Mike Tatsugawa PMX Interview

by Christopher Macdonald,
Anime News Network sat down with Mike Tatsugawa to talk about his new event, the Pacific Media Expo. Regular readers should recognize Mike's name as he was the founder of North America's largest Anime convention, Anime Expo.

So after leaving something as successful as AX, what does an event organizer do? Read on to find out.

ANN: Can you tell us the history of how this event came to be?

Mike Tatsugawa: We had been formulating this idea for quite some number of years. When I created Anime Expo back in 1992, we were exiting a decade where Japan was viewed as the dominant growing economic force in the world. Eleven years later, the world no longer revolves around Japan. Instead, the scope has grown to encompass the entire Pacific Rim.

The unfortunate thing about non-profits are that they are very limited in their scope of activities. We used to joke about the purpose of SPJA being to make itself obsolete. Now that anime is mainstream, it's time to focus on the next generation of media and the next generation of challenges. That's where the concept of PMX was born.

Many of us have since left Anime Expo and have used this time to do market research, contact industry members and try to create a plan for what we want to do for the next ten years. We have since combined with staffers from a wide variety of conventions from across the country to create what we consider to be the pioneers of the next generation of conventions. We think that we have created a winning formula with veteran staffers, strong industry support and a vision that everyone believes in. The only thing that has surprised us is that nobody in California has tried to do what we are doing on the scale that we are doing it.

ANN: While they still have room to grow, the anime and manga industries have been firmly established in North America. Meanwhile, Asian music and other Asian films don't have much of a local industry yet and are mostly imports, small firms or bootlegs. What kind of industry involvement do you hope to get from the four sectors?

Mike Tatsugawa: All products go through a standard lifecycle. Anime is starting to approach the final phase of consolidation where money will begin to flow directly to the creators from the distributors. Once that occurs, many of the companies that we commonly see today will lose their role as middlemen. They will be forced to change their business model or go out of business.

Music is at an earlier point in this lifecycle. We intend to promote it in much the same way that we promoted anime 13 years ago. We have already begun to partner up with many of the largest rights holders in Japan as well as some of the key distributors in the United States. We have an excellent track record of promoting cultural imports to the mainstream culture and intend to leverage that experience to assist the other sectors we are focusing on.

To address the bootlegging issue, I think that when something is difficult to purchase, bootlegging becomes popular as a means to fulfill demand in a niche market. However, as the market grows and the intellectual properties gain value, people will defend their property rights with more vigor. Anime Expo 92 had MANY bootlegs and there were only 3 anime companies in existence. Ten years later, no dealer would dare to sell bootlegged anime while the rightholders are in attendance. We expect the same to happen with music as we get Japan's largest music license holders involved with our show.

ANN: Who all is involved with the event? Is it voluntary or paid staff? Your key staff have a significant amount of experience between them, can you tell us a bit about this experience?

Mike Tatsugawa: Collectively, our convention committee has about one hundred years of convention experience under our belts. Our staff probably has a combined total of several hundred years. Most of us were huge anime fans at one point or another but eventually moved away from getting enjoyment watching anime to actually enjoying the promotion of anime. Now that we feel that we've largely completed our goal of promoting anime to the mainstream, the question looms, "What next?"

Our staff will be working under what I call the Japanese anime production model. Our first priority will be to take care of the staff. Whenever the con makes a profit beyond the seed money needed for the next year, we offer to help the staff with any incidental costs they may have incurred while volunteering for the convention. If there is still money left, we will make symbolic payments to management. To me, this is more an issue of respect than to make money. Money leftover after that gets put back into the convention. We ARE looking at hiring a bookkeeper to manage finances and an office administrator to handle calls and process paperwork. These people will definitely be paid staff. We don't expect staffers to get reimbursed for personal costs for about 2-3 years. Management probably won't get a penny for about 4-6 years. If given the choice of paying one person 30,000 or giving 300 staffers $100 each to help with personal costs, the choice would be an easy one. For all of us, this is a labor of love, not a shortcut to retirement.

ANN: Can you give us the names of some of the key staffers that might be recognizable to our readers?

Mike Tatsugawa: Are there such things as anime convention staff groupies? The staff is not completely formalized yet, so some of these people are still considering their participation. Most of these people have labored in the dungeons of convention halls for years, so I doubt if many would recognize them. But some of the more recognizable convention personalities are MegaZone from AnimeOnDVD.com, Rebecca Norman who is the Chair of NDK, a number of senior staffers from Anime Boston and AniMagic, and of course many staffers from Anime Expo. Of course, this isn't a one-way relationship. Many of us are also working other conventions as well. The convention planning community is a fairly close community and although we push rivalries for good natured competition, we're like a large family.

ANN: What are the main programming functions for the event(concerts, panels, workshops, video rooms, gaming, exhibitors hall, etc...)?

Mike Tatsugawa: We won't vary in formula too much from your typical media con except in one key respect. We intend to hold at least one LARGE music concert each year. This should be for about 3,000-5,000 attendees. We are also trying to make arrangements with Japanese companies and local DJ's to have a club spinning Asian music or promoting local Asian DJ's. This is all still under negotiation. We will still have different types of video rooms, a large exhibit hall and everything that people typically expect from your typical convention.

ANN: Will the event be running 24 hours a day?

Mike Tatsugawa: For union reasons, the events in the convention center will NOT run 24 hrs/day. However, the video rooms in the hotel will be maintaining a 24 hour schedule. Perhaps they will be running regular videos during the day and switching to J-Horror films at night.

ANN: Why did you choose to locate your event in Southern California?

Mike Tatsugawa: Pacific Media Expo benefits from two factors that create a unique competitive opportunity to act as the primary focal point for Asian entertainment and media community to gather, gain exposure and promote their products to the rest of the country. Los Angeles is the Asian community's largest hub within the United States and is the gateway for Asian influence to the rest of the country. Within the entertainment community, Los Angeles is the creative capital of the industry.

ANN: What kind of attendance are you hoping for / expecting in your first year?

Mike Tatsugawa: We are budgeting for only 6,000 attendees, but are preparing for 10,000. The concert venue that we will hold our concerts and costume competitions in can house 7,000 people in an arena seating arrangement. We expect our first year to be tough as we try to establish a branding. When many of us were still working with Anime Expo, it was a luxury to rely upon the name and not have to prove anything to anyone. However, because our show is far more diversified, we see better growth potential over the years. Expect to see a lot of changes to the show over the next five years. We intentionally chose a holiday weekend and one of the largest convention facilities in Southern California just so that we could continue to aggressively expand the size and scope of the convention.

ANN: Your mission statement states that you wish to promote four key cultural exports, Anime, Asian Movies, Asian Music and Comics. Will the event be of interest to those that are interested in only one of the four categories? Do you hope to introduce fans of Anime to other Asian movies and so on and vice versa ... ?

Mike Tatsugawa: In much the same way that San Diego Comic Convention is structured, we want to be diverse enough that fans can choose never to leave the genres areas of their choice for the whole weekend if they so wish. However, one of the main goals of this show are to highlight how much these areas overlap. An incredibly successful comic will usually have an anime made based on it. From there, popular bands are usually contracted to provide music for the soundtrack. If the show is hugely successful, it might be remade into a live action movie. We want to educate people how interconnected the entire entertainment industry is. From there, we'd like to increase interest of each respective genre by having fans explore these new areas. However, please keep in mind that these are going to be the four original pillars of the convention. From there, we want to keep extending the show as these areas overlap into additional ones.

ANN: What about the Asian movies, what kind of industry involvement from that sector are you aiming for?

Mike Tatsugawa: Those are still in negotiation. There are basically two camps of Asian movies. The one that most people know the best are the anime companies. Most companies have begun diversifying their video portfolios to decrease their dependence on anime. At this point, I'm not certain if there are any anime companies who aren't releasing live action films. These are the easiest for me to work with because we've had relationships that date back as far as 14 years. On the other hand, there are numerous companies that we have never worked with before. Things do look promising. We have already been offered numerous 35mm films and many companies want to promote their latest releases. Because it's a relatively young field, many of these companies are vying for publicity. On the other hand, because there has never been a show like ours, we are trying to work out a model for co-promotions that will benefit everyone.

ANN: How broad based of an event you believe this endeavor will be?

Mike Tatsugawa: We are beginning with a focus on these four core areas of anime, comics, music and live action. We are already looking at areas of expansion in the near future and will probably announce two more in 2004. We currently have a five year plan in place. Part of why we created PMX as a for-profit corporation was because we felt increasingly limited by the laws governing non-profit corporations. We are beginning to explore new ground and we want new challenges. We know that many fans out there want to find something new and closer to the edge. It's our job to try to find it and bring it to the mainstream.

Our primary goal is to create a community of artists, industry and fans for the Asian entertainment community. Once we have the show stabilized, we want to go on to new ways of promoting the arts in this community. After learning of Justin Lin's struggles to make Better Luck Tomorrow, one idea that we have agreed upon is to start creating grants for young artists who are working on media projects either by or for members of the Asian community. Granted, this is still many years off (so don't start sending us E-mails for money!), but it fits our goals for what we believe our role in the community should be.

ANN: Asian entertainment, perhaps falsely, is often regarded as being violent and mature. Many of the North American festivals that focus on Asian imports seem to focus on the more violent filmmakers such as Miike and Ringo Lam. Yet there is much more to Asian film making. What kind of movies will you be presenting, and will PMX be a family friendly event?

Mike Tatsugawa: Asian entertainment's greatest strength and weakness is that it is a media, not a genre. As such, is always open to the artistic vision of the creators. If we wanted, we could have a three day festival that plays Sailor Moon and Pokémon anime all day, plays Totoro soundtracks constantly and has a live action program that mostly includes Power Ranger (sentai) shows. We could try to make the case that Asian entertainment is not all violent and mature, but that isn't our purpose. We will, of course, have some programming sectioned off for children, but our target market are the 18-24 year olds who want something different and closer to the edge. These are the people who know that rice rockets are the coolest cars, Playstation is the coolest console (and that it isn't important to understand a game in order to play it) and that Cowboy Bebop defines cool anime.

My feeling is that in the long run, many of the anime conventions will find their age demographic dropping to the point where they will have no choice but to become children's cons. What PMX seeks to do is create a model where people can move up from comics to anime to live action and evolve their interests through a tiered offering of different types of media.

ANN: The success of an event relies as much on good marketing as it does on the event itself. How do you plan to market PMX to the industry and the public.

Mike Tatsugawa: We can't go into marketing strategies in too much detail right now, but the nice thing about being the founder of Anime Expo is that there is a lot of goodwill that is carried along with that reputation. Currently, we are collaborating with one of the United States' largest electronics retailers, one of Japan's largest music labels and most of the world's largest anime companies to put this event together. There will probably be more industry collaboration on this project than anything else anyone in the industry has ever done in the past.

ANN: Do you have anything you would like to add?

Mike Tatsugawa: Just that to many of us, this is a grand adventure. After 14 years of anime, we are finally striking out to do something new and to once again evangelize to a new type of fan. Our activities have captured the imagination of other conventions and other fans and we hope to create a larger community for fans of all Asian media to participate and experiment.

The first Pacific Media Expo will take place at the Anaheim Convention Center (same place as this year's AX) on the weekend of May 29th to 31st, 2004.

More details about PMX can be found on the PMX website at pacific-media-expo.com. The website also contains multiple means for fan interaction, including a discussion forum, links to a Yahoo! group and a LiveJournal Community.

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