Kevin B. Lee Talks Future Challenges of Film Exhibition, Attention Economics at Locarno

By Davide Abbatescianni | August 19, 2022 9:42 am PDT
Kevin B. Lee and Hito Steyerl at the 75 Locarno Film Festival

During this year’s Locarno Film Festival (3-13 August), in Switzerland, Celluloid Junkie caught up with Kevin B. Lee, Professor for the Future of Cinema and the Audiovisual Arts at Lugano’s Università della Svizzera Italiana. We met the lecturer and video essayist after he took part in a one-hour conversation on the future of cinema with German filmmaker and artist Hito Steyerl, introduced by festival director, Giona A. Nazzaro.

Through our conversation, we further explored some key ideas on the challenges faced by theatrical exhibition and spectatorship. One of the first topics we covered was that of premium cinemas and the exclusive experiences they can offer. The debate about their role is growing, as some see “‘going premium” as a “lifeboat solution” for theatres to survive, whilst others consider it an opportunity for them to thrive.

“This development seems like an inevitable response to an increasingly diverse media landscape, as the cinema-going experience tries to reassert its importance and value compared to home streaming, gaming and social media,” said Lee.

“Compared to those options, movie tickets are already considered too expensive by younger viewers, so turning the cinema into a more premium experience is not likely to attract them,” Lee continued, suggesting George Lucas and Steven Spielberg may have been correct in 2013 when they predicted moviegoing would become a more luxurious experience. “Cinema-going will become less of a mainstream cultural phenomenon to the next generation, and become increasingly a luxury cultural experience following the trajectories of opera, ballet and musical theatre.”

However, Lee believes curation will still be crucial for more modest venues. “On a more grounded level, I see personalized and self-organized micro-cinemas run by dedicated people,” he said. “They will offer something more ‘artisanal’ and community-based, and they will focus on choosing films that are meant to be for a small, select community. [I see] this kind of extremes. What we will be missing is the middle, the space of films that are not too spectacular or specialist.”

In her contribution to the discussion, Steyerl touched upon the architectural and energetic aspect of venues, which may affect theatres in the very short term. Lee also shared his concerns, “It used to be that cinemas could be a place of escape from the troubles of the world, but those troubles now seem to have a more direct relationship to cinema operations.” 

“Steyerl’s immediate concern was the expected effect of energy costs in the winter to cause art galleries, cinemas and other cultural institutions to limit their hours of operation or even close altogether. We talked about how these institutions may have to come up with justifications for qualifying for energy subsidies and being allowed to operate. Could they be a mass shelter for those who can’t afford home heating? How will this correlate with another probable rise in Covid cases which limited cinema operations for the last two winters?”

Kevin B. Lee at the 75 Locarno Film Festival
at the Locarno Film Festival (Photo: Marco Abram & Elia Bianchi – Ti-Press)

Attention Economics
During the talk, Lee introduced the concept of “economics of attention,” within which he now sees two competing economic models – one based on long-form content and time-consuming experiences, which is adopted by companies such as Meta and Netflix, and one based on “micro-dosing” with quick hits lasting up to 60 seconds, a model chosen by TikTok and similar platforms.

Lee also warned about the risks of underestimating one model’s potential over another. “The theorist Katherine Hayles introduced the term ‘hyper attention’ to describe how people browse the internet or scroll social media feeds, in contrast to the ‘deep attention’ of reading a book or watching a film in a cinema,” he explained. “It isn’t that one is objectively better than the other, but that they reflect different relationships and states of interactivity in receiving information.”

He concluded, “In any case, I don’t think people’s attention is necessarily being lowered – there are YouTube videos of people playing video games that are watched for hours. It’s a matter of what kind of experience resonates with a person’s attention.”

Davide Abbatescianni