When Amazon recently announced its intention to open a second headquarters beyond its hometown of Seattle, it kick-started a frenzied bidding war and a non-stop stream of analysis in the media. Enticed by the prospect of $5 billion in direct investment and an estimated 50,000 jobs, no less than 238 localities in the US, Canada and Mexico submitted proposals to the internet retail giant. As the competition got underway, numerous cities and states began promotional campaigns. Some, like New Jersey, offered substantial tax breaks; others were limited to publicity stunts (Stonecrest, a suburb of Atlanta, promised to rename itself ‘Amazon’ in the event that it won). New York City projected its candidacy by lighting famous city landmarks in “Amazon Orange”. After several weeks of speculation, Amazon published a shortlist of twenty cities and urban areas (at the time of publication, Atlanta and Austin are among the frontrunners).
Though the case of Amazon HQ2 is atypical in its sheer scale, it nevertheless dramatizes key trends in the relationships among corporations, cities, and their citizens today. HQ2 suggests that cities have little choice but to participate in an intensely competitive environment, and that economic success correlates closely with a locality’s ability to project itself on the national and international stage. The battle for HQ2 is also highly significant as a media event – a process that was intentionally stage-managed to create public impact and generate discussion, both in the press and on social media. As such, it brings into focus the central role of media in shaping the relations between cities and corporations, the public realm and the private sector. Amazon’s use of its economic leverage to bend local government policy to its will poses pressing questions about the relationship between the public sphere of the city and the role of the (media) corporation. And though Amazon’s economic power is, of course, primarily derived from its online retail business, it is a significant player in the media industries, through its interests in consumer electronics (e.g. Kindle, Fire, Echo), infrastructure and cloud computing, digital streaming, audiobooks, and more recently, film and television production (Amazon Studios).
This roundtable seeks to further debate on the issues of media industries, corporate relocation, and city branding that the HQ2 case brings up. I’d like to start with some general questions as well as some more specific prompts for the contributors. How do cities market themselves for corporate and residential relocation, and how does this marketing help produce a sense of identity for their inhabitants? What roles do different media forms play in the branding of urban areas? How do we locate the role of media industries in this nexus between the state, the private sector, and the citizen? What kind of political questions need to be asked about these relationships, and what approaches in media and/or urban studies best help capture and analyse these processes?
The contributors exemplify distinct, yet interrelated, perspectives on the topic. Myles McNutt and Theo Stojanov both take an industry-focused, spatialized approach to media production in their respective studies of the television industry in Southern California and Montreal’s gaming industry. Myles and Theo, I’m interested here in the specificity of particular media industries and their relationship to individual cities. What can industries such as television and video games offer that differentiates them from other sectors? A number of studies have suggested, for example, that in many instances the economic case made for film production tax incentives simply doesn’t stack up. What other kinds of value are generated by these industries for the city or area? In what ways have these particular industries become important to the identity of the locality, both from an ‘official’ and an ‘unofficial’ point of view? And when particular media-producing industries become central to official narratives about the city’s success, what is at stake for workers and the city’s inhabitants more generally?
Alex Kupfer’s work on Disney’s residential development at Golden Oak, Florida, focuses on promotional films and the mediated branding of redevelopment, yet in this case, the primary agent of urban place-making is not the city government, but the media corporation itself. Alex, Disney has a long history of interventions into urban planning – what is new about Disney’s marketing for Golden Oak, as compared to earlier projects such as Celebration? How does Disney project its idea of Golden Oak as an ideal community, and in what ways does that relate to its ongoing relationship with its audiences/fans? And finally, what is at stake in this blurring of the public and private? What are the implications for urban politics when the media corporation adopts roles commonly associated with local government?
In contrast, Helena Holgersson and Erik Florin Persson’s work on municipal films in Gothenburg focuses squarely on the role of the local government and its agencies. Helena and Erik, could you provide a little historical backdrop to Gothenburg’s current round of promotional activity? What kind of shifting priorities and emphases can we see in the way that the city has projected itself to the world over time? And how does that relate to the specific context of Gothenburg and the changing status of the Swedish welfare state? Some of your recent work focuses on a particular redevelopment zone, Älvstaden. What is the significance of this area for the city’s public profile? And how can we think about the city’s postindustrial rebranding from a street-level perspective?
Lawrence Webb is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of The Cinema of Urban Crisis: Seventies Film and the Reinvention of the City (Amsterdam University Press, 2014). He is co-editor of Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media (Wallflower Press, 2016), Hollywood On Location: An Industry History (Rutgers University Press, 2019), and The City in American Cinema: Film and Postindustrial Culture (Bloomsbury, 2019).