On Movie Screenplays, Viral Memes, and Cultural Evolution

So – put simply – over Time, just like biology – Culture: Evolves. (Leading to greater complexity and diversity in one direction, and unity/convergence in the other.) This actually

This actually happens by itself: somewhat incredibly, the system actually does it – (because it operates due to the laws of holarchy-partarchies) – inevitably, and automatically – all by itself. (See also: this book chapter.)

i.e. – Biological Evolution: Descent with Modification


Likewise, in Cultural Evolution – `Reproduction, with Variation:

Agency and Structure

Human Culture: Like, wow…! (Yes, this image symbolically represents that.)

In Culture (e.g. Feature Film Culture) – through a process of selection, variation and transmission, memes (ideas) are combined – and in some (in fact, a very small minority of) cases, they produce: hybrid vigour in the new (resulting) meme.

Memetic (as opposed to genetic) hybrid vigour

A successful Film Story is about Memetic (as opposed to: Genetic) hybrid vigour

This simple system is the somewhat mind- blowing principle of: Universal Creativity.

Namely, that the laws of Creativity work the same way literally, Universallyacross all Domains (and realms). In the physical world (strong & weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, gravity), in the chemical world (acid + base = salt + water), in the biological world (parent A + parent B = child C), in culture (meme A + meme B = meme C), and, in… whatever comes `after’ Culture. i.e. When (and: if) we evolve that far.

The Cats Eye Nebula. This cat might need to lose a few pounds.

The Cats Eye Nebula. (I personally prefer the PacMan Nebula, but – whatever.)

World Creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Nobel prize-winner Jonas Salk (the guy who cured polio) and two-time Pulitzer prize-winning sociobiologist E O Wilson – all agreed on the (relatively profound) principle of: Universal Creativity.

It can be seen that this diagram below – a General Theory of Creativity – applies also to Biological Creativity (i.e. Evolution.)

General Model of Creativity color

Figure 1: General Model of Creativity
Source: (Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000: 81)

Any new form of life, when it: evolves, survives, and thrives, is: implemented, valuable, and original. (In terms of, a `novel and appropriate’ way to: propagate DNA, and ensure the survival of the species.)

I am personally convinced that, if we understand how to successfully create Culture more effectively – and therefore: enabling us to better (i.e. more efficiently and effectively) spread positive messages (or `themes’) in the Culture with our mass media (films), then Humanity will evolve, thrive and survive, much faster. (For example, we could make more films about: the perils of Human-generated Climate Change; Why Racism, Sexism and Ageism are wrong; about Nuclear Disarmament – to name just three noble/worthy causes.)

It is with this general goal in mind – Metabiological / Biocultural Evolution – and Universal Creativity that I have created the StoryAlity Theory for Films. I sincerely hope that people (this means YOU, film storyteller!) will use it for good, and not evil; and, that like the atom bomb, I well  not have `created a monster’.

To be clear: my reasons/motives for studying RoI (or return-on-investment, or `virality’) in Films – is not at all about making profits from film – and is not at all about encouraging anyone to make `superficial commercial crap’, like Hollywood does at the moment, and largely, has done, up to now. (I have no empirical proof that it’s mostly crap, it is just my personal opinion, but – since 7 in 10 films lose money, I may – possibly – be in the majority. Hard to say.)

At any rate, this story system is instead about giving free tools to Writers/Storytellers/Filmmakers so that they may be empowered to spread their Messages/Themes/Ideas faster – and further and better, thus – hopefully and ideally – progressing the Evolution of the Human species.

On this exact same point – in Creativity (1996), Csikszentmihalyi states:

“The future is in our hands; the culture we create will determine our fate. This is the evolution that Jonas Salk calls metabiological, or E.O. Wilson and others call biocultural. 

The idea is the same: survival no longer depends on biological equipment alone but on the social and cultural tools we choose to use.

The inventions of the great civilizations – the arts, religions, political systems, sciences and technologies – signal the main stages along the path to cultural evolution.

To be human means to be creative.

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 318-19 – emphasis mine)

Please see this post for more: as it happens both Salk and EO Wilson were among the 91 `Creative’ people that Csikszentmihalyi studied / surveyed in his landmark work, Creativity (1996).

We (Creativity researchers) are all actually still trying to unify this theory – Universal Creativity*. In my view, whoever actually `cracks it’, deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

The positive implications of it, are potentially incredible.

Here is what Nobel Prize winner Jonas Salk was working on before he died:

I have continued to be interested in some larger questions, more fundamental questions, involving also creativity. This institution [The Salk Institute for Biological Studies] was established with the idea that it would be a crucible for creativity, a center for the study of creativity.

I see us human beings as a product of evolution, I would say, creative evolution. I have become interested in what I call universal evolution, which is manifested in prebiological evolution, evolution in the physical and chemical world, and then biological evolution, and then what I call mental evolution, evolution of the mind itself, the brain-mind.

And now I am beginning to write about teleological evolution, which is evolution with a purpose.

(Jonas Salk, from Csikszentmihalyi 1995, in Creativity Across The Lifespan)

Okay – now, that’s enough “big picture” stuff – back to memes:

A biological virus

A biological virus. (Cute, ain’t he?) – A `viral meme’ (like: a Top 20 RoI Film) is the Cultural equivalent of this.

There are of course – the successful memes that go extremely viral (that `spread like wildfire’, through the Culture).

This screenplay is pretty hot

Got a hot screenplay?

(Note: not all memes go viral. Some films (memes) do the exact opposite – and `go nowhere fast’. See: The Bottom 20 RoI Films.)

The Film ROI (return on investment) bell curve

The Film RoI (return on investment) bell curve

However – the Top 20 RoI Films – are those that went the most viral. Due to the Story, in each case.

These 20 films each had: the widest audience reach, for the least production budget.

This is what Brian Boyd in On The Origin of Stories (2009) refers to as “cost benefit ratios” for both artists (e.g. filmmakers) and audiences. 

The top 20 RoI films also had no real help from: Marketing, or Stars, or famous `Marquee-value’ Directors, Timing – or anything else. (All those things don’t make any difference anyway, as De Vany et al (2004) have found. (See Points 1 through 15 , here in StoryAlity #22)

– It is entirely the film story that causes a film to go viral.

(Or: not, when the film `flops’/fails to “find an audience”.)

So – the public (in other words, “The Field” in Csikszentmihalyi and Bourdieu’s terms) selects which memes (films) `go viral’, and which do not.

The Feature Film Domain as a System

The Feature Film Domain as a System – using Csikszentmihalyi’s DIFi or DPFi systems model of Creativity (1998-2006)

The Field (audience, critics, the film industry, the Academy, teachers) all do this simply by seeing and liking a film, and thus making it popular (at the box office), by word-of-mouth.

This results in a high audience reach, which (arguably) is: the key goal, of all Storytelling.

(Does anyone NOT want their Story/Film to go viral? i.e. Does anyone not actually NEED for this to happen? Films are the most expensive art form – and, usually require a 373% RoI to break even/turn a profit, so that the film creatives can then get the chance to make another one. (Film financing is notoriously difficult; all (film) investors are risk-averse; only 2% of screen ideas/screenplays are ever made…!). And – 7 in 10 films lose money!!!

So – the cold hard StoryAlity is, You’re only as good as your last film’s “performance” with the Audience (the Field.)

So – as Screenwriters – and/or – Filmmakers: How can we create viral memes with our feature films?

Confused Crowd

One Answer: DO what the top 20 RoI films did – and, at the same time – don’t do what the Bottom 20 RoI films did.

The Film ROI (return on investment) bell curve

The Film RoI (Return-On-Investment) Gaussian bell curve. – Forget about the money. This really means: HIGH AUDIENCE REACH. Which – is what, ALL Storytellers really want … right-?

This will mean the probability of your film going viral is maximized. (In the Social Sciences – there is usually no “right and wrong”; only: statistical and probabilistical superiority.)

i.e. Or – What Bourdieu calls: “possible winning strategies.

"Go fish"

A possible winning strategy: “Go, Fish.”

We can’t control the Zeitgeist (the “spirit of the times”) – but – we can try and anticipate it.

So… On with the show…

Next up: The StoryAlity(TM) Screenplay Structure Syntagm

StoryAlity Spirality

(i,e, – No less than, the single, unifying, Story Structure, underpinning all of the Top 20 RoI Films.)

Right before your very eyes.

Right before your very eyes

As if: like Magic. (Actually, this is a pretty lousy illustration to have here – as it implies a Romantic – rather than a Rational view – of Creativity. But – whatever. The colours are kinda nice, I guess. If you like that sort of thing.)

If memes, or units of culture (such as: movies) are of interest, see this chapter:

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



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/



*(And in fact – this is also what I am aiming to do, as a greater holarchy-partarchy of the StoryAlity theory.. Call me ambitious – but: you gotta have a hobby. Might as well be something you might win a Nobel Peace Prize for.)



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).

Csikszentmihalyi, M 2014, ‘The Systems Model of Creativity and Its Applications’, in DK Simonton (ed.), The Wiley Handbook of Genius, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chichester, West Sussex.

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.


11 thoughts on “StoryAlity #49 – On Movie Screenplays, Viral Memes, and Cultural Evolution

  1. I find your comments on cultural evolution fascinating–especially
    your diagram on creativity as it relates to survival . The concept of culture evolving along its own determinates is much like that of the late Leslie White, anthropolgist–I believe from Univ of Chicago.
    He proposed supra-organic evolution–culture evolving on its own path apart from whether or not it is “valuable” to our future.

    I believe agree that our ability to guide our cultural changes is a
    vital issue–not just in the creative arts like film–but across the board. Culture can work for us or against us–it is unlikely to be a neutral factor in our future unless we are wiped out by a comet or something–and even then, if we developed a response to that scenario–our culture could save us.

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