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The Moving Image Genre-form Guide

Compiled by:

  • Brian Taves (Chair)
  • Judi Hoffman
  • Karen Lund

February 1998

Table of Contents


Of all the types of subject access to moving image works, genre studies has emerged as the most frequently used and theoretically developed system. Today, genre serves as a shorthand for archivists, scholars, and filmmakers, having become the single best recognized and intrinsically appropriate way to categorize film and television works into readily understood classifications.

Genres are recognizable primarily by content, and to a lesser degree by style. Genres contain conventions of narrational strategy and organizational structure, using similar themes, motifs, settings, situations, and characterizations. In this way, the makers of moving image works use recognizable patterns of storytelling that are readily understood by audiences. Typical formulas range from the varieties of Hollywood feature films to modes of nonfictional discourse.

While developing terminology for application to the moving image holdings of archives and libraries, the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide follows the traditional methods of film and television scholarship as closely as possible. The vast and steadily growing literature of genre studies has been relied upon: hundreds of books and many more articles authored on genre theory, as well as analyzing specific genres. In addition, the many genre and content lists that archives have developed over the years were examined, along with such other indexing tools as the retrospective indices to the writing on film, the terms in each volume in the American Film Institute Catalog series, and commercial guides to videos. Nonetheless, with the broad range of types of moving image works, there is no single, ready resource to appropriate for a guide to such terms in their archival application.

Utilizing this range of previous work, a committee within the Motion Picture/Broadcasting/Recorded Sound Division has compiled a comprehensive, practical guide to moving image genre and form terminology ever created, covering some 150 terms, all fully defined and exemplified. However, in addition to fulfilling the needs of archivists and librarians, a guide to genre-form terms must also satisfy such other interested groups as moving image scholars and filmmakers. In order to be widely comprehensible to researchers, a guide should offer terms and definitions conforming to general classification practice. Since searches of online databases will be increasingly conducted over the internet, instead of with the assistance of reference librarians, the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide aims to promote the likelihood of outside researchers finding the desired bibliographic records through use of the basic terms in the field.

The conventional focus of academic genre studies is on such standard fictional genres as Western, Gangster, and Musical films. Because Hollywood's theatrical and television output and their formulae are the most codified and easily recognized, the range of genre terms in the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide has a certain inevitable bias in this direction. However, a list of genre terms for archives must cover many unique types of material that are less often discussed by scholars or within the industry, but will still encompass substantial groups of archival holdings. Archives handle the widest spectrum of material produced around the world, and for many different types of markets, from theatrical releases to Industrial to Educational. While genre studies usually focus on fictional formulas, archives must also deal with, for instance, all types of nonfiction genres, from Documentary to Propaganda to Ethnographic to Interview to Travelogue. (Although this taxonomy is generally structured along a fiction/nonfiction axis, an absolute dichotomy between the two has proven impossible, and some works straddle the polarity, from REDS to YOU ARE THERE.) Some categories most productively conceived in a broad generic sense, such as Avant-garde and Amateur material, have also been included within the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide. The range of categories available must be inclusive, developing a degree of specificity and practical exactitude for nearly every type of material appropriate for a generic label.

Within archives, this list is usable in a MARC-based cataloging system or a particular in-house system, as well as a manual catalog. The Moving Image Genre-Form Guide begins with an overall list of terms, first of genres, then of forms, and finally formats, then offers a page of examples of how the system, using the library MARC format, would be applied to a variety of sample titles. Subsequently, the first and largest section covers genre terms, complete with definitions, notes, and examples, with form terms similarly treated in the following section. Finally, format definitions are offered. Throughout, see references are provided from common, valid terms to the term used in the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide.

With each term, we have provided a definition, describing conventions of story construction, character types, and setting, and, as necessary, additional definitional notes that indicate related or overlapping genres, and other considerations when applying the term. For nearly every genre and form, a variety of examples from different periods and nations are given. The examples are meant to be both typical of the genre as well as to indicate its breath, themes, and significant sub-types. The examples are usually broadly grouped into feature and television as the two most common forms. Unless specified with a date, indicating a specific version, reference to a title presumes that all versions of that title are intended as examples. The guide is designed as both an online and a paper document, to facilitate searching by keywords and specific examples.

Most moving image works overlap with other genres, so although the primary genre is the one in which a title appears as an example, secondary genre headings that would be appropriately applied are given in parentheses after each title. Since moving image works are inherently varied and unpredictable, any particular title may span or combine elements of several different genres, and so the use of multiple genre headings is encouraged. For example, fictional genres are assumed to be dramatic unless combined with a type of comedy. As many genre terms as are potentially applicable to any given item should be used, even at the risk of some redundancy. This will increase the likelihood of the item appearing in any particular search. The tendency of each work to span several genres is demonstrated in parentheses following each example, listing other genre headings. A combination of genres that becomes so frequent or so structured as to form its own type should be advanced to the overall genre list. We have tried to allow any genre formula, as long as it is still definable.

There may be wide variations in the frequency with which a given term is used, because of differences in specific collections, the individual mission of any given archive and its anticipated users, and the popularity of any given genre. Hence, a range of terms of varying specificity are offered. Genre terms have been made sufficiently broad and general to apply to the product of various countries, crossing national boundaries. While individual nations have indigenous genres and terminology for them, attempting to cover all these specific international possibilities in a satisfactory manner would be prohibitively complex.

Similarly, the definitions of genre terms must be sufficiently fluid to allow for variations over the decades. Nonetheless, certain terms are offered, like film noir, that are most identified with a particular era. Even when genres tend to be period-specific, occurring primarily in cycles (such as film noir in the late 1940s and early 1950s, or college films in the 1930s), they are rarely exclusively confined to a particular time. (Groups of works that are only actually part of a cycle, and do not form a genre of their own, have not been included in the guide.) For instance, the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide suggests that the term film noir be applied to similar films beyond its golden age, rather than only applied to work made at a certain time. However, some genres have been included that are necessarily limited in the period to which they can be applied, such as Chase, Trick, and Actuality films in the early years of the cinema, because they were key genres of their time.

Inevitably, provisional solutions to some formidable theoretical and methodological problems have been applied. For instance, genre has been defined to encompass works directed primarily toward a particular audience (training films, or those for children, or specific ethnicities) or made by certain groups (from Amateur to Experimental work), since such factors impact narrative or stylistic conventions. Ethnicity as a generic factor would refer to a dramatization of a specific ethnic experience (for example, an adaptation from the Yiddish theater), or a work having a definite primary intended audience (such as films for African-Americans exhibited at segregated theaters). The sex and race of individuals behind or in front of the camera would not be the primary factor in determining an ethnic work, except when it impacts content or comes to be a governing force in narrative construction, such as with an "all-black-cast" film. Categories based on a filmmaker's gender, race, and so on, are not included, since that would require historical research well beyond what archives can undertake.

The very comprehensiveness that is the hallmark of the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide will give it additional value beyond those involved in cataloging and inventorying moving image works. The issues encountered in developing such a guide encompass many of the same problems that academia tackles in classes and research. Just as the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide has followed the literature of genre studies, this guide may also be able to make a contribution to such scholarship. Since the archival perspective frequently extends beyond some of the more abstract, theoretical discourse and the possibilities traditionally recognized for critical generic analysis, scholars may benefit from a project that necessarily applies to all forms and periods, with a greater emphasis on marginal genres. The Moving Image Genre-Form Guide may be of value in pinpointing categories that are worthy of further study but have been previously neglected or overlooked, as genres that have not received critical recognition become evident in the cataloging of archival holdings. There are entire undertheorized areas that must be incorporated, such as genres specific to television, from Home shopping to Public access. To facilitate recognition from researchers, we have included categories for some little-known genres that represent significant, unavoidable generic groups of archival holdings. Thus the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide can achieve a positive and exciting exchange between the academic and archival communities, in addition to its practical value as an indexing tool to scholars searching the archives.

Because of a recent decision to include form subdivisions in Library of Congress Subject Headings, the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide advantageously integrates this element. Forms are defined as the basic categories indicating a moving image work's original exhibition and release parameters (such as length and medium), and which are separate from its actual content, not necessarily implying a particular narrative construction. Form terms include Feature, Short, Serial, Animation, and Television, and can be associated as needed with any genre, in a manner similar to free-floating subdivisions. Having both genre and form allows such combinations as "Western--Television series" or "Western--Feature," permitting a greater clarity for both cataloging and retrieval purposes. (The form subfield is also repeatable, so that multiple forms can be placed together; for instance, OUTER LIMITS could be coded in the 655 field with the subfields "avv" for "#Science fiction#Anthology#Television series.") Matching form and genre also recognizes the differences in the way genre conventions are applied in various forms.

While the form indicates the work's original appearance, a third field, format, such as film, video, or videodisc, indicates the actual physical characteristic of any particular copy. For instance, a videodisc of THE SOUND OF MUSIC would have the genre-form-format heading "Musical--Feature--Videodisc." A video release of a television show would have Television as its access point for form; I LOVE LUCY transferred to video would be "Situation comedy--Television series--Video" for the genre, form, and format. Form and genre terms have been arranged in such a way that any archive or library not wishing to use the format subdivision need not do so.

The standard library systems for subject headings, designed largely for non-fiction books, frequently lack suitable descriptors and headings for moving images, and are designed to apply only to what the work is about, not the genre of which it is an example. Hence, although genre has a certain overlap with subject access, genre also covers aspects of moving image works that would be otherwise neglected, addressing the storytelling or narrational strategy and formula that is seldom accounted for in subject headings. The subject heading "Gangsters" does not necessarily mean that the work is an example of the Gangster genre. There is no equivalent for the concept of such genres as Documentary, Musical, or Horror that can be easily supplied by a subject heading--although all three may clearly be regarded as genres through their use of a particular formula and mode of address. Subject access does not negate the need for genre access, and genre headings supplant some of the inherent limitations on the use of subject headings for moving image works. Genre headings are particularly appropriate for moving image works because they cover a specific, key element that otherwise would be lacking for scholars doing research.

Neither subject nor genre headings are mutually exclusive, nor should subject headings be relied upon to supplement gaps on a generic list. Genres often suggest certain subjects; a western is expected to deal with the American west, usually in the 19th century. A genre subdivision for westerns that involve cattlemen would probably not be desirable; such regional or occupational specifics would likely be addressed through subject headings. A nonfiction film about World War II would fall under the genres for war and documentaries, but could also have a subject heading related to the particular event portrayed, and to its specific time and place.

While the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide generally avoids hierarchical structures with broad and narrow terms, archives that specialize in specific types of moving image works, such as collections of news, dance, or ethnographic footage, may need to develop more specific, narrow sub-genres, and such proposals would be welcomed. Three webs of narrow terms have been offered in the areas of Advertising, Animation, and Experimental work, and placed in the appendix. However, use of such specialized terms is optional.

New genres, new terminology, and trends in production are likely to appear or be discovered over time. This Moving Image Genre-Form Guide is designed to be modified with ease, and will remain dynamic in response to developments in the field. Suggestions--whether involving terms, definitions, notes, or examples--may be made to the head of the Processing Unit, Moving Image Section, Motion Picture/Broadcasting/Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20540-4692. These suggestions will be reviewed in a timely manner, and this procedural framework will permit the continuous evolution and updating of the Moving Image Genre-Form Guide.

Bibliography of Archival and Video Genre Guides

Genre List. British Film Institute, n.d.

Bowker's Complete Video Directory. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1995. Genre Index.

Cataloging Commission, International Federation of Film Archives. Film Cataloging. New York: Burt Franklin, 1979. pp. 88-98.

The Film Index: A Bibliography. Vol. 1, The Film as Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art and the H.W. Wilson Col., 1941.

John C. Gerlach and Lana Gerlach. The Critical Index. New York: Teachers College Press, 1974. p. xvi.

Michael L. Godwin and James M. Wall, compilers. Instructional Manual for Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division for the FMS System. 2nd. rev. Sept. 1985. p. 18.

Patricia King Hanson, Executive editor. The American Film Institute Catalog: Feature Films, 1911-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Index volume. p. 429.

Patricia King Hanson, Executive editor. The American Film Institute Catalog: Feature Films, 1931-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Index volume. p. 1073.

Sheila S. Intner and William E. Studwell, with the assistance of Simone E. Blake and David P. Miller. Subject Access to Films and Video. Lake Crystal, Minnesota: Soldier Creek Press, 1992.

Daniel Lopez. Films by Genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Richard Dyer MacCann and Edward S. Perry. The New Film Index. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1975. p. vii.

George Rehrauer. The Macmillan Film Bibliography. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1982. pp. 158-159.

Sarah Rouse and Katharine Loughney. 3 Decades of Television. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989. pp. xxiii-xvii, 635.

Video Hound's Golden Movie Retriever. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1991. pp. 923-932.

The Video Source Book. 16th ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1995. Guide to Subjects Covered, pp. 3179-3187.

Tom Wiener. The Book of Video Lists. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1993. pp. 5, 14, 21, 37, 45, 91, 104, 107, 115, 122, 131, 201.

Martha M. Yee, compiler, for the National Moving Image Database Standards Committee at AFI. Moving Image Materials: Genre Terms. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1988.

Unpublished lists:

The American Film Institute Catalog: Feature Films, 1921-1930.

National Center for Film and Video Preservation at AFI, Washington, D.C. Drafts of 8/2/94 and 11/95.

Merged Audio-Visual System (NFSA). p. 441, 446-447.

Complete Examples:


655 -7 #av2 # Adventure#Feature.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Comedy#Feature.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Adaptation#Feature.#migfg


655 -7 #av2 # Adventure#Television mini-series.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Comedy#Television mini-series.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Adaptation#Television mini-series.#migfg


655 -7 #av2 # Adventure#Feature.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Biographical#Feature.#migfg


655 -7 #av2 # Western#Television series.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Medical#Television series.#migfg


655 -7 #av2 # Science fiction#Serial.#migfg


655 -7 #av2 # Medical#Television series.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Soap opera#Television series.#migfg


655 -7 #av2 # Prehistoric#Feature.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Science fiction#Feature.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Adaptation#Feature.#migfg


655 -7 #av2 # Interview#Television series.#migfg

655 -7 #av2 # Public affairs#Television series.#migfg


655 -7 #avv2 # Science fiction#Anthology#Television series.#migfg


655 -7 #avv2 # Historical#Animation#Feature.#migfg

655 -7 #avv2 # Musical#Animation#Feature.#migfg

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