Conventions and Events

by Mikhail Koulikov, Jan 11th 2006
Probably the dominant feature of the convention scene in 2005 was a reminder that as the anime industry as a whole is coming to grips with the irrational exuberance of the last couple of years, the cons are affected as well. The L'Arc~en~Ciel concert at the 2004 Otakon was quite possibly the crest, the high point of what cons in the US could feature, and it is not likely that we will see this crest reached again at least for a few years.

The 2005 Anime Expo and Otakon were both solid, but essentially unremarkable, although the attendance totals for both place them firmly in the upper ranges of multi-day events of any kind in the US. AX saw some 33,000 attendees flock to Anaheim, and probably the single most important news item to emerge out of the 2005 event is the announcement that while this year, it will again be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, in 2007, the convention will have to return to Long Beach, which was the venue in 2001-2002. For Otakon, 2005 was remarkable in that it was the first time the convention had to institute a registration cap, although a small number of walk-in registrations were available. And with 22,000 attendees this year, there really are not that many options available for growth in the future, given the essential lack of other convention centers with adjacent hotels anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic. So, at least for now, it looks like Otakon will either continue capping registrations, or will begin shifting panels and video rooms to some of the hotels, while reserving the BCC itself for the likes of the dealer's room, main events, artist's alley and video games.

On the other hand, one convention that finally blossomed in 2005 was Anime Boston. Over the last two years, a highly competent staff and enthusiastic attendees were somewhat hampered by a venue that was simply not optimal for hosting an event of that size. So, even before the convention, the move to the Hynes Convention Center and the adjoining Sheraton Boston seemed like a good idea. In retrospect, it was an absolutely awesome idea. First and foremost, this meant that the somewhat controversial attendance cap that had been imposed in 2004 would now be just a bad dream.
The Hynes is spacious, with plenty of room to accommodate attendee growth and an uncomplicated design, and best of all, it is linked directly to a mall that quickly becomes almost absorbed into the convention. Of course, in of itself, the venue is never enough, and as several events over the last few years have shown, a downtown venue can very easily turn out to be a liability, as attendees either only come in for a few hours a day or are overwhelmed by a huge hotel that caters primarily to tourists and businessmen. Anime Boston saw none of that: for three days, the Hynes and the attached Sheraton became a playground for otaku and nobody but otaku. And thanks to an excellent program put together by an experienced staff (plenty of Anime Boston staffers have been into anime for about as long as there has been anime fandom in the US, while several others staff a number of other conventions as well) and a high level of industry participation, in all of three years, Anime Boston has become essentially the example of how a good anime convention is run. There is a very good reason why, in its third year, Anime Boston was already in the top ten most popular anime conventions in North America.

The remaining seven events on in the top ten (AX and Otakon, are, of course, in the top two spots, and Anime Boston comes in at number seven) are, in descending order, A-Kon (June, Dallas), Anime Central (May, Chicago), Anime North (May, Toronto), Anime Weekend Atlanta (September), Fanime (May, Toronto), Katsucon (February, Washington, DC), and Sakura-Con (April, Seattle). Of these, Anime Central is in the admirable position of being adjacent to an absolutely huge convention center, so growth for the future is definitely not a problem. Katsucon's 2005 was a year of transition; it had outgrown the familiar Hyatt Regency Crystal City, but was not yet able to move into a long-term home. Deciding to run the convention in two unconnected hotels, one of which, to boot, was undergoing reconstruction, was the best of all possible options, but unsurprisingly, attendee reaction was fairly negative. Exactly what effect the 2005 experience will have on the 2006 convention remains to be seen, but on the other hand, Katsucon has been in a similar situation once before, with an unsuccessful 2002 attempt to ‘colonize’ the Baltimore Inner Harbor; next year, attendees were all too happy to return to the Hyatt. Three hotels in three years - and this, for a twelve-year-old convention, maybe a bit too much, though...

When in 2004 D20, Inc first announced plans for a series of anime conventions throughout the U.S. run by a professional events management company, the idea was received with a deal of skepticism. OtakuCon Miami Beach came and went; it had its share of problems, but they were nothing out of the ordinary for a first-year convention. On the other hand, it was obvious almost immediately that looking to hold twelve events a year, as D20 claimed to plan to do throughout 2005, would be a overly ambitious at best, and quite possibly, the very definition of hubris. The way things actually folded out, the inaugural San Diego event was cancelled outright, but from then, things looked up. Somewhat surprisingly, no other conventions have been held in the St. Louis area to date, so that was the perfect place for a con that itself was fairly young. The few reports that have appeared indicate that it was a fine event that did some fairly unusual things, such as partnering with Harmony Gold/Robotech.com and featuring a guest - David Carradine - whose relation to Japanese popular culture is marginal at best, but who, nonetheless, could certainly appeal to fans. Unfortunately, from then on, things went downhill. KuniCon Atlanta went off well enough, but the Denver event only drew about 500 attendees and went over budget by some thirty thousand dollars. About a month before the December 2005 Miami event, in a long post in his LiveJournal, the convention chair revealed that the founder of D20 had not been in contact with anyone regarding the convention, was withholding wages from the staff and had possibly sold or otherwise gotten rid of equipment the convention owned. Perhaps the ultimate lesson here is that if you “if you build it, they will come” is not the way things work with anime cons. It's all too easy to see a thousand attendees and only think about the money they all paid to get in, while conveniently forgetting all the associated expenses. But on the other hand, the appeal of getting access to anime fans' wallets is hard to deny, and I am fairly confident that someone else will step up to the plate, sooner rather than later, and try to succeed where D20 failed. And of course, the possibility, mentioned semi-jokingly every now and then, that the entire affair was a fraud or money-laundering scheme to begin with can't be discounted either...

Continuing the trend of the last few years, more and more areas throughout North America now have a con to call their own. 2005 launches included Anime LA, KamikazeCon, KawaiiCon (Hawaii's first-ever con), and easily a dozen smaller festivals and other single-day events.

Two more events that took place in 2005, although falling outside the con world, deserve particular mention. The Pillows, the j-rock band that provided the soundtrack to FLCL, played several venues throughout the U.S., culminating with a sold-out show at New York's legendary Knitting Factory. It certainly is not the first time a Japanese band has played in a U.S. venue, but it was a unique chance for anime fans only familiar with a few of The Pillows' songs to be introduced to the full body of their work, while rock fans who are not themselves into anime got a great chance to hear something that is quite different from the stereotype of contemporary Japanese music. And later in the year, also in New York, the Japan Society presented a focused exhibit on Japanese pop culture that combined film showings, lectures, exhibits, and a series of public art installations throughout New York. While an earlier similar exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum was far more focused on the ways Japanese art uses popular culture motifs and images, “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture” cheerfully highlighted these very images - anime clips, production artwork, models...and a set of Neon Genesis Evangelion pachinko machines.

So, in the end of things, 2005 was a year of consolidation, of figuring out what works and what doesn't yet, and where do we go from here. Registration caps work - if announced far in advance and managed properly. Putting on a convention in a downtown setting works - if you pick the right setting. Any random hotel picked just because it's what's available won't do. Partnering with another organization, whether a college, a library, or whatever your local version of the Japan Society is called, is always a good way to ensure the success of your event, especially if you are just starting out, and not planning on running a full-scale three-day convention. On the other hand, expecting that running a con will make you rich - or even holding an “if we announce it, they will come” attitude, will lead to disappointment at best. And finally, a couple of years ago, it looked like fragmentation of the market and the emergence of smaller events devoted to specific genres of anime, or even to specific series, would be one of the trends we would see emerge. But as the industry has continued to catch up with fans' interests, and as the amount of anime and manga freely available in the US has increased to the current level, there is no more need for an event entirely devoted to, say, shoujo, not when the ‘anime’ section of the local Best Buy and the ‘graphic novels’ aisle at the B&N are chock-full of the best and the latest releases. In fact, ultimately, what is becoming more and more evident is that as anime works its way more and more into popular culture, the same way video games have, anime conventions in the US are becoming less and less distinct events and more and more brands; a fan can say “I'm going to Otakon” and mean much the same thing as if he or she said “I'm going to Disney World”; it's not what you do there that's important, but the simple act of going.

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