What is it?
At its simplest, Creative Practice Theory Narratology asks: Why are some films/novels/songs more viral – and therefore, more popular – than others?
Creative Practice Theory Narratology – is a theoretical framework, critical approach and methodology created by the author of this thesis (JT Velikovsky 2012-2016) as a synthesis of: practice theory (Bourdieu, 1977-1993), the systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1988-2006), memes (Dawkins 1976), holons (Koestler 1967) and narratology (selected pattern-recognition methods used by various significant narratologists since Plato), in order to comprehensively and accurately describe the workings of the feature film industry in practice, and how and why creative artefacts (film screenplays, feature films) emerge from that system in practice.
For more detailed information, see also the book chapter at:
Key concepts in Creative Practice Theory Narratology include: the individual/agent (screenwriter, producer, director, literary agent, manager, audience member, film sales agent, distributor, cinema exhibitor), the field (feature film audiences, critics, academics, filmmakers), and the domain (all knowledge and information in the domain of narrative fiction feature films, including feature films, books, websites and any information related to film and its related sub- and super-domains, such as acting, cinematography, oral narratology, etc.) Practice Theory Narratology is simultaneously a view of the feature film domain as: macro and micro; a general overview and specific details; the objective and the subjective.
The Creative Practice Theory Narratology agent-based model – is a real-time computer simulation model of these five concepts (practice theory, the systems model of creativity, narratology, memes and holons), combined, to examine the functioning of the creative system of narrative fiction feature films. (Velikovsky 2012f).
To run the CPTN model, click the link below: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/55175351/DIFI%20model%20112/DIFI%20Screenplays%20Velikovsky%20V113.html
Instructions: Press `RESET’ and then press `GO’.
This agent-based model is an adapted computer simulation representing a theoretical model of the feature film system in action. In the model, screenwriters and producers can be observed, absorbing (internalising) the domain, acquiring habitus, and after 10 years (on average) a writer produces a screenplay that may be produced and may become a film that may enter the domain of works judged creative, and may go viral.
Concepts from Bourdieu:
Practice Theory – French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) developed a sociology of culture, as first presented in An Outline of a Theory of Practice (Bourdieu & Nice 1977) and subsequently (1983, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1993). Key concepts in Bourdieu’s practice theory include: agency and structure, subject and object, capital, habitus, agents, and the field. For more on practice theory see: http://johnpostill.com/2008/10/30/what-is-practice-theory/
Habitus – `a feel for the game’, a `practical sense’ that is gained through experience (Bourdieu & Johnson 1993, p. 5). Successful filmmakers (for example, creators of extremely profitable, or award-winning films) could be seen to have developed an effective habitus, which enabled them to create such films. Notably, the constraints and possibilities of the `game’ of filmmaking are not presented as rules, but as `possible winning strategies’. (Bourdieu & Johnson 1993, p. 184)
Agents – individuals in any field, whose agency is both enabled and constrained by their individual position within the structure of that field. (Bourdieu & Johnson 1993, p. 6)
The Field – Bourdieu examines various fields, including the arts, law, politics, economy, education and culture, noting that these are themselves a series of overlapping fields. (Bourdieu & Johnson 1993, p. 6) This thesis examines the field of narrative fiction feature films, a field which includes: feature film audiences, critics, filmmakers, academics, film/screenwriting teachers, and filmmaking students. (Compare with Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of `field’, below).
Doxa – that which is taken for granted in any specific society; the experience by which “the natural and social world appears as self-evident”. (Bourdieu 1976, p. 118; 1994, p. 160) Bourdieu notes that textbooks and manuals emanate from the doxa (Bourdieu, 1996 p.194). This thesis argues the current screenwriting doxa is non-empirical (see Definition of `Empirical/Non-empirical’ below).
Four types of Capital – Bourdieu initially recognized three types of capital used by agents (namely economic, cultural and social capital), to which he later added a fourth (symbolic capital – or, resources available to the agent on the basis of honour, prestige or recognition) (Bourdieu 1986, p. 243). Filmmakers and screenwriters often must use their social capital (reputation), cultural capital (expert knowledge of film storytelling) and symbolic capital (awards) as leverage to trade with (and/or convince) owners of economic capital (film producers, film investors and financiers) to finance their feature film.
Concepts from Csikszentmihalyi
Creativity – American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents and refines a theory of creativity (1988, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2006), whereby: `Creativity occurs when a person using the symbols of a given domain such as music, engineering, business or mathematics has a new idea or sees a new pattern, and when this novelty is selected by the appropriate field for inclusion into the relevant domain’ (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1996, p. 28) Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe state that `Creativity can be defined as an idea or product that is original, valued and implemented.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, M & Wolfe 2000, p. 81)
In Handbook of Creativity (Sternberg 1999), Sternberg and Lubart find `Creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e. original, unexpected) and appropriate (i.e. useful, adaptive concerning task constraints)’ (Sternberg & Lubart 1999, p. 3).
In Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1996) presents the results of an empirical study of 91 exceptionally creative individuals, across various domains (prize-winners and outstanding individuals in both the arts and sciences). Runco, Weisberg and Pope have offered critiques of the systems model, primarily noting that it potentially privileges the individual as creator, over group creation (McIntyre 2012, pp. 80-5).
The Field – `the field… includes all individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1996, p. 28) (Compare with Bourdieu’s definition, above.)
The Domain – a domain `consists of a set of symbolic rules and procedures… Domains are in turn nested in what we usually call culture, or the symbolic knowledge shared by a particular society or by humanity as a whole .’ (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1996, pp. 27-8) This DCA thesis deals with the feature film domain, including all creative artefacts about feature film – such as films, books, websites, etcetera – and related sub-domains of film, such as acting, cinematography, sound, music, title design, etc.
The DIFI (Domain, Individual, Field interaction) Systems model of Creativity –
Internalising the Domain – Csikszentmihalyi finds that in order to produce a work that will be judged creative by the field, a person must learn the rules of the domain, and practice their art/craft, a process which can take ten years on average. (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1996, p. 47), (Csikszentmihalyi 2004, pp. 10-1 mins). This concept partially correlates (overlaps) with Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, or acquiring “a feel for the game”, noting that habitus is also acquired over an entire lifetime; where internalising the creative domain forms part of, and informs, an individual’s habitus.
Combining practice theory and the systems model – In Musical Creativities in Practice (Burnard 2012) Burnard combines Bourdieu’s practice theory and Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity, with respect to musical creativities:
Creative Practice Theory model – A synthesis (by JT Velikovsky) of certain key concepts in practice theory (Bourdieu) and the systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi).
For more on the Creative Practice Theory model (Velikovsky 2012) see: Creative Practice Theory.
Knowledge vs Information – knowledge is contained in the minds of those individuals/agents in the field, and is obtained both via practice (experience) and by absorbing information from creative artefacts (films, books, educational texts, screenwriting manuals, weblogs, etc.).
Domain problems – In the domain of biology for example, Darwin solved the problem of evolution. (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1996, pp. 97-8) In the domain of physics, Einstein solved both the problem of special (1905) and general relativity (1916) (Kuhn & Hacking 2012, p. xiii). In the domain of feature film, a key problem many screenwriters/ filmmakers encounter is that only 2% of screenplays submitted to film (economic) capital controllers are produced. (Macdonald 2004, p. 190).
Holons and holarchies – The term holon was coined for a philosophical concept described by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine. ‘A holon … is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part’; Koestler defines a holarchy as a hierarchy of self-regulating holons. (Koestler 1967, p. 48) Funch demonstrates that the internal functioning of holarchies are governed by laws (Funch 1995). This thesis asserts that both film stories and the film industry are holons (and a holarchy of holons). Understanding the rules which govern holons/holarchies (and therefore, memes in stories) explains how screen ideas, screenplays, and films – and even the film industry that produces them – operate, due to the internal laws of holarchies.
How Holarchies work–
The following is an extract from the 1995 essay “Holarchies” by Flemming Funch (Funch 1995). My own additions are inserted below, in italics.
- A holon is a node in a holarchy. (It is also a meme, composed of sub-memes.)
- A holon looks up for what it needs to cooperate with and integratewith.
- (e.g. A screenwriter looks to a producer, in the field, to make their screenplay into a movie, by financing it, and then producing it)
- It looks sideways for what it needs to compete with.
- (A screenwriter competes with other screenwriters for limited resources, i.e. producers, also the total economic capital is limited, so producers compete with each other for financiers/finance.)
- It looks down for what it wants to command.
- There is no-one “below” the screenwriter.
- But there are “film story” ideas (memes) “below” in the culture (in the `meme pool’, namely other films, in the news, ideas in books, etc.) – that a screenwriter wants to command in creating their film story (which is itself a meme and a holon). When creating a film story, with memetics (cultural evolution) as with genetics (biological evolution) a screenwriter selects, varies and then transmits these memes (story ideas/concepts) into their screenplay. A screenwriter absorbs ideas and information (ideally more virulent memes) from the culture/ environment (meme pool) in which they are immersed, and combines, varies and selects these for inclusion in their story/screenplay. These memes are transmitted into the culture when the film story is screened.
- Each holon cannot be fully explained by or predicted by a study of its parts. It is something more. A holon is also part of something bigger that it is being affected by. But at the same time it has a high degree of autonomy, it has a life of its own. (A screen idea/film story may also `take on a life of its own’ during the development of the screen idea: a screenwriter can be fired from their own film project, and a new screenwriter can be attached, i.e. in some cases the film story meme holarchy mutates so much, that the original writer no longer shares the vision as the Screen Idea Work Group, and chooses to part ways with the story meme, and/or the writer/s can also be replaced with another writer, by the SIWG.)
Memes – English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins defined a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission” (Dawkins 2006, p. 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.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1996, p. 7). For the purpose of this thesis, if a film story is a meme, the systems model 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.) As documented in 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 2012g, p. 221) By using viral memes, a film story may go viral.
As noted above, for more detailed information on the meme, the unit of culture, see the book chapter at: StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture (and narreme, or unit of story)
Meme pool – As the term `gene pool’ is understood in biological evolution, this thesis uses the term “meme pool” in cultural evolution. Like genes, 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.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, M & Wolfe 2000, p. 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.
`Viral’ – It should be noted, this term is also widely used in the vernacular of internet videos and images; if a video or images spreads rapidly, it is said to have “gone viral”. This is not exactly the same strict definition which this DCA paper, thesis and exegesis uses. The definition of the term `viral’ for the purpose of this research study is as follows: 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. This thesis asserts that this phenomenon is due to the fact that the memes contained within it (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.
Agent-based simulation model – an online computer model. `Agent-Based Modelling (ABM), a relatively new computational modelling paradigm, is the modelling of phenomena as dynamical systems of interacting agents. Another name for ABM is individual-based modelling.’ (Castiglione 2006)
The Agency-Structure question – refers to whether agents (individuals in the field, who can make choices) can be considered independently of the social structures (constraints/ `rules’/ guidelines) within which they operate. Bourdieu, Giddens, and Archer have published on this question, each offering slightly differing positions (Postill 2010, p. 1).
Story – this thesis assumes the `Story’ of a feature film is the entire (viewed/heard) audio-visual feature film experience itself. This includes characters, settings, events, all images and sounds, opening and closing credits (even the font the film’s titles are presented in); also the music played over this, as all these elements in the film contribute to the viewer’s experience of “the film story”. The official onscreen `story credit’ (and/or `screenplay by’ credit) may be awarded to a particular individual/s as per legal/Guild guidelines. Notably, the film story that finally emerges onscreen in the completed film may be considerably different to the initial written 3-page story outline, and even to the story as presented in the screenplay, as films are collaborative creative artefacts, whereby a Screen Idea Work Group (see Macdonald’s definition, below) `authors’ the film. This SIWG includes actors, directors, and production and post-production crew (such as film editors, sound designers, producers, etc.) who also influence and contribute to (even change) the film story. It is said that films are `written’ 3 times: once in the screenplay, once in the shoot, and once in the edit (Wood 2002), though this thesis asserts that a film story can be observed to evolve constantly until its final release as a completed film.
Screenplay/Script – a written document of approximately 80 to 120 pages (approximately one page per minute), used as a blueprint for the production of a feature film. Notably, some of the films in the thesis data-set did not require a screenplay, but were instead improvised from a story outline (sans dialog), namely #1 ROI film Paranormal Activity (2009) (Campbell & Rosenberg 2009) and #3 ROI film The Blair Witch Project (1999). (Klein 1999)
Narrative Fiction Feature Film – a fiction film of over 60 minutes in duration. The first feature film was the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). The films in the primary data set of this research (the top 20 ROI films) range from a minimum of 77 minutes (Primer, 2002) to a maximum of 121 minutes (Star Wars, 1977).
`The screenwriting convention’ – the dominant `accepted industry wisdom’ on the `rules and guidelines’, dramatic `principles’, and formal characteristics of a feature film screenplay. This convention and discourse arises from the popular and academically-cited screenwriting manuals and guru seminars, and is based on quasi-Aristotelian ideas of drama, that may be problematic in film-making practice. (Macdonald 2004, p. 284)
The Screen Idea Work Group (SIWG) – `a flexible work group clustered around the development of the screen idea… which strives to create and re-create the idea in the light of beliefs about common goals.’ (Macdonald 2004, p. 10). This work group can include the writer/s, story development executives, producers, directors, actors, and film crew.
“Aristotelian 3-Act structure” – this thesis contends that this term is a misnomer, as various translations of Poetics (circa 335 BCE) namely (Aristotle, Baxter & Atherton 1997), (Aristotle & Butcher 2012), (Aristotle & Heath 1996) reveal that Aristotle only indicated two acts when referring to the structure of the ideal Greek tragedy play. Macdonald (Macdonald 2004, p. 82) and Truby also find that this term is a misnomer, (Truby 2012).
Return on investment (R.O.I.) – a measure of a film’s economic success, obtained by dividing the theatrical box office in dollars, by the film’s production budget. This study uses `negative cost’ as R.O.I. (not including marketing, film distribution and exhibition costs).
Film Audience Reach – is obtained for a given film by dividing the theatrical box office figure by the average ticket price (usually $10), revealing the approximate number of audience members who attended the film in its theatrical release. The highest ROI films are also therefore the highest `audience-reach’ films, relative to their budgets. For this reason, the highest audience reach (highest ROI) films are also empirically the most viral films, as they spread furthest in the culture (reached the widest audience), using the least production means. As argued below, this thesis asserts the reason for their virulence is the story.
Empirical vs. non-empirical narratology research – Empirical narratology research (and any resulting screenwriting manual/`film story system’) uses a data-set that is selected due to some clearly-defined, exclusive and quantifiable criteria, such as (for example): highest [number] ROI films, or, an exclusive set of Oscar-winning films, or (say) films that made over $250m at the international theatrical box office. This thesis argues that most film narratology studies (and, resulting film story/screenplay manuals) do not use an empirical method to select a data set, but rather a set of story/screenplay/film principles (theories) are prescribed as “good story principles” and individual film examples are then used to individually illustrate these points, ignoring other examples that either disprove – or provide falsifying counter-examples to – the theory/`principle’ presented. Notably in Poetics Aristotle did not appear to use an empirical data set in studying Greek tragedy plays, but instead prescribed dramatic principles based on his opinion of “good drama”. In empirical narratology research (for any narrative media, such as film, novels, even songs) therefore, the data set is clear and well-defined, and evidence can be objectively verified. In non-empirical narratology research, the data-set remains undefined, and the `derived’ story principles unverifiable by empirical means.
Screenplay guru – the authors of various screenwriting manuals (such as Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger et al) are known as screenplay gurus. They teach their own story principles/`screenplay and story systems’ at screenwriting seminars. There are approximately eight `major’ international screenplay gurus, and (problematically) all use a non-empirical method to arrive at their film story systems/screenplay manuals/film story `principles’. This thesis asserts that this guru methodology is problematic, and may be the reason most films (7 in 10 on average) fail to recover their budget/negative cost.
Negative cost – A film’s `negative cost’ is its production budget, or the cost of producing the film master-print `negative’ (a legacy term from when most feature films were shot and edited and mastered on 35mm film, prior to mass-market digital film production).
`Break-even’ – Eliashberg, Hui, & Zhang (2007) find that typically, films need to make 373% ROI to break even, since production companies/studios receive 55% of the box office. Given that ROI = (0.55 x Box Office $ – Production Budget $) / Production Budget $ (Eliashberg, Hui & Zhang 2007, p. 881), a 373% ROI is therefore required for a film production to break even, due to marketing and distribution costs, inflation over the 2 or more years that most feature films take from conception to completion, and also due to the `opportunity cost’ (foregone interest returns) of investing in a film production, as opposed to other potential investments. Notably, if a film does not break even (i.e. loses money) the production company may go broke, or dissolve. In cases of large studios, this is one reason why film studios hedge their risk by investing in a slate (or portfolio) of ten or more films. However for “one-off” film productions (as is the case in Australia, most productions the UK, and also, US independent films) financial results can be fatal career-wise for the production company involved. There are also other serious consequences of a film losing money, namely that the creative team (SIWG, including writer, director, producer) may find financing their next film project problematic (or even impossible) as film investors are risk-averse, and tend to look closely at the team’s previous track record (Jones & Jolliffe 2006, p. 533), given that most conventional feature films cost upwards of $1m, due to equipment costs and cast and crew union/guild rates.
`Independent’ vs `Studio’ Feature Films – films created and financed “independently” or outside of a major, mini-major or minor film studio. Only three of the films in the top 20 films data-set were financed by major film studios, the rest (17 films) are independent, “one-off” productions, including Australian, UK, Irish and Mexican films. However since both types of financing are included in the data set, the principles discovered by this research apply to both independent and studio feature film productions.
The `7 in 10 films loses money’ problem – In the most comprehensive statistical economic survey of the feature film domain to date, Entertainment Industry Economics, Vogel states ‘…of any ten major theatrical films produced, on the average, six or seven may be broadly characterized as unprofitable and one might break even.’ (Vogel 2011, p. 71) This problem has been consistent for over 20 years, as the records show that, likewise, in 1990: on average, 2 in 10 films made money, 1 in 10 films `broke even’ and 7 in 10 films lost money (Vogel 1990, p. 70).The Australian and UK film industry figures are similar. (FilmVictoria 2011) De Vany also finds that `Seventy-eight percent of movies lose money and only 22% are profitable.’ (De Vany & Walls 2004, p. 1039)
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High-RoI Film/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 and filmmaking 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/
 This is also a problem for film financiers, as it means that 98% of screen ideas they spend time reviewing are rejected; given 98% waste, this is arguably not an efficient system.
 The budget ranges for the top 20 ROI films 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 potentially 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.
 This definition of creativity also correlates with (and does not contradict) Csikszentmihalyi’s definition.
 The computer program is an adaptation of the NetLogo Wolf Sheep Predation model (Wilensky 1997), adapted by the author under Creative Commons, by changing various lines of computer code, adding others, and changing the interface, graphics and the model instructions for users as required. As both models represent an ecosystem in action, many parameters correlate.
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