Investigating Global Cinematic Cities

In this introduction to our Q&A on the edited volume Global Cinematic Cities, editors Lawrence Webb and Johan Andersson talk about their project and the questions they asked their contributors in light of the instability surrounding both global cities and cinematic cities.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Q&A session on a new edited volume, Global Cinematic Cities. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

This Q & A on screen media and the global city marks the release of our edited collection, Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media. 1Andersson, Johan & Lawrence Webb. Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media. New York: Wallflower Press, 2016.Over the following three installments, six of the book’s contributors – Joanna Page, Christian Long, Igor Krstić, Pei-Sze Chow, Jonathan Haynes, and Malini Guha – will respond to a series of questions that address the central themes of the collection. In response to the following questions, our contributors connect their research to broader debates in the field and comment on key issues for urban-focused film and media studies:

  1. What does a spatial or geographical perspective have to offer film and media studies today?
  2. What are some of the advantages – and limitations – of the global city as an organizing category or conceptual frame for film and media studies research?
  3. What kinds of political questions are mobilized by thinking about the global city and contemporary screen media?
  4. From your perspective, have changes associated with digital technology and media convergence necessitated new ways of conceiving the relations between the city and the moving image?
  5. How has your work in this area developed since you completed your chapter?

The idea behind Global Cinematic Cities was to bring together new scholarship on film and media in the contemporary global city. We wanted to explore how the relationship between the city and the moving image had developed in the digital era, and to do so from a global perspective. Our aim was to curate a diverse selection of research on screen media and global cities that would help to de-westernize the field and take stock of rapid transformations in urban environments and media technologies, as well as the academic debates that had developed alongside them. It’s clear that much has changed since the first wave of edited collections on the cinematic city in the 1990s and early 2000s, whether we think of the impact of digital technology on both screen media and the experience of cities more generally, the heightened importance of East Asia as a model for urban growth, the intensified gentrification of older urban centers, or the challenges of climate change that have catalyzed new conceptions of ecology and the post-human.

We’ve retained the term “cinematic” in our title, and the majority of the chapters are about cinema in some respect, but we also wanted to think about the contemporary city as a media environment in a broader sense. To that end, we’ve included chapters that discuss, among other things, public screens, surveillance, selfies, video art, and multimedia installations. Our contributions on the “old” media of film and television are also cognizant of the ways the digital has changed things on both the supply and demand side of the equation – analyzing, for example, digital paratexts and online distribution. However, we also argue that cinema remains highly significant to the global city in various ways. Despite the familiar declinist narratives, film continues to play a crucial role in the imagination and social experience of urban life, for example by organizing the globalized “cluster cities” of international film festivals, while the presence of film studios and location shooting in cities produces a strongly felt economic and cultural impact.

As we discuss at further length in our introduction, recent changes to urban environments and media technologies have also spurred debates in both film and urban studies around the specificity of their objects of study. To talk about the relationship between cinema and the city today, then, is to do so when both terms have become inherently unstable. Our opening question in this Q&A, “What does a spatial or geographical perspective have to offer film and media studies today?”, asks our contributors to discuss space as a critical methodology against this shifting backdrop. With questions #2 and #3, we ask our contributors to reflect more specifically on the global city as a framework for research and the political dimensions of this approach.

As editors, we’ve found the term “global city” to be a useful shorthand, but, as we explain in our introduction, we are deploying it in a relatively flexible sense. Indeed, several of our contributors argue for the importance of studying small- and medium-sized cities outside the hierarchy of global cities discussed by scholars such as Saskia Sassen or organizations like the McKinsey Institute. Smaller cities are also media-rich environments that are subject, often unevenly, to the flows and forces of globalization. As several of the authors point out, we should take care not to think of globalization as a uniform phenomenon, and need to pay attention to the interstitial, ex- and peri-urban landscapes that have increasingly troubled our definitions of the urban itself.

Question #4 focuses on the issue of the digital, asking how technological change might have necessitated new ways of conceiving relations between the city and the moving image. As our contributors point out, to think about cinema and the city today requires us to consider how the interactions between image and environment and the spatial relations between viewer and screen have been transformed by the digital transition in production, distribution and exhibition. From an audience perspective, technology has created new relations between private and public, virtual and material, while new possibilities in production, such as first-person digital documentary, have captured the urban experience in a fresh way. At the same time, several contributors draw connections between the experience of the city through “old” and “new” media forms – connecting, for example, film storytelling with the narrative functions of apps, or linking the rapid pace of change today with the historic conception of the “cinematic city.” As we write, the current mania for the augmented reality game Pokémon Go – also a subject of discussion here – suggests that new configurations of the digital media city will continue to develop rapidly (and, we should add, at a rate that outstrips the snail’s pace of academic book publishing). In our final question, we asked our contributors to comment on their recent work and to bring us up to date with new developments. In these closing remarks, the authors talk about the future direction of their research projects and the challenges of keeping up with the pace of change in both cities and digital media

[Global Cinematic Cities is available in the UK on Sept. 7 and in the US on Sept. 13]


1 Andersson, Johan & Lawrence Webb. Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media. New York: Wallflower Press, 2016.
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