Why are some films more viral (i.e., successful) memes?

So: Film stories can be regarded as memes. Or: units of culture.

In fact, they are memeplexes. (For more detail on this, see: StoryAlity #45, and StoryAlity #100 and StoryAlity #132).

In his landmark 1976 work, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins defined memes as “cultural replicators”.

Memes are ideas or concepts (or songs, jokes, stories) that behave like viruses, moving through a culture. Some die out quickly, while others `spread like wildfire’, via word-of-mouth. This obviously translates into cinema box office attendance, and therefore, ultimately: Return On Investment.

Here are the top 20 ROI films of the past 70 years.

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

So – the burning question:

This screenplay is pretty hot

A really hot screenplay

Q: Why are some films more successful (viral) memes than others, in the culture?

Why do they reach such a comparatively-wide audience, despite their comparatively-low production budgets?

(Elsewhere, this PhD research blog also explains how extensive academic, peer-reviewed research on Marketing – and other Film elements, such as “star power” are not a causal factor in a film’s success). For details, see:

  1. StoryAlity #20 – What Exactly is, a `Successful’ Film?
  2. StoryAlity #21 – What Makes A Film Succeed? – The Story.
  3. StoryAlity #22 – So What Doesn’t Necessarily Make a Movie Successful?
  4. StoryAlity #23 – Define “A Film Story”

Some have conjectured that some films (such as: all the top 20 ROI films) are more successful, simply because their stories all include the primal themes of: Survival, Reproduction and Revenge. (Or viewed another way: `Success, Family/Community, and Justice’).

As creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also states, in Creativity (1996):

`It is easier to find pleasure in things that are easier – in activities like sex and violence that are already programmed into our genes. Hunting, fishing, eating and mating have privileged places in our nervous systems.

It is also easy to enjoy making money, or discovering new lands, or conquering new territories, or building elaborate palaces, temples or tombs because these projects are in synchrony with survival strategies established long ago in our physiological makeup.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 125)

However – there are about 30 x things you need to get right, (and – not get any of them wrong) for a movie to go viral… See this post, for details:

StoryAlity #131 – Why Things (like, some Movies) Are Popular – and – The Anna Karenina principle

For one thing – as a movie story creator, you need to keep the audience in the `flow’ state, or, achieve narrative transportation for the audience, as in Narrative Transportation Theory.

Screenwriting is possibly one of the most intensely structured art forms, and yet – both paradoxically and ironically – the writer (and/or writer-director, or other writer-hyphenate) also has enormous `agency’ (freedom of choice) within that structure (i.e. a 90 to 120 page screenplay) to create any story they wish.

With screenwriting (or indeed, any artistic pursuit)

“Structure gives you freedom to be creative”.

But – it should be noted that – Film as a medium (and, as “the most expensive art form”) is also notoriously difficult:

The Feature Film Domain as a System

The Feature Film Domain as a System     (Analysis: JT Velikovsky, from Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of Creativity, 1988-2006)

`The role of the Field – What does it take for a new meme to be accepted into the domain? Who has the right to decide whether a new meme is actually an improvement, or simply a mistake to be discarded?

In the systems model, the gatekeepers who have the right to add memes to a domain are collectively designated the field. Some domains may have a very small field consisting of a dozen or so scholars across the world. Others, such as electronic engineering, may include many thousands of specialists whose opinion would count in recognizing a viable novelty.

For mass-market products such as soft drinks or motion pictures, the field might include not only the small coterie of product developers and critics, but the public at large. For instance, if New Coke is not a part of the culture, it is because although it passed the evaluation of the small field of beverage specialists, it failed to pass the test of public taste.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 2001: 9 – emphasis mine)

On the same point:

`In the domains of movies or popular music, which are much more accessible to the general public, the specialized field is notoriously unable to enforce a decision as to which works will be creative.

It is instructive to compare the list of Nobel Prize winners in literature with those in the sciences: few of the writers from years past are now recognized as creative compared with the scientists.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 2001: 10)

So… It’s a slippery beast, is film. A slippery bete noir! 

Bete noir

A bete noir (…cute, ain’t he?)

It appears that creativity is an evolutionary process. See this chapter for details:

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/



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

— (2001), A Systems Perspective On Creativity in Jane Henry (Ed) Creative Management (2nd edn.; Milton Keynes, U.K.London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Open University, Sage Publications) xi, 315 p.

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.

7 thoughts on “StoryAlity #47 – Why are some Screenplays/Films more `viral’ Memes?

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  3. Pingback: StoryAlity #47B – More on Memes and Film (and: 3 solved problems in Memetics) | StoryAlity

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