On Movie Memes and Memetics (and: How Memes Work)

So, as per the previous StoryAlity weblog post, this is one version of Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity:

Creativity and Cultural Evolution

Creativity and Cultural Evolution

Figure 1: The Systems Model of Creativity

Source: (M. Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000: 84)

The model has been refined by Csikszentmihalyi over many years of researching and refining the systems model of creativity theory, (from 1998 through to 2006).

At the core of Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity are: memes.

So: What are they? Why are they? (Where can I get some? See: www.KnowYourMeme.com  )

A meme is: a unit of culture. (An idea, a concept)

A meme is: a unit of culture. (i.e. – an idea, a concept)

Memes are ideas. (They are also holons. i.e. `holonic memes’ – I will explain that shortly, in a subsequent post).

I assert they are absorbed by the individual, combined and re-inserted in the Domain (of creative works).

Sometimes they (these creative artifacts, or processes) are judged creative (novel and appropriate) by the Field.

Here is a book chapter on memes:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture (and narreme, or unit of story)

So… Where Do Memes Come From? 

In The Meme Machine (1999), Susan Blackmore explains:

`Where do new memes come from? They come about through variation and combination of old ones – either inside the person’s mind, or when memes are passed from person to person…

They then remember it and pass it on, and variations occur in the process.

And the same is true of inventions, songs, works of art, and scientific theories.

The human mind is a rich source of variation. In our thinking we mix up ideas and turn them over to produce new combinations. In our dreams we mix them up even more, with bizarre – and occasionally creative – consequences.

Human creativity is a process of variation and recombination.’

(Blackmore 1999, p.15)

As creativity researcher Colin Martindale (1989) notes,

`Creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas.

As Poincare (1913. p. 386) put it, “to create consists of making new combinations of associative elemenrs which are useful.” He went on to remark that creative ideas “reveal to us unsuspected kinships between other facts well known but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another. Among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart” (p. 386).’

(Martindale in Glover, Ronning & Reynolds [eds], 1989, p. 212).

More on ideas (i.e. memes) from How To Get Ideas (1996) by Jack Foster:

`Everything I’ve ever read about ideas talks about combining or linkage or juxtaposition or synthesis or association.


“It is obvious” wrote Hadamard “that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas… The Latin verb cogito, for `to think’ etymologically means `to shake together’. St Augustine had already noticed that and had observed that intelligo means `to select among’.


“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work,” wrote T S Eliot, “it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences. The ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love and reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”


“A man becomes creative,” wrote J Bronowski “whether he is an artist or a scientist, when he finds a new unity in the variety of nature. He does so by finding a likeness between things which were not thought alike before… The creative mind is a mind that looks for unexpected likenesses.”


Or listen to Robert Frost: “What is an idea? If you remember only one thing I’ve said, remember that an idea is a feat of association”.


Or Francis H Cartier: “There is only one way in which a person acquires a new idea: by the combination or association of two or more ideas he already has into a new juxtaposition in such a manner as to discover a relationship among them of which he was not previously aware.”


And Arthur Koestler wrote an entire book, The Act Of Creation, based on “the thesis that creative originality does not mean creating or originating a system of ideas out of nothing but rather out of a combination of well-established patterns of thought – by a process of cross-fertilisation”. Koestler calls this process “bisociation”. “The creative act” he explains “…uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”


“Feats of association”, “unexpected likenesses”, “new wholes”, “shake together”, then “select among,” “new juxtapositions” “bisociations” – however they phrase it, they’re all saying pretty much what James Webb Young said: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”’

(Foster 1996, pp. 14-6)

Some Definitions

MemesEnglish ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins defined a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission” (Dawkins 2006: 196).

Memes are an integral component of the systems model of creativity:

`The analogy to genes in the evolution of culture are memes… songs, recipes, laws and values are all memes… It is these memes that a creative person changes, and if enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 7).

For the purpose of this thesis, if a film story is a meme, the systems model of creativity would explain the mechanism by which some films (as more virulent memes) spread through the culture (the meme pool), like a virus in biological evolution.

This thesis asserts that certain films have more virulent memes in their story DNA, which means that the film story itself then becomes a more virulent meme.

In other words, by studying the 20 most `virulent’ films (those films that spread the furthest in the culture despite the limitations of their production means), we might identify the viral memes within those films that caused this virulence to occur, and how screenwriters can use those same story memes (e.g. Villain Triumphant, no `transformational character arcs’, an average scene length of 50 seconds, etc.)

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

As documented in StoryAlity(TM) The Science of Story, “The Story Premises – And Their Inspirations – behind the Top 20 ROI films”, Rocky borrowed the famous (viral) meme of the 1975 Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner prize-fight, and each of the top 20 ROI films can be seen to select, vary and re-transmit virulent memes, in the culture. (Velikovsky 2012: 221)

By using viral memes, a screenwriter / filmmaker may enable their film story to go viral.


Memeplexes – `Groups of memes that are replicated together. Dawkins calls such groups `co-adapted meme complexes’, a phrase recently abbreviated to `memeplexes’ (Speel 1995). …Genes, of course, go around in groups too. They clump together into chromosomes, and chromosomes are packed together inside cells. Perhaps, more importantly, the whole gene pool of a species can be seen as a group of mutually cooperating genes. The reason is simple: a free-floating piece of DNA could not effectively get itself replicated. After billions of years of biological evolution, most of the DNA on the planet is very well packaged indeed, as genes inside organisms that are their survival machines.’ (Blackmore 1999, p.19).

I assert that a Feature Film Story (as individually contained in a feature film) is also a memeplex, made up of such memes as: the story title, the story concept, the story premise, the theme/s, the characters, the sequences, the scenes, the moments, the dialog – the visuals and sounds. Each of these memes/memeplexes is a holon/holarchy, and the entire Film (Story) is also a holon/holarchy.

Meme pool – As the term `gene pool’ is understood in biological evolution, this thesis uses the term “meme pool” in cultural evolution. Memes are selected, varied and transmitted by writers/ filmmakers within the meme pool (culture).

Cultural Evolution – Csikszentmihalyi finds that `Creativity is the engine that drives cultural evolution.’ (M. Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000: 84). If memes are to culture what genes are to biology, then as with genes in biological evolution, the process of writing and creating a successful feature film is successful meme selection, variation and transmission.

This thesis argues that this process is in evidence in the case studies of the creation of these top 20 ROI films, which therefore explains why they went so viral.

A biological virus

A biological virus

`Viral’ (general usage) – It should be noted, this term is also widely used in the vernacular of internet videos and images; if a video or image spreads rapidly on the internet, it is said to have “gone viral”. This is not exactly the same strict definition which this doctoral thesis uses. The definition of the term `viral’ for the purpose of this research study is as follows:

`Viral’ (in StoryAlity Theory) – If, as Csikszentmihalyi suggests, memes in culture are analogous to genes in biology, then `a more virulent meme’ in the culture is analogous to a more contagious virus, in biology. Specifically, if a feature film has a smaller production budget, and yet, spreads (relatively) further in the culture (due to word-of-mouth, and the multiplier effect), it is, therefore: a more virulent meme. (And the film story is also: a memeplex)

This thesis asserts that this phenomenon is due to the fact that: some or many of the memes contained within the film story (concepts, ideas, scenarios, memorable lines of dialog, etc.) are also virulent memes.

Conceptualising creativity in this way means that screenwriters and filmmakers can examine and understand how the top 20 most virulent films (the top 20 ROI films) came to be created, using 20 case studies. This may enable other writers/film-makers to likewise create a viral film, or one that reaches the widest audience, relative to the film’s budget[1].

Hybrid vigor – can occur when the parents of an offspring come from different species. (Alternately, heterosis refers to parents taken from different populations of the same species.) Hybrid vigor results in greater Darwinian fitness. Fitness-related characters are survival, growth rate and fertility. (Charlesworth and Willis 2009: 783)

Inbreeding depressionoccurs when parents are closely related genetically (such as cousins), and can result in reduced Darwinian fitness, such as decreased fertility and increased mortality in offspring. `Inbreeding lowers fitness-realted characters in many species of plants and animals including humans.’ (Charlesworth and Willis 2009: 783)

Bisociation – Arthur Koestler coined this term for associative thinking (connecting two previously incompatible ideas or contexts) in The Act of Creation. “I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane’, as it were, and the creative act, which, as I shall try to show, always operates on more than one plane.” (Koestler 1964)


A simple explanation of the cycle of a meme (and how an idea – or a film – can essentially “spread like wildfire” through a population) is below, from The Lifecycle of Memes[2] by Bjarneskans, Grønnevik and Sandberg:

Lifecycle of a meme

Fig. 1: Lifecycle of a meme

Fig 1: Lifecycle of a meme

Source: The Lifecycle of Memes[2] by Bjarneskans, Grønnevik and Sandberg.

As the authors explain:

Memes have a life-cycle similar to parasites (Fig 1). During the transmission phase of the meme it is encoded in a vector, such as a spoken message, text, image, email, observed behaviour or slab of stone. When a potential host decodes the meme (reads the text, hears the message) the meme may become active and infects the person, who becomes a new host (the infection phase). At some point the meme is encoded in a suitable vector (not necessarily the same medium it was originally decoded from) and can be spread to infect new hosts.  This division of the lifecycle makes it easier to discuss memetic selection criteria, such as the list proposed by Heylighen (1994)[3].

The authors also present a more detailed version of the model of a meme cycle:

The Meme Cycle

The Meme Cycle

Fig 2: The Meme Cycle: The meme moves clockwise through the different phases

Source: The Lifecycle of Memes by Henrik Bjarneskans, Bjarne Grønnevik and Anders Sandberg: http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Memetics/memecycle.html


The Feature Film Domain as a System

The Feature Film Domain as a System (as per Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model)

Usually, the movie trailer (or another form of advertising, e.g., print media – such as a newspaper advertisement) is the way “the hook” is implanted in the Audience.

Once the first audience has gone to see the film, they then transmit the meme (of the film story) to the rest of the potential Audience – via word-of-mouth (which includes any form of communication such as email, SMS texting, or social media such as Twitter, FaceBook, etc.)

For this reason, the initial advertising campaign requires approximately $1m of Marketing (e.g. TV and internet advertisements) to provide an “initial infection” of the public, with the film story meme.

The film story (and the film itself) can then “go viral” if the story is contagious enough, and the film is of excellent quality.

So: I am saying that – all 20 of the top 20 ROI films are excellent quality films.

By this I mean that, all technical and creative aspects of the film are way above average in terms of:

  • The Writing (The Story, and Screenplay – including the dialog)
  • The Directing
  • The Acting
  • The Producing
  • The Cinematography (including the Lighting)
  • The Production Design
  • The Art Direction
  • The Costume Design
  • The Makeup and Hairstyling
  • The Film Editing
  • The Music Score
  • The Songwriting
  • The Sound Design, Recording, Editing & Mixing
  • The Visual Effects (if there are any, as many of these films are low-budget)
  • The Grading
  • The Title Sequence Design

In short, there are almost countless ways a film can fail; but – provided all the above elements are excellent (or at the very least: are acceptable) the Story can “do its job” and spread as a meme, to find the film’s target audience.

By studying these most empirically-successful memes (i.e. the most successful film stories, and the holarchy of memes within them – such as: memorable/”quotable” dialog lines, characters, story tropes, jokes, etc.) – Writers and Filmmakers can emulate the success of other successful memes (such as the top 20 ROI film stories), in designing and making their own Film Stories (memes).

It is helpful to think of film stories as memes, simply because: that is what they are.

Memes are virulent and contagious, to varying degrees – depending on the strength of the meme. So too, with film stories – as stories – are memes. People saw the top 20 ROI films, and told others about them.

However the fact that film stories are memes has up to now, been for the most part overlooked, even though the idea of memes has been in the public sphere since Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976.

For example in their research paper Motion Picture Profit, also reprinted in the book Hollywood Economics (2003) De Vany and Walls repeatedly mention this “virulent/contagion” effect – without ever pointing out (or, realizing) the memetic behavior of successful films, nor that Film Stories are themselves memes:

One of the things that makes the movies a business of extremes is the way moviegoers dynamically influence one another. If a movie has a big opening, then lots of people will tell other people about it. It will be reported on the evening news as a top-grossing picture. The news or a good comment from someone who liked the movie might influence someone else to go see it. In a crowded market, just getting that kind of attention can separate a movie from the crowd and get it off to a good start.

But, it is the way that information spreads dynamically that leads to extreme differences among movies—the big hits do not always open big, but they do seem to be propelled by a recursive and non-linear demand dynamic. The influence of early viewers goes under different names in the economics literature: contagion, network effects, bandwagons, path dependence, momentum, and information cascades are some of the descriptive names attached to these recursive dynamic processes.

These models differ in the details, but they are all dynamical processes in which the change in demand depends on demand already revealed just as the spread of a disease depends on the number of carriers who have it.  When demand has this dynamical property, initial advantages can lead to extreme differences in outcomes, a property that is at the heart of this business.

In an earlier paper we (De Vany and Walls, 1996) showed that box office revenues have a contagion-like property where the week-to-week change in demand is stochastically dependent on previous demand. But, we also showed that there are no guarantees. A big opening of a bad movie can be like a virulent disease that kills off its hosts so quickly that it fails to spread and dies out. A big opening with a good movie can spread quickly to extremely large revenues,such as when a single movie (Titanic) out of more than 600 releases grosses about one seventh of total world box office revenues.

(De Vany and Walls 2004)

Note how often successful movies are compared to a virus in the above text.

(Note also that – not all viruses are harmful. And not all are successful; some spread far and wide, others “die out” quickly.)

Influenza Nomenclature Diagram

Influenza Nomenclature Diagram

On the same topic – memes – in his illuminating book Creativity (1996), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states the following:

In cultural evolution there are no mechanisms equivalent to genes and chromosomes. Therefore a new idea is not automatically passed on to the next generation. Instructions for how to use fire, or the wheel or atomic energy are not built into the nervous systems of children born after such discoveries. Each child has to learn them again from the start.

The analogy to genes in the evolution of culture are memes, or units of information we must learn if culture is to continue. Languages, numbers, theories, songs, recipes, laws and values are all memes that we pass on to our children so that they will be remembered.

It is these memes that a creative person changes, and if enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture.

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1997: 7)

Without ever directly mentioning stories (or films) here, Csikszentmihalyi is saying the same thing; film stories are memes.

Likewise, if the meme (a feature film story) is strong (considered to be great by a wide Audience), and therefore, is wildly-contagious, it will “take off” via word-of-mouth, and will go `viral’ – and the marketing is then irrelevant. All that is required is a “baseline level” of Marketing.

Once launched, the film then markets itself, via word-of-mouth, due to the Story.

Rocket launch

This is in fact exactly what happened with the top 20 ROI films.

There is no other empirical explanation for their success, mainly as Marketing, “Star-Power”, (and other irrelevant factors) are either absent from, or are minimal variables for these film’s wild successes.

I assert that this simple idea – that ROI is a measure of success, or that: the Film Story is responsible for a film’s success in reaching a wide audience and that ROI is the most useful metric of this success, is the key concept that all the previous studies of causal factors in film success have neglected.

To recap: there is a remarkable amount of formal, academic, peer-reviewed research into the factors that can potentially be used to predict movie box office success – however none of them provide useful data – and many of them in fact provide misleading and harmful data – and I contend that this has resulted in the film industry’s current failure rate, where 7 in every 10 films lose money – and only 3 in 10 films either `break even’, or make a profit.

Therefore, the key thesis – and conclusion – of this revolutionary research study is that:

This is all that matters.

This is all that matters.

And for a book chapter on all this, see:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture (and narreme, or unit of story)

…Thoughts? Comments? Feedback? 


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



[1] The budget ranges for the Top 20 ROI Films of this doctoral research study are $7000 to $11M, although the story principles can equally apply to a film of any budget, meaning a film could be made for $1000 or $300M, and these same story principles discovered in the top 20 most viral films should still mean in theory that the film would reach the widest possible audience, for its budget.

[2] The Lifecycle of Memes by Henrik Bjarneskans, Bjarne Grønnevik and Anders Sandberg: http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Memetics/memecycle.html

[3] From The Lifecycle of Memes by Henrik Bjarneskans, Bjarne Grønnevik and Anders Sandberg: http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Memetics/memecycle.html


Blackmore, SJ (1999), The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Charlesworth, Deborah; and Willis, John H (2009), ‘”The genetics of inbreeding depression”‘, Nature Reviews Genetics, 10 (11), 783–96.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st edn.; New York: HarperCollins) viii, 456 p.

— (1997), Creativity : flow and the psychology of discovery and invention (1st HarperPerennial edn.; New York: HarperPerennial) 456 p.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Wolfe, Rustin (2000), ‘New Conceptions and Research Approaches to Creativity: Implications for a Systems Perspective of Creativity in Education’, in K. A.  Heller, et al. (eds.), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nd ed. edn.; Amsterdam; Oxford: Elsevier).

Dawkins, Richard (2006), The Selfish Gene (30th anniversary edn.; Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1 online resource (xxiii, 360 p.).

De Vany, Arthur S. and Walls, W. David (2004), ‘Motion picture profit, the stable Paretian hypothesis, and the curse of the superstar’, Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, 28 (6), 1035-57.

Foster, J (1996), How To Get Ideas, 1st edn, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Koestler, Arthur (1964), The Act of Creation (London,: Hutchinson) 751 p.

Martindale, C. (1989). `Personality, Situation and Creativity’. In J. A. Glover, R. R. Ronning & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.), Handbook of Creativity: Perspectives on Individual Differences (pp. 211-232). New York; London: Plenum.

Velikovsky, JT (2012), ‘STORYALITY(TM) – The Science of Story: Analyzing the Super-Successful Story and Screenplays of the Top 20 R.O.I. Films of the Last 70 Years’.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.’ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.


24 thoughts on “StoryAlity #45 – On Movie Memes and Memetics (and: How Memes Work)

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