Anime Central 2004
Thoughts and Impressions

by Mikhail Koulikov, May 26th 2004
There is no way around it, so I'm not going to bother. Anime Central 2004 is the single best argument for the concept of "convention critical mass" - that is, the bizarre fact that after a con reaches a certain size, nothing a convention either does or does not do actually has any impact on what attendees actually get out of the event. After that certain point, the convention is merely a physical venue for several thousand people to come together and interact, and actual convention functions, with the possible exception of the dealer's room, are almost an afterthought.

ACen 2004 was a convention of complex planning and interesting operational ideas. Some of them worked. Many others, unfortunately, did not. One that definitely did was the registration setup, now located in the convention center rather than the hotel. The registration director needs to be commended: the computerized registration system appeared to run flawlessly, and with literally dozens of people being processed at any given time, most attendees only had to wait for a few minutes between first lining up and walking away with a badge. A video-room-sized screen in the corner of the registration space looped music videos and anime clips; given the speed with with attendees were processed, providing this kind of "entertainment" turned out to be unnecessary - but the effort was certainly appreciated. And, like in the last two years, the con-suite, which provided congoers with ample quantities of chips, fruits and soda, was a welcome sight (The con-suite also had a very welcome, popular, but not free, massage service, provided by several semi-professional masseuses), especially as many hotels now specifically prohibit conventions from allowing attendees access to any kind of food service. Likewise, on friday night and then again after the cosplay let out, hotel staff wheeled out into the lobby in front of main events tables of cheese, greens, chips and hors d'oeuvres for an impromptu reception: a small touch, but very much a nice touch that made fans feel like the convention really did try to go above and beyond the ordinary. On the other hand, one aspect of the event that clearly did not work was scheduling, in particular main events scheduling. Opening ceremonies were, inexcusably, delayed for close to an hour, and it appears that the decision was made to go ahead even though some issues with the audio-visual setup were still left unresolved. This, in turn, lead to an absolutely embarassing situation as many attendees, in addition to all of the guests, were unable to watch the convention opening video and other clips that appeared on two screens off on either side of the room, but not on the one directly behind the stage. In addition, the sound setup was out-and-out horrible, with heavy distortion, and overall, an impression of anything but professionalism.

This was ACen's third year at the same hotel, the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, and every year, there have been some changes made to the room layout. This time around, the Artist's Alley was moved from the main events lobby (a location that was heavily criticized last year as every time attendees lined up to get into main events, access to the artists' tables was cut off) to another lobby area on the same floor. Because the overall amount of available floor space in this new location was less, however, many artists were put into former panel rooms that opened onto the lobby area. It was an unusual setup, but as one attendee commented, at least this way, the only people browsing the artists' tables were those who specifically wanted to be there. The artists themselves seemed generally pleased with the change. Unfortunately, because at least three panel rooms were now used up, other industry and fan panels were forced into rooms that were separated from things like the music video contest by only an airwall. As a result, speakers were frequently drowned out. Another area in which the convention departed from conventional scheduling wisdom was the video room track. Whereas most cons try to present a variety of shows, two to four episodes at a time, most of ACen's video rooms were dedicated to showing full series or at least six-hour-long sequences of the same title. Such a scheduling decision, while reminiscent of a club viewing schedule, simply does not work at a convention, where attendees are mostly interested in getting a glance at one or two episodes of a variety of new titles they would not notherwise be able to see. And, whereas the trend at many other conventions has been in the direction of ever-larger video game rooms, the one here was rather small and very much out of the way, on a basement level that was used primarily to house convention operational departments.

One thing that has to be said - and one way in which ACen is still very much unique - is that while recently, as convention attendance has shot up and cons have become more and more professionalized, the party aspects of conventions were given very little thought. Sure, there would always be private parties for the guests, members of the industry, and other select few, but where does that leave the rest of us? Anime Central, on the other hand, cheerfully reversed the dominant paradigm by not only encouraging after-hours parties but in fact designating a party block. Very quickly, the first two floors of the hotel's Executive Wing took on the atmosphere of a spring break town, with open room doors, free-flowing beer, and dozens of fans moving in and out. It has nothing to do with anime...but it works.

And, in a way, here lies my impression of Anime Central 2004 as a whole. The actual convention functions ranged from mediocre to average - certainly nothing spectacular. But most attendees were not there for convention functions. For them, it was a celebration of the end of the school year, a chance to see friends they had only known online, an opportunity to show off their own costumes and look at others', and in the end, just a chance to celebrate being fans.

As a side note, over the years, conventions have been defined, or made memorable, by single bizarre events as much as by anything planned. Chair, Man-Faye, Sailor Bubba - they have all gone down into otaku lore. Over the last few years, at every convention, there have been a few people walking around with "hug me" or "glomp me" signs; at ACen, this trend clearly came to a point that was equal parts ridiculous, with groups of twenty or thirty people holding pieces of paper, and troubling, as some of the services offered on the signs skirted the bounds of legality. At some point, the convention cracked down and had security ask attendees with signs to remove them, but in any case, ironically enough, it will be these signs that will be the one thing about this year's Anime Central that most attendees will remember.

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