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Report: AniBiz: Anime Business Conference at Japan Society

by Cindy Sibilsky,

The AniBiz anime business conference was held at Japan Society Thursday, November 15th, just one day ahead of Anime NYC. The event was co-organized by Anime NYC and Anime News Network's CEO and Publisher, Christopher Macdonald, who also served as the moderator for the afternoon's keynote panels, which were composed of and attended by a long list of folks who have serious experience in the business of anime.

From Left: Christopher Macdonald, Kun Gao, Kurt Hassler, Peter Tatara, Ian Tingen, Greg Topalian, Charlene Ingram, Adam Sheehan

Though unfortunately the timing of the talk conflicted with the exhibition hall set up (which is something the Anime NYC organizers said they'd work around in the future) and therefore many of those who may have really gotten something out of it and who are in the business themselves were setting up their booths, it was a decent turnout for a first year event of this nature with a healthy mix of professionals and interested otaku wanting to better understand the inner working of the industry and ask themselves how they fit in.

The short answer is -- a lot. The main takeaway from the whole event was that when it comes down to it, the fans are a major defining force in this business, and the current industry leaders are apparently trying to listen to them.

Anime has exploded over the last decade but the business community remains pretty tight-knit - it was no surprise that most of the professionals in attendance already knew each other. Their rapport was reminiscent of old pals at a high school or college reunion -- there was a strong sense of familiarity and playfulness between them.

The first keynote speaker, after introductory remarks from Japan Society, Anime NYC and moderator Christopher Macdonald, was Kun Gao -- the founder of Crunchyroll, hailed as the world's largest destination for anime and manga. What began twelve years ago as a video-sharing platform for anime has blossomed into an international brand with over 45 million registered users and more than 2 million subscribers. Crunchyroll is also a huge presence at conventions. Gao began with an anecdotal story dubbed “The Tee-Shirt Test 2.0”, in which he described being stopped at airport security in customs but upon the agent seeing his tee-shirt smiled and exclaimed, “Crunchyroll? I love anime!” and wave him through. To Gao, this demonstrated the power and significance of fandom. He went on to discuss the changes in the business and how anime has grown from a niche interest into a global phenomenon with celebrities, sports figures and others professing their adoration for anime and manga openly and even noted the mainstream acceptance in the form of a giant float in the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade this year honoring Dragon Ball Z. Gao noted the most dynamic change over about a decade and a half has been the 24/7/365 access that has become the norm, the on- and offline networks and the blurring between fans and creators. He spoke of the imperative importance of understanding, reaching and “super-serving” fans as well as empowering the next generation of anime and manga lovers. “Finding ways to keep fans happy is the number one key to success.”

Crunchyroll Founder Kun Gao

What followed was the first roundtable discussion, called “Shifting Trends in Consumption Habits”, featuring Kurt Hassler, the Publisher and Managing Director of Yen Press and Adam Sheehan, a fixture in the anime industry for two decades who has worked for Score Entertainment and Funimation and is now Director of Events at Crunchyroll and VRV, and a founder of Crunchyroll Expo. MacDonald threw out a few statistics from Anime News Network surveys showing drastic changes such as 86% who preferred DVDs over online/digital in 2010 versus under 18% who preferred DVDs in 2018. In contrast, paid subscriptions have increased almost sixfold since 2010. Interestingly, in the printed manga market, there has been a slow but steady growth. Sheehan mentioned that unique offerings and collectability is key in keeping the DVD market alive. Hassler was a buyer of manga for the now defunct Borders bookstore, so has first-hand experience with changes in readers' consumption habits due to digital, but remarked that the digital side of publishing was an initial concern but peaked and plateaued around 25%-30% of their sales because “There is still nothing like the tactile experience of reading a book. It is just fundamentally different.” But he also lamented the continued challenge of piracy saying it was “hands down, the biggest issue, a crisis in the market” and reminded that it “hurts everyone.” Sheehan emphasized the value of keeping up with fans then noted that anime fans are “brutally honest” and that Crunchyroll's regular in-person, direct engagement at conventions is a vital way to keep up with their tastes and interests.

The second keynote speaker was Charlene Ingram, a former cosplayer turned major “glittering” force in the North American anime industry as the marketing mind behind many of the medium's most iconic titles from Funimation and Viz Media, though she is best known for her work on the Viz release of Sailor Moon. Ingram's address was a rallying cry called “Fandom to Industry -- Your Secret Weapon.” Since she began as a fan (and still is), she understands the mentality from the inside out and urged professionals to take a worthwhile risk on investing in fans for the following reasons: 1. Passion -- love, devotion and appreciation for anime and manga. 2. Grit -- real fans don't give up and have a “ride or die” loyalty. 3. Fresh ideas -- fans urge businesses to try new things and challenge the status quo. 4. Empathy -- fans truly and genuinely care about the product so it's important to have them on your team. “Love gets the job done!” she emphasized. Lastly, Ingram left the conference with a few more words of wisdom: “Embrace the strange, let fans be themselves, as weird as that may be, because passion equals authenticity. Have fun, don't take it all too seriously and it is possible that you can market with a soul.”

The next and final panel was a round-table discussion called, “Real-World Marketing (Conventions and IRL Events) for Media Companies” with Adam Sheehan, Greg Topalian, the founder of New York Comic Con and Leftfield Media who has twenty years of experience in the events business, and Ian Tingen, a social psychologist and CEO of Power Level Productions, who utilizes his skills to act as a “relationship counselor” between brands and fans.

From Left: Christopher Macdonald, Greg Topalian, Ian Tingen, Adam Sheehan

Moderator Christopher Macdonald asked about the significance of companies in the industry being involved in events and Adam Sheehan dove right in to explain that Crunchyroll is a lifestyle brand and that their events team works together to find ways to engage and simply make fans smile. He then cited the concept of the Bananya Plushie Pit, that draws huge lines at every convention and serves no purpose other than the pure joy of rolling in a pit of plush toys and posing for pictures. Ian Tingen mentioned that from his training and perspective as a psychologist, he sees the core purpose of events as a way for brands to get to know and understand their fans in a more personal way because, “Brands can have preconceived notions about who the fans are and what they want.” Greg Topalian emphasized that the mission of NYCC, Anime NYC and all of his endeavors over the past two decades is to, “Create a portfolio of great events where the fans are the central focus. Fans first, brands after -- that's our policy. We provide a platform for brands to explore and experiment with interesting ways to relate to and engage with tens of thousands of their fans directly.”

All of the panelists mentioned the significance of unique offerings, be they in terms of specialty, limited edition or exclusive products or interactive experiences like the Ouran High School Host Club recreation where participants could get hosted in person. “This show has been a huge hit for us,” Sheehan relayed, “and we want to keep fanning this flame to keep it alive.” Sheehan also noted that the goal of Crunchyroll Expo (CRX) was born out of having attended and exhibited at so many cons and seeing a lot of them plateau from not really changing anything over the years or adding fresh and exciting elements to keep up with changing tastes. Therefore the goal of CRX was to “Raise the bar and set standards for all cons because we can take those risks and to mix it up between offering old favorites and playing with new ideas. This also keeps Crunchyroll out there IRL (in real life).”

Tingen re-emphasized the value of brands learning to question their biases, be open to the discovering that they might not be right and the willingness to learn. He gave the example of the success of a chill-out lounge area provided across the street from the intensity of the masses at Anime Expo, which offered necessary restoration of creature comforts often overlooked during all the excitement. “Not all offerings have to be big, bright and beautiful, this one provided essential care for the fans.”

Topalain expressed that brands need to enter into their con mentality with objectivity: “What's the outcome you're looking for? A media frenzy? Meaningful engagement? Selling product? Companies need to take the time to consider why they are funding their involvement in an event and what they wish to accomplish.” Sheehan promoted a balance of “Passion and business,” as being the key and looks to outlets like sports and other entertainment to see how they engage their devotees. This prompted Tingen to remind members of the industry that there is potential fandom for absolutely anything, even accounting (the vision of “Accountant Con” received a great response from the attendees).

Topalain and Tingen offered some final thoughts to brands looking to engage with their audiences and procure more of a following: “Don't think of things in terms of profit first, that's where you get into trouble and lose your vision for the bigger picture,” Topalain said explaining that the first year of Anime NYC was a huge yet calculated risk which they all agreed was worthwhile. Tingen echoed his advice by reminding brands to “Work to build longevity with fans overtime rather than seeking the quick buck from them. Fans are smart, they'll know the difference.”

Disclosure: Anime News Network CEO and Publisher Christopher Macdonald collaborated with Anime NYC to produce AniBiz: Anime Business Conference.

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