Is There A Future For "Spinoff" Anime Conventions?

by Justin Sevakis,

Chris asks:

I see Japan Expo USA has gone into hiatus mode, and we're waiting on dates and a location for the next Otakon Vegas. Are these spinoff cons going to make it, and what's holding them back?

Despite their popularity, anime conventions are extremely challenging to run. This isn't news. Coralling thousands of nerds into a hotel or convention center, putting on a weekend-long show for them, bringing in guests, dealers, artists, sponsors, panelists, cosplayers and all that is an insane amount of work. Doing it on a massive scale like one of the big established conventions is a simply amazing feat of management and manpower -- it's something of a miracle that it happens every year and doesn't implode. Sure, it never goes perfectly, but it almost always goes well enough that people come back the next year. That's no small thing.

On the downside, a con can only grow so big. Eventually you run out of space, you run out of potential otaku in a given area, you run out of resources. And so for organizations who want to keep growing, building a second convention is an obvious next step. After all, it seems a waste to have a bunch of people hanging around all year, only to have an event once annually.

When a new con is spun off from an old con, such as Japan Expo or Otakon, the big established convention is betting on two things: First, that their brand, infrastructure and reputation is so pervasive that they can get people in a far distant place, who mostly have never experienced their convention, to attend. Second, they're betting that they can put on a show in a new location that lives up to that reputation.

This has not worked out so well for anybody. SPJA (the organization that runs Anime Expo) finally cancelled their spin-off event Anime Conji in San Diego after a five year run, for which they didn't report attendance. Japan Expo USA, the American spinoff of the huge French event, was cancelled after its second year. The jury's still out on Otakon Vegas: they've not grown from their initial number of around 2,000 attendees in any significant way over the past 3 years. (2016 was 2,400) I wouldn't be surprised to see them back, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it fade away quietly either.

Starting a new convention AT ALL these days is a dicey proposition, in my opinion. There are a TON of conventions already, including several every weekend of the summer. Industry presence is already spread so thin that it seems like nobody in marketing departments spends a single weekend at home for months. There's already at least one convention of some size in nearly every major metropolitan area of North America (and many other places). There simply isn't room for more. It's one thing for a new, independent con to start up in a new city, start with a few hundred people, and grow organically, but these organizations are not interested in that. They're interested in replicating their earlier success in a new city. They may not expect to bring in the exact same number of people as their already-established shows, but they're looking to ramp up pretty quickly. That's how you grow, after all.

With summer being so crowded (and the staff already being overwhelmed with running their existing show) that means to put on a new show, you need to either compete directly against another, established convention, or schedule at a really inconvenient time for many fans. With the majority of convention attendees in school 2 weeks after New Year's (Otakon Vegas) or dealing with midterms during the spring (Anime Conji), it's very hard for these shows to attain critical mass. It's still possible, but it's much harder.

There's another thing to consider: even in the absolute best-case scenario where everyone involved is doing a ton of exhaustive research on the area they're holding a convention in, if the con staff is by and large not local to the area, things will slip through the cracks. When the same organization puts on the same show every year for decades, even if there's some turnover in senior staff, there's a lot of institutional knowledge about local fans, local customs, otaku customs, dealing with convention centers, dealing with local government, catering, and any number of logistical issues. When you take the same people and ask them to do the same thing in a completely new setting - this is simple human nature - they're going to be at a disadvantage for a while until they find their footing in this strange new land.

Is hubris a factor? Surely, but in a way, it's only hubris if you fail. Putting on an anime convention is a monumental task, though, and you need some measure of hubris to do it at all. I'm not sure the idea of having any more conventions in the US is a good one, but I am not going to fault people for trying.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap. Please note that he does not take question submissions via Twitter.

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