Tales Of The Industry Big Apple Anime Fest
by Justin Sevakis,
This will be the last regularly published Tales of the Industry, as we are switching to an occasional schedule. We will still continue to bring you new stories as we get them, but padding it out with my own stories is proving to be a little wearying for us all. When we have new stories, they'll be written up and posted in the marquee - there's just no set schedule for them, so they'll appear as feature articles.
So I'll finish with the autobiographical pieces with the big one that I've been saving for a while.
Are you a current or former member of the anime business or convention staff? Do you have a story you've been dying to tell, but just can't tell it the normal way? Get in touch with Justin Sevakis through any social media you like. His Twitter account is @WorldOfCrap, if you aren't acquainted.
I don't remember precisely when we first heard about John's idea. John O'Donnell, the charismatic and manic leader of Central Park Media, often had bizarre brainstorms out of nowhere. He'd get obsessed with them, call in every favor, pull out all the stops, and drive his employees into the ground in order to fulfill these visions of his. Some of them worked, some didn't, but either way John cared so much about fulfilling his vision that whatever poor soul had to work on it was in for some long hours and intense oversight of their work. This happened about once a year.
However, about 7 or 8 months into my employ at CPM, he came up with what was perhaps his most ambitious brain child. He called it “Big Apple Anime Fest,” which, he would boast, was to be the Cannes Film Festival for anime. Much of the idea was cribbed directly from a local events organization called New York-Tokyo, who put on a weekend-long anime film festival the year before at the Director's Guild theater. That festival boasted local premieres of Jin-Roh, Spriggan, the Escaflowne movie, and several others. I have no idea if it was considered successful or not, but New York-Tokyo wasn't planning on making it a regular thing, and John wanted in.
Not wanting it to be an actual part of Central Park Media, John filed the paperwork to establish the show, which we referred to as “BAAF”, as its own separate company. He appointed one of his personal assistants, Ryoko, to be the head manager for the convention, and hired two other fresh-faced college grads to run things. Mayumi, a free-spirited friend of mine, was put in charge of programming and events, while a guy named Hiro was tasked with arranging sponsorship. None of them had any experience doing anything resembling a film festival, or a convention, or events management.
And John also wanted me involved. I wanted nothing to do with BAAF, and was quite happy where I was. But this was also the point where I was still considered a young pest around the office, so I was pretty much drafted. After weeks of hemming and hawing, I finally moved my work space to the stuffy old conference room across the hall that became the BAAF office. I was miserable, but didn't really have much say in the matter. John promised I could go back to CPM after the show was over, so I decided to wait it out.
And so, the four of us – all very young and entirely unexperienced – set about trying to make John's dream a reality. I didn't realize it at the time, but we were actually being put through business boot camp. John had come up through Sony, and his way of doing things, good or bad, always had a strong direction and a sense of procedure and hierarchy. We were taught to “drill down” – never accept the run-around, just keep asking probing questions until you have a full understanding of what you needed to know. For example, if you were waiting on an order from a print shop, and the order wasn't ready, you were to keep calling and asking them questions until you knew why it wasn't ready, when it will be ready, and the exact procedure by which you were going to get your order and from who. Every e-mail was to be printed and filed neatly, in case John needed to refer to it during a meeting. We also learned to never tell your bosses that something has gone wrong without having thought through several possible ways to fix it.
In the moment, however, it was absolute hell. The four of us were completely overwhelmed and stressed out, and that dusty little conference room became a place of bickering and sniping – it was like the set of a reality TV show. I was given an impressive sounding job title (“Manager of Fan Relations”), but my job was never really clear; I ended up helping out Mayumi a lot. I didn't particularly get along with Ryoko, and she didn't really care for me either. Hiro sat in the corner and minded his business. We eventually hired a fifth person to manage logistics, who I will not name because none of us liked her. We were completely insulated from the CPM crew, though I poked my head in from time to time, just to try and keep afloat of things.
As John's idea started to take shape, the event, which was to take place on Halloween weekend, turned into an anime convention, AND a film festival, AND a separate autograph signing. For a first-year convention we only needed a medium sized hotel, so we snagged the ballroom and meeting rooms at The Park Central, a cheaper midtown hotel that, at the time, was badly in need of renovations. (On our walkthrough, Ryoko commented that it smelled like an old lady's house.) The autograph sessions were to be at J&R Music World, which was a 20 minute subway ride downtown, near city hall. The screenings, again, would be at the Director's Guild, a short walk from the hotel.
New York City is an extremely expensive place to have an anime convention, which is probably why none have lasted more than a few years. The plan was to sell as much sponsorship as possible to as many huge companies as possible. John himself pitched such heavy hitters as Mitsubishi, Panasonic and Toyota, as well as less obvious companies like Japanese talent agency Hori-Pro. He snagged favors from long-time CPM vendors and got friends with companies to chip in money. But the biggest sponsor came from the company that John had the deepest connections: Sony. Among other things, Sony would be giving us our big, North American premiere: Rintaro's just-finished new movie Metropolis. And they were also flying Rintaro AND screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo to town for the event. It was a big deal.
John wanted to go big. We hired a PR firm, who got us placement on the video loops that played in the back of NYC taxis. We got an excited, if weirdly confused, article about us in Video Business Magazine. (“When a genre qualifies for street fair status, that genre has arrived!”) We sat in meetings with John late into the night, narrowing down ideas, wrangling sponsors, and trying to piece together this enormous puzzle.
The biggest problem was that none of the anime companies wanted anything to do with this show. They'd let us show their stuff, sure, but nothing more. I hadn't realized by that point how most of the anime industry didn't particularly care for each other – people we talked to at other anime publishers were referring to BAAF as “JOD Ego-Con” and basically laughed off the idea of sponsoring. Viz, to their credit, showed a mild interest in participating, until they found out that we were heavily promoting an all-night hentai marathon. (“Midnight Anime Concourse” or “MAC” – John loved his acronyms.)
The thing is, they weren't wrong. By late August, most of Central Park Media was working on Big Apple Anime stuff. The print team was designing the program guide. The video team was planning interviews with the guests, and making the “DVD Program Guide.” (This was back when people were really excited about DVDs, remember.) The web team was working on the BAAF website. We got programming from the other anime publishers (who were happy to have us promote their stuff for free), but we filled out our schedule with a lot of our own catalog. We dug out our old 35mm prints of Roujin Z and Urotsukidoji. We even invited Toshio Maeda and his producer Rusher Ikeda (Urotsukidoji, La Blue Girl, and other tentacle porn features).
And then, September came. September of 2001. Does anyone remember something that happened in New York City that month? It was kind of a thing.
I don't really want to go into the depressing, awful details of life in New York City in the weeks following 9/11. (I wrote an old personal account of it here a few years back if you're interested.) Suffice it to say, I was lucky in that I didn't lose anyone I knew. Everyone walked around shell-shocked for a couple of weeks. The noxious fumes that would waft in our direction from Ground Zero would make our eyes water and our throats burn, so we spent as little time outside as we could.
Slowly, we got back to work. It was nice actually having work to do. Suddenly, the convention – only a month away – started to seem much more important than it did before. The new circumstances brought a lot of new challenges. J&R Music World, where the autograph sessions were to be held, was only a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero, and would be closed indefinitely. Our guests Otomo and Rintaro backed out, not knowing if New York City was safe. On the plus side, however badly we screwed up this convention, even having one right after the worst terrorist attack in American history meant that we couldn't really be criticized too badly.
There was another problem: our big premiere film, Metropolis, had a climax scene that involved a large skyscraper collapsing. We all went to the screening room at the Sony building to watch the film and discuss what to do. As it was too late to cancel it (and with John being vehemently anti-censorship), we decided to let the fans decide for themselves, and wrote up a sign that warned people about triggering imagery in the film. (Fuming at the weird directorial choices in that movie, I muttered that we should just warn people that it sucked.)
Like with everything else in the bizarre and intense few months after 9/11, BAAF became a display of American machismo in the face of the adversity. We grafted an American flag onto our logo and printed T-shirts. Tim from CPM's video department went to a press conference with then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and somehow snagged a photo of him holding one of them up and smiling.
For our opening night gala dinner (yes, we had a gala dinner), Ryoko, as manager of the show, was to give a speech. English, unfortunately, was her second language, so I wrote her up something appropriately inspirational. John had me rent a tuxedo so that I could run Q&As with the guests of honor, and emcee the cosplay masquerade.
Finally, the big weekend arrived. It's a bit of a blur for me, to be honest. I remember Ryoko giving her speech at the gala dinner, and quickly being overshadowed by John. His message was actually pretty fantastic: that by sharing stories and fiction from different countries, we can help stablish emotional bonds between them, making peaceful coexistence much more of a realistic notion. Unfortunately, he posed this in a hilariously indelicate way: “I CARE about stuff blowing up if it happened in Japan, but Iraq? Nobody even knows where that is!”
I remember taking the stage to emcee the premiere, and getting a rush from being in front of an audience. I remember smiling fans, excited cosplayers, people having a good time. I remember how J&R Music World just barely re-opened in time, and how it was just too close to ground zero and nobody showed up to the autograph sessions but the voice actors, who were gracious enough to hang around anyway. I remember staying up all night to sit in the hentai video room with about 20 fans as they got to see Night Shift Nurses uncut for the first time, and were jumping up and down screaming in giddy revulsion. I remember John handing me and Mayumi a couple hundred bucks and telling us to go treat our exhausted selves to a nice dinner out.
It ended up being a healing weekend, after all.
The next year, Anime Expo decided they were going to have a convention in New York City on Labor Day weekend, and after John had a meeting with them, it was decided that BAAF that year would just be reduced to a film festival. The whole thing was moved to Times Square, with the convention at the huge Marriott Marquis, and autographs and the film festival at the giant Virgin Megastore across the street. The entire BAAF crew moved on, I was back at CPM, and my role was reduced to emcee, a role I really enjoyed. (There was some drama here too, but that's a story for another day.)
By year three, with an all new crew (that did not include myself), BAAF managed to run both events. We had huge premieres, I got to meet and share the stage with several of my idols, and the memory is one of my most cherished ones. At the same time, it became clear that running an convention in New York City was just too expensive. The anime industry just wasn't big enough to wrangle enough money in sponsorship to make it work. With Central Park Media also entering a rough patch, John quietly decided that 2003 would be its final year.
They were good times, they were bad times, and they were weird times. But as I look back, I can't help but to be extremely grateful for all of it. I understand what keeps old-timer convention staff running themselves ragged year after year. It's an amazing thing to be a part of. I never want to do it again, though.
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If you are a current or former anime industry professional and have a story to share (we can keep everyone anonymous), get in touch with Justin Sevakis via social media.
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