Is Art Film a Genre? : Cinematic Borders between Commercial and Art Film

by Hyunjin Kim


It is evident that My Darling Clementine (1946) is a western film. Set in Tombstone, Arizona, the protagonist is a town marshal seeking revenge against villains. Likewise, Arrival (2016) is regarded as a science-fiction film. It has certain traits of sci-fi: mysterious space ships visit the earth, and the female protagonist tries to find out the purpose of their visit. However, in some ways Arrival does not fit into a single category; is it an art film or a commercial film? Arrival earned around 200 million dollars worldwide, while Interstellar (2014), a film of the same genre, earned almost 700 million dollars. It is hard to say that Arrival was a commercial success. Moreover, the plot of the film is complicated compared to other commercial films. In this essay, I would like to ponder the cinematic borders between commercial and art films. Also, I will consider the art film as a distinguishable genre.
First of all, it is important to think about the meaning of the word “commercial.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, commercial means “occupied with or engaged in commerce or work intended for commerce” or “of or relating to commerce.” In general, commercial film targets a mass audience, expecting to profit. However, that does not mean art films do not expect any financial gain. The difference is commercial films tend to secure a wider audience, so sometimes directors will explain the plot in an easier way. On the other hand, art films aim for artistic achievement; if those artistic traits are abstract, some people will find the film difficult to understand.
Yet, we can see from many films that cultural differences between countries blur the border between commercial and art films. A film can be highly commercial in certain countries, while in other countries regarded as an art film because of different tastes and recognitions. Of course, box-office profits cannot be an absolute criterion for commercial/art film. However, considering the fact that most commercial films aim for the mass audience, it is likely that commercial films appeal to a larger audience. For instance, Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) which was released as an art film in the United States earned around 150 million dollars worldwide. Significantly, 66.1 % of the total grossed came from foreign box office returns. Ray Subers, in his article “Lowest-Grossing Best Picture Nominees Since Category Expansion,” explains that ever since the Academy enlarged the number of nominees, the year 2015 recorded the lowest grossing best picture nominees including Grand Budapest Hotel. This explains that Grand Budapest Hotel could not be a commercial success in the United States, even though it was popular in certain countries.
A comparative investigation into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) reveals noteworthy differences between the two films’ box-office percentages. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) recorded over 1 billion dollars worldwide and interestingly 50.4% of it came from the domestic box office. In this case, we can infer that, compared to other countries, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was highly popular and commercial in the United States. Grand Budapest Hotel may not be a highly commercial domestic film, but it became a well-known artwork of Wes Anderson in the end. In other words, the percentage difference between domestic and foreign box offices varies according to the characteristics of the movie. Grand Budapest Hotel may be evaluated as a commercial film in some countries, while others recognize it as an art film. Usually film marketers and distributors pay more attention to this classification than scholars, since this classification may influence marketing and distribution strategies.
Defining the meaning of ‘art film’ is even more convoluted. What is art and what is not art is a highly subjective matter. However, there are certain genres that include many art films. For instance, it is hard to say ‘cult film’ is a commercial film because cult films usually do not compromise with commercial success. Some cult films do actually profit; Eraserhead (1977) and The Room (2003) had their commercial success in the long run. These films naturally had appealing factors for the audience. Barbara Wilinsky defines art film as having “formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films” in her book Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House. Certainly, art films are different from Hollywood films. While many Hollywood films have their own style and are beautiful in every scene, critics and film scholars do not recognize them as art films, because commercial films’ primary purpose of production is earning money.
In contrast, the main purpose of art films is expression. One could say if commercial films are novels, art films are poems. Art films are abstract and can be interpreted in various ways. If some art films gain commercial success unexpectedly, they can be regarded as commercial films. On the other hand, most commercial films cannot be considered as art films, even though they can be already considered as art films. This phenomenon is similar to the incident in which Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. His lyrics were poetic and literary, but many critics asserted that it is not appropriate that a folk singer receives a Nobel Prize. In his Telegraph column “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president,” Tim Stanley insists that a Nobel Prize should not be given according to the public’s interest. Sometimes highly aesthetic commercial films are neither evaluated as art films nor do they succeed commercially.
David Bordwell defines art film as “a film genre, with its own distinct conventions.” He uses the word ‘genre’ to explain the meaning of art film. He is not the only one who recognizes art film as a genre. Antoine Vallet suggests nine genres of cinema in his 1963 book, Genres Du cinéma. According to Vallet, the seventh genre is ‘Dreams and reality: the poetic film’; it is likely that the poetic film belongs to the category of art film. Every genre has its own characteristic. Raphaelle Moine says in his book Cinema Genre that comedy films are branded as comedy films if they induce laughter from the audience. Westerns have their own thematic content: a charismatic hero saves the town from villains. Art films have metaphorical messages that can be interpreted differently according to various perspectives. Also, the music and photography used in art films enable appreciation of art.
The range of art film can also be extended to moving images in galleries. According to Andrew V. Uroskie in his book Between the Black Box and the White Cube, the art gallery has become a place to stage the cinematic experience. Nam June Paik’s video art and Robert Whitman’s moving images can also be in the domain of art film. For instance, Whitman’s Shower (1963) shows images of a woman taking a shower behind a vinyl curtain. The audience can listen to water falling down and peep at the backside of the naked woman. In fact, everything is real except the woman. The hidden projector shows the image of her. One is reminded of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and it is up to the audience to imagine the woman’s situation and feelings through the vinyl curtain. To decide what is art and what is not art is a complicated matter, and to set up the range of art films is also an intricate process.
Moine says in his book that assigning a genre means distinguishing it from other films. By labeling a film ‘art film,’ a film is expected to include specific traits: it has to contain aesthetics and make the audience appreciate art works from it. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) was selected as the most influential piece of art among 500 artists in 2004 Turner Prize Ceremony. However, when it first came out, an exhibition committee rejected it because it lacked ‘creativity.’ It is still a controversial artwork. The borders between commercial film and art film are similar to Duchamp’s Fountain. Critics and film scholars may judge a certain film as art or not, but the audience also contributes to the various appreciations. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art film is in the eye of the audience.


Keith, Barry. Film Genres: From Iconography to Ideology. Wallflower Press: 2007.

Moine, Raphaelle. Cinema Genre. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Merriam-Webster dictionaries, s.v. “commercial,”Accessed December 20, 2017,

Stanley, Tim. “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president.” The Telegraph, October 13, 2016. Accessed December 20, 2017.

Subers, Ray. “Lowest-Grossing Best Picture Nominees Since Category Expansion.” Box Office Mojo. Accessed December 20, 2017.

Uroskie, V. Andrew. Between the Black Box and the White Cube, University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Vallet, A. Genres Du cinéma, Paris, Ligel, 1963.

Wilinsky, Barbara. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House, University of Minnesota, 2001.