Cultural Anthropologist Helps Hollywood Execs Understand Their Audience

By Ronald D. White
Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Fascinating look at how hollywood executives are turning to social science to help target and grow their audiences. In this article, we meet a woman who is using her graduate degree in cultural anthropology in a very unique an interesting way.


The gig: Media companies can be caught by surprise by the immense cultural appeal of their fiction. That’s where Susan Kresnicka enters. The 48-year-old cultural anthropologist, who works at Troika Design Group in Los Angeles, has brought social science in to figure out why something becomes popular and help Hollywood executives spot opportunities more quickly.

Cultural stewards: Kresnicka says that media companies aren’t necessarily trying to predict the next blockbuster show, but rather might be thinking of “what it meant to be stewards of culturally iconic shows.” During a recent keynote address at the Scripted Summit conference, Charlie Collier, president of both AMC and SundanceTV, talked about hiring Kresnicka’s team at Troika to “understand why TV has shifted from largely escapist fare toward more immersive content.”

Inner psychopath: Media companies are also watching a shift by audiences who root for career criminals, sociopaths and even serial murderers. “People were out building memorials to Walter White, a fictional character,” Kresnicka said, referring to the ever more heartless and violent lead in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” “What did they tap into inside of us with that show? It really redefined what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means. How could he be such a good dad and be so ruthless in this other part of his life?”

Beyond the water cooler: With group fan texting, in-episode tweets, Skype parties and other group media, “there is a lot of work that has to go on reconciling things that are so fundamentally inconsistent,” Kresnicka said. “That doesn’t stop when the show ends. It’s no longer done in isolation. We had a collective reconciliation of what it means to be a good guy and a bad guy when we met Walter White.” “Fandom” is a word that Kresnicka uses a lot to encompass the modern audience’s group examination of “highly immersive content.” “You are completely surrounded by the world of the show, mentally working, emotionally engaged. It leaves us processing very important questions.”

Dissecting fandom: At Troika, “we have a sociologist, an archaeologist, people in media design, a folklorist we just hired,” Kresnicka said. “The topic I’ve put before this group is fandom. So we’re going to go at it from every angle we can think of.” The clients are six major media companies, which she declined to name. The broad topic is what fandom means today. As an example, she turned to “Star Wars” and a man she met at a fan convention wearing a green “What Would Yoda Do?” bracelet. He “hadn’t had an easy life, hadn’t always made the right choices,” and developed a ritual when faced with a decision, explaining “‘I just look down at my wrist and ask that question.'” For that man, Kresnicka said, “the role that fandom plays is easily underestimated and sometimes it is quite profound. It can be a source of inspiration and moral guidance.”

Teen bonding: Kresnicka has her own story about the power of fandom when she went though the all-too-common period where she and her teenage daughter could agree on very little, except the CW network series “Supernatural.” “I watched one show with her and I was just totally hooked,” Kresnicka said. At one point, “we watched about 10 episodes in a row together. We had something shared to talk about.”

Getting there: Kresnicka started off college as a biology-premed student, then shifted to international development before getting her graduate degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her advertising-industry dad, William, didn’t react well when his daughter’s study and career choice meant that she wouldn’t be a medical doctor. “He looked at me and said ‘Are you completely crazy? You’re going to do what?’ He would be utterly amazed that this has become a real profession and a guiding force for me, and has applications in media, which is what he did.”

Detouring: “To suggest that I had some clarity of long-term purpose here would be such a big misrepresentation,” Kresnicka said, laughing. She was on a Ph.D. track, “walking the walk as though I was going to become a professor,” but decided that the work would be too isolating. Instead, she headed to the French Culinary Institute.

“I cooked professionally for five years,” she said, before opening a catering business called Verve Cuisine, which she ran until she was 32.

Degree of guilt: “I’ve got this graduate degree and I’m cooking for a living,” Kresnicka recalled thinking. But it can be good to be the only anthropologist in your circle of friends. When someone asked if anyone knew any ethnographic researchers, Kresnicka was the only one who might fit the bill. She wound up having to explain what an ethnographer does, then she got hired to do it “studying people with diabetes who were on the cusp of insulin dependence.”
She was a qualitative research analyst for Scavone Consulting until 2007, then joined the Frank N. Magid consulting firm.

Anthropologist’s advice: Whenever possible, broaden the expertise, Kresnicka said. “When you force yourself to open your mind to people who have a different set of boundaries based on their training, you will open up new questions and see different things, learn new things. Whatever topic you are studying, you are going to understand it better by coming at it from multiple angles.”

Personal: The years of cooking weren’t wasted. Kresnicka’s baked ziti is a favorite with her son and daughter. “I make the marinara sauce from scratch. I use a really good Italian sausage. It’s oozy cheesy goodness.”

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