A drama film is a film genre that depends mostly on in-depth development of realistic characters dealing with emotional themes. Dramatic themes such as alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, moral dilemmas, racial prejudice, religious intolerance, sexuality, poverty, class divisions, violence against women and corruption put the characters in conflict with themselves, others, society and even natural phenomena. Drama is one of the broadest movie genres and includes subgenres such as romantic drama, sport films, period drama, courtroom drama and crime.
At the center of a drama is usually a character or characters who are in conflict at a crucial moment in their lives. They often revolve around families; movies like Ordinary People dig under the skin of everyday life to ask big questions and touch on the deepest emotions of normal people. Dramas often, but not always, have tragic or at least painful resolutions and concern the survival of some tragic crisis, like the death of a family member (Terms of Endearment), or a divorce (Kramer vs Kramer). Some of the greatest screen performances come from dramas, as there is ample opportunity for actors to stretch into a role that most other genres cannot afford.
Drama films have been nominated frequently for the Academy Award (particularly Best Picture) - more than any other film genre.
Dramatic films include a very large spectrum of film genres. Because of the large number of drama films, these movies have been sub-categorized:
- Crime drama and Legal drama – Character development based on themes involving criminals, law enforcement and the legal system.
- Historical drama (epic) (including War drama) – Films that focus on dramatic events in history.
- Docudrama: the difference between a docudrama and a documentary is that in a documentary it uses real people to describe history or current events; in a docudrama it uses professionally trained actors to play the roles in the current event, that is "dramatized" a bit. Not to be confused with docufiction.
- Comedy-drama: is in which there is an equal, or nearly equal balance of humour and serious content.
- Melodrama: a sub-type of drama films that uses plots that appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience. Melodramatic plots often deal with "crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship." Film critics sometimes use the term "pejoratively to connote an unrealistic, pathos-filled, campy tale of romance or domestic situations with stereotypical characters (often including a central female character) that would directly appeal to feminine audiences." Also called "women's movies", "weepies", tearjerkers, or "chick flicks". If they are targeted to a male audience, then they are called "guy cry" films.
- Romance: a sub-type of dramatic film which dwells on the elements of romantic love.
- Tragedy: a drama in which a character's downfall is caused by a flaw in their character or by a major error in judgment.
In the early years of cinema, melodrama held sway, as the transition from silent cinema's pantomime left film with a more presentational manner. In the 1950s, however, the arrival of stage actors like Marlon Brando, trained in more naturalistic techniques, slowly changed drama to a more realistic tenor. A Streetcar Named Desire is considered a pivotal film in this development. By the late 1970s, melodrama was nearly finished as an overt genre, as the hunger for realism dominated film in groundbreaking movies like Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets.
From the silent era to the 1950s, Dramas were tools to teach the audience. Films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) show the effects of the depression. Citizen Kane (1941) was said by Orson Welles to not be a biography of William Randolph Hearst, but a composite of many people from that era.
The 1950s began a rise in well-known dramatic actors. Montgomery Clift, Glenn Ford, James Dean, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe were notable dramatic actors. Dramatic films focused on character relationships and development. All About Eve (1950) focused on women, and their relationship with men. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) displayed teenage angst. Films like 12 Angry Men (1957) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) show the inner workings of a courtroom.
Some of the most critically acclaimed drama films in Asian cinema were produced during the 1950s, including Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1954), Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957), and the Akira Kurosawa films Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952) and Seven Samurai (1954).
The 1960s brought politically driven dramas focusing on war, such as Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Flashback (1969) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Sports dramas became inspiration such as The Hustler (1961) and Downhill Racer (1969).
During the 1970s, modern dramatic directors made some of their first films. Francis Ford Coppola directed The Godfather (1972). Martin Scorsese directed Taxi Driver (1976), Mean Streets (1973), and musical drama New York, New York (1977). Sylvester Stallone created one of the most successful sports drama franchises with Rocky (1976) and also directed the sequel Rocky II (1979). In addition, in sports drama were films that focused on the struggle of athletes such as Brian's Song (1970), and The Longest Yard (1974). War films and specifically World War II films were produced, giving the most realistic adaptation of the war seen in films at that time. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Patton (1970), and Apocalypse Now (1979), which all show the trials and hardships of war, are still considered classic war films.
In the 1980s, dramatic film put emphasis on highly emotional themes. Do the Right Thing (1989), and The Color Purple (1985) were full character studies of African American culture and history. War dramas again played a big part as Platoon (1986) showed the horrors of Vietnam. Das Boot (1981) focused on the German viewpoint of World War II. Drama, with a science fiction edge was a theme when Steven Spielberg directed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner (1982), and also The Accused (1988).
During the 1990s, Goodfellas (1990) took a gritty, hard-edged look at mob crime. The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which was set inside a prison, had strong themes of hope, as did the Holocaust-themed Schindler's List (1993). Dramas also took a turn with existentialist thrillers such as Fight Club (1999) and the tale of suburban angst American Beauty (1999). Coming of age was dealt with in Good Will Hunting (1997), race relationships were a theme in American History X (1998), and the AIDs epidemic and discrimination were the focus of Philadelphia (1993). Comedy-drama was featured with films like Forrest Gump (1994), Jerry Maguire (1996) and As Good as It Gets (1997). Child-oriented dramas also became more popular with titles such as The Lion King (1994).
In the 2000s, biopics such as Ali (2001), Frida (2002), 8 Mile (2002), Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), and Milk (2008) have become popular among filmmakers. Gladiator (2000) is an epic, dramatic film, along with The Last Samurai (2003). The Gulf War and similar skirmishes were an inspiration for dramatic films in war drama movies like Black Hawk Down (2001) and Jarhead (2005). Despite the drop on popularity of the romantic dramas, some of them have enjoyed big box office and critical success, as the controversial, groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain (2005) for example, that won several awards and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a critically acclaimed romantic-drama that has been nominated for ten Academy Awards, and went on to win eight of them, including Best Picture.