futuristic gadget-driven entries in the series.

Exactly Like That Only Different

Movie executives, for all their famous obtuseness, actually do have an understanding of how the movie-going audience  looks at these things.  When they are looking for a script, they will say:
"I want something exactly like that picture, only new and different."

It sounds ridiculous, but that's what the movie-going audience is looking for too.  The audience wants the experience to be the same -- they want to laugh or cry or feel triumphant or thoughtful -- but they want the story that carries that experience to feel fresh and new.  After all, a part of that experience of a story is the newness of it.

That's the core of why the movies treat genre differently: The movie-going audience always sees the titles of their favorite genres mixed in with all the other genres, and they're always looking for something familiar yet new.

So even though they are looking for "exactly like that" they are constantly exposed to all kinds of "only different" from the other genres.  The competition for the "only different" part is fierce. (And the competition for "exactly like that" is not.)

Thus the post for a RomCom might show it's a RomCom, but the emphasis will always be on what makes it different from the other RomComs, not on what makes it similar.

"Love Ruins Everything" is the pitch for Moonstruck.  And because of that, this flick was not just a RomCom.  It went wider because that theme appeals to people who don't particularly like RomComs.  Some of the people who loved that move actually hate typical RomComs: When they see one, they want to do like Cher and slap the movie across the face and say: "Snap out of it!"

At the same time, Moonstruck is a great movie for fans of RomComs too.  It's "Exactly like that but different."

And that's why so many movies can be put in multiple categories.  They were designed that way on purpose.  Book genres tend to emphasize the "just like that" and be subtle on the differences. The goal with movie marketing is to give the edge to the "only different" side.

Books are Not Movies

Still, anyone will tell you that movies are very different from books.  Especially from self-published ebooks. For one thing movies are expensive and difficult to make.  They require a huge effort in production, and distribution and marketing.  And as I mentioned above, they have very limited venues.

Except the venues aren't so limited, really.  Every TV, computer and mobile device can get movies.  You can watch them on cable, or watch them streaming from Hulu or Amazon, or find them on YouTube.

And people find these things not the way you browse for books in a bookstore, but rather the way you find things on the internet, or have always found movies: you look for features you like -- not just genre, but actor, director, time period.  And when you do a search, you don't just limit yourself to a master genre -- you use descriptive search terms.  Because you can.

You don't need rigid genre any more to find stuff you like.  As a matter of fact it can get in your way.  Last month I was in the video store looking for The Great McGinty.  I couldn't find it.  The clerk, who never had to look such things up, couldn't find it at first either. It's a classic!  Of course they have it and of course it's in Classics!  Except that it was before an election... so it was featured on the "great political movies" display.

Because unlike me and the clerk, most people would only find such a movie if they find it under the sub-genre than the genre.  And there were movies from dozens of other genres there on that display too.

And people found them there because they were looking for the "only different" part of the "just like that only different" equation.

And that's how the internet works. The internet puts all sorts of interesting things in front of the audience and helps them find stuff that is related to what they like, even when they aren't outright searching for it. (See my "How Readers Find Books These Days" which is part of a larger series on search engines and algorithms and how nobody is invisible to Google.)

Blake Snyder's Take on Genre

One useful way to break out of your box can be to look at stories the way the late great Blake Snyder did.  Snyder was a great scriptwriting guru.  In his famous Save the Cat book, there's a overlooked section in his break down of movie genres.  He basically makes up his own, based on patterns of storytelling in major movies. He has categories like "Buddy/Love" which covers all buddy flicks and all love stories, and "Dude With A Problem" which covers Die Hard and also things like Schindler's List.

People overlook that section because his categories often bother them.  Either his own choices are not the same as they would make, or because some people are just too locked into standardized categories to see what he's saying.

He's not trying to replace one rigid set of categories with another. He's saying you need to abandon rigid categories.  Draw your own genre lines based on what you get out of a story. Find what you love about it.  And then learn to write it according to your own model of "exactly like that only different."

And then learn to communicate that personal genre you created.

In Hollywood they have what they call a "shorthand" or sometimes a "high concept" or a "meets," to communicate such flexible genres.  You've heard that kind of pitch before. It's often used as a joke, because screenwriters have a tendency to put together ridiculous parings just out of desperation:

"It's Die Hard meets Driving Miss Daisy!"

Die Hard and Driving Miss Daisy have so little in common that, unless it's a comedy, that statement means nothing at all.  And even if they did go together, that pitch won't work if the person listening hasn't heard of one or both of the titles.  And they have to have the same opinion of both movies.

So the "meets" doesn't simply replace genre, as a short hand way to communicate what a story is.  What is does is give you a way to see what your story is "exactly like."  And how' it's different.  It requires more effort.  If you want to say "It's Die Hard meets Driving Miss Daisy" then look at those flicks for the thing they have in common with your story... then drop the titles, and just describe your story in those terms.

Because that's what genre is really all about. It's not about latching on to the sales handles of some other story or category or anything like that.  It's about describing your story.

This is not all I have to say about genre...but it's all I've got to say for now.  Next week is Cozy Mystery Week.  I may do a Wednesday and a Friday posts -- talk about the art of misdirection when it comes to clues and expectations, and maybe I'll talk about what the genre "cozy mystery" means to me.

See you in the funny papers.

Whoops, forgot to put in the A Round of Words in 80 Days Update:

This Segment's Progress:  For days 56-58 I didn't keep track.  I've been working on my GTD Implementation mainly.  I did some little snippets for a Mick and Casey story (other than the WIP) and had some marvelous brainstorming sessions for next summers serials, The Case of the Misplaced Baroness.  That has an interesting logistical problem that I think I've come up with a fun solution -- I'll talk about that later.

Other people updating today at the ROW80 Linky.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Very good observation here about how movies are marketed! And I'll totally agree with that...that we browse movies at the movieplex differently.

Although...I just joined Amazon Prime and have just started downloading/streaming movies for free. Interestingly, they are searchable by genre (a good thing for me, since I have a penchant for costume dramas...ha!) and by ranking, like our books. Now these are *not* new releases, obviously.

This doesn't have an impact at all for what's occurring at the theaters with new relases. But I'm wondering if it eventually will.

The Daring Novelist said...

I think the impact is going to go in both directions.

People will always be able to search by genre... but the main reason we do it now is because that's what we're used to. However, it only works well when we have limited choices.

That is, clicking on a genre which has 2000 titles means that we don't really get to browse the list for our own likes and quirks. We get to see, basically best-sellers.

Amazon used to make it easy to drill down past the best sellers by skipping ten pages of search results at a time. They have now removed that capability. I HATE Amazon for this.

However, we can drill down with search terms that look at genre in more Hollywood ways. And more and more often, that's the best way to find anything.