Interview: Mike Tatsugawa

by Jonathan Mays, Aug 15th 2004
Mike Tatsugawa created Anime Expo, now the largest west coast anime con, in 1992. After a decade of growth and success, he started the Pacific Media Expo project last year, a planning process that culminated in last month's event in the Anaheim Hilton and Convention Center. Pacific Media Expo was a bold experiment: the first major Asian culture convention in North America. Would there be an audience for a Japanese (not anime) con in California? The festivities attracted about 3,000 guests over Memorial Day weekend. Finally rested and ready to make another run, Mike reflects on year one of PMX.

Running conventions is nothing new to you, but what were the challenges in capturing a different audience this time?

The marketing aspect of the convention was clearly a marketing success. We brought in far more attendees for the concerts than we first imagined. However, those attendees did not convert into convention memberships, so we know we are still missing one key piece of the puzzle. The other sides of the convention - cars, wrestling, Asian cinema, etc., are still being developed. We hope that in a few years we will diversify out from the shadow of anime and be able to present a distinct product to the US market.

Would you call the con a success?
Personally, I won't consider the convention to be a success until I start hearing stories about people who come for one reason and discover two or three new interests by the time they leave.

Do you think J-Pop really has the potential to penetrate the US mainstream like anime has, or will this new wave be short-lived?
Asian music has huge potential in the United States. I personally think that while Jpop has the larger current market, the DJs have the most potential to be embraced by mainstream America. In Southern California, with its diverse population, music from Asia will always be popular. Whether the model can be duplicated in other markets is the larger question.

However, when we developed the concept for PMX, we knew that we had a competitive advantage with our local demographics, and that was a large motivation in going forward with the project.

I noticed a number of Japanese-speaking fans at the Friday concert. How many people do you think flew in from Japan to see it?
A small, but vocal, percentage of people came to the concert from Japan. What we also managed to pull in was the large base of Japanese people who live in Southern California, a group that traditionally does not go to conventions.

What percentage stuck around for the rest of the con?
Given that the concert turn-out was higher than the convention turn-out, we suspect that there was only 25% overflow between the two events. Even this is conjecture because a lot of fans were untrackable due to the box office and ticketweb handling most of the concert ticket transactions.

Why...

...Hold PMX in the first place?

When we started Anime Expo, we sought to create a community for the anime fans and to create an anime industry. We feel that this goal has been largely accomplished. With Pacific Media Expo, we wanted to take a different approach - we wanted to create a convention to serve the community. Our long-term goal is to create an organization that will encourage projects in both the Asian and Asian American creative community. We will first achieve this by creating an event to showcase different forms of media. On a continuous basis, we will keep updating our line-up with new forms of media as they keep popping up in Asia. Once we stabilize, we would like to begin giving grants to promote artists in the Asian American community in the US and showcase their work at PMX.

Eventually, we would also like to begin sponsoring the arts during other times of the year outside of the convention.

...Charge separately for concert and con admission?
We believed (correctly) that many fans would balk at going to both the convention and the concert. The sheer complexity of the concert would have required a significant increase in the price of admission to the convention.

We felt it would be unfair to PMX attendees who could not attend the concert to include the concert cost in the convention price. We also felt that it would discourage local TMR fans from attending PMX if they were forced to also pay for the cost of convention admission when they purchased their tickets. For the other lower cost music events, we will continue to offer free admission with the cost of membership.

...Feature TMR when he'd already performed at Otakon?
We were partnering with Sony Music Japan on this event and T.M. Revolution was the best fit we could find. Other mitigating factors were also involved in the planning, but in the end, we believe that this was the best choice. As time moves forward, there will probably be additional musicians who have fewer ties to anime titles.

...Did Silver Ash not show?
From our understanding, due to the threat of Cuban terrorists disguised as musicians, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which recently took over the U.S. Immigration Service, began to tighten up on performer visas, right around the time of the Latin American Grammies in Florida. As a consequence, there was a 4-6 month backlog on performer visa requests. That Silver Ash was coming from a Communist country probably did not help either. Even with expedited service, Homeland Security still could not process the request in time.

...Wrestling?
New Japan Pro Wrestling is a popular wrestling federation in Japan. A mutual associate introduced the two of us and we felt that all forms of entertainment from Asia should be represented at PMX. The two of us begain working on how to bring Japanese wrestling to the United States. There is already a lot of headway being made by NJPW, with deals being made with other established wrestling federations in the United States and the potential of additional video distribution.

Will there definitely be a PMX 2005?
We are finalizing the contracts as we speak. We are tentatively scheduled for Labor Day weekend of 2005. The city is still in question.

AnimeFEST, which is known for its J-Pop concerts, is also on Labor Day weekend. Are you worried about splitting attendance again like you did with Fanime this year?
We have been doing surveys and polls and the unanimous request is that we move to Labor Day weekend. Fanime was unusual because NorCal and SoCal feed off each other so strongly for attendees.

However, the #1 complaint we got from our core Los Angeles market was that the weekend was bad due to graduations and proms. For this reason, we wanted to move off of the school year and further into summer vacation. We are concerned about the music overlap with AnimeFEST, and we have great respect for them as one of the groundbreakers in the music market. We hope that there is a possibility that we could arrange for split musical artists, just like we did with Fanime this year.

The concert was fantastic, and the panels were generally interesting, but I felt there wasn't much to do for most of the convention.
Due to the scheduling conflicts, our night events were strong, and the day events were weak. We interviewed multiple attendees and found that the students were running back and forth from school related commitments like finals and graduation ceremonies. We also polled the older attendees and found that they had lost interest in watching videos many years ago. To address these issues, we will probably be reconfiguring our programming to focus more on live programming and in particular, special interest programming.

I've heard a lot of complaints about scheduling and organization, but we hear that after every con, even the established ones. I thought it was fairly easy to get around, but keeping track of the ever-changing schedule was a chore. Is there anything you'd do differently in retrospect?
There will always be staffing issues with new events. The anime side of our staff is filled with veterans, but as we venture into new areas, we will need to bring in and train new staffers. We may have been too aggressive in the areas we expanded into this year. For next year, the new managers will have one year under their belts and we are beginning a mentoring program for the new managers.

For PMX05, despite the good attendance, we had numerous complaints about events feeling "empty". We are going to re-scale a lot of the events into more reasonable sized venues to allow for more intimacy and also to create a higher sense of energy. Hopefully this won't recreate the headaches of AX02 where lines were a constant problem. Good event management requires striking a continuous balance between the two.

In hindsight, there is little we could have done about the Fanime date conflict. We contacted them before the convention and didn't get a response on their potential dates. For 2005, we coordinated the dates and they asked us to move off the dates due to their contractual obligations and we obliged them. The day was not a good day for a show in Los Angeles and we will move to a better date. Had we known about the conflict in advance, we probably would have contracted for a smaller function space.

What achievement at PMX makes you most proud?
According to Sony Music, PMX hosted the first-ever Arena Concert for a Japanese performer in the United States.

I'm also quite proud of the staff. A lot of the old dogs had to learn new tricks to adapt to the new world of music and a lot of the staff gave 110%, even to the point that we had a problem with a lot of the staff continuously shelling money out of their pockets to make the convention a better experience for the attendees and staff. If we have a staff this dedicated and we stick to our business plan, I can only see good things in the future.

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