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Interview: Milton Griepp and the American Anime Awards

by Zac Bertschy,

Anime News Network: How, and for what purpose, did the American Anime Awards come about?

Griepp: There were three main drivers in the creation of the American Anime Awards. First, the organizers wanted a way to celebrate anime, and to showcase the best of anime in America. There was no industry body that had created an awards program to date, so Anime Network decided to incubate a fair, transparent awards program in order to accomplish that goal.

Second, Anime Network will derive some programming for it. But they've told me that there's no way to justify the expense of the program solely on the programming they're creating, and I believe them. I believe that in future years, an effort will be made to broaden the base of support for the program beyond Anime Network.

And third, New York Comic Con was actively searching for an awards program from one of its categories to be associated with the convention, so a venue and supporting event became available. The association with New York Comic Con allowed the awards program to take advantage of the location in the media capital of the world, with a very large press corps already attending.

Who decided how the nomination process would operate?

Anime Network had some general ideas when they came to me, but wanted to be arms length from the mechanics of voting. They insisted on a process that was super-inclusive and fair. To that end, I made a number of recommendations on the nominating and voting process, all of which were accepted.

The first press release for this event had ADV Films' name all over it; the presenters are all ADV voice actors, and it's being broadcast on ADV's channel, The Anime Network. Obviously this begs the question: are the American Anime Awards simply a showcase being put on by ADV's marketing department? Why is one company so directly involved with an awards ceremony that's clearly designed to appear as though it's celebrating the industry as a whole?

The only place I saw ADV's name on the press release announcing the Awards (which went out from New York Comic Con) was in the list of companies that would be participating in the ceremony.

I'll certainly grant that the association with Anime Network and the talent that was named in that first release does create a link between the Awards and ADV. But if the American Anime Awards were “simply a showcase being put on by ADV's marketing department,” there wouldn't be the wide range of nominees from every major anime and manga producer. In other words, if ADV wanted to stack the awards, the process wouldn't have been set up to have an independent party running the nominations and ballots, with every major company participating.

As I mentioned in my answer to the first question, the combination of a desire to do the awards to showcase the industry, the creation of programming for Anime Network, and most importantly, the opportunity to hold the event in conjunction with New York Comic Con led Anime Network to create these awards.

All of the presenters at this event are well-known ADV voice actresses, all of whom participated in the ADV-branded "Babes of Anime" feature that ran both on IGN.com and in Anime Insider. Was any attempt made to approach the many other qualified voice actors, actresses, directors and other professionals who do not work directly with ADV to present awards at the ceremony? If not, why?

First, a correction: no presenters have been named. The voice talent that was named in the initial release will be the hosts of the event; presenters for individual awards have not yet been named. The hosts were named in that first release as a way to begin establishing that this would be an important event with talent attending. And yes, from the very first contacts I made with other anime companies prior to sending out the call for nominations up through today, I have been working to bring in other voice talent as presenters. Watch for announcements soon about celebrity presenters from other companies—we're expecting an impressive, all-star cast of presenters.

If you look at other industry awards ceremonies - like the Oscars - an independent counsel of actors, directors and others in the industry form a non-branded coalition that handles the event; Paramount Pictures, for example, does not run the Academy Awards. Was there an attempt to create an all-inclusive organization with no specific corporate identity to handle this event, in the interest of promoting an image of fairness and integrity? What was the reason for the method chosen?

Actually, in at least one important way, the organization of the American Anime Awards is similar to the way the Oscars are presented: the Oscars telecast has been produced by ABC for the past 30 years and ABC is owned by Disney, a major motion picture studio.

I've been involved with a number of industry-wide organizations in my career, including organizations of competitors, and currently serve on the boards of two (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and Free Comic Book Day). My experience is that any organization that tries to accommodate the interests of competitors is extremely challenging to organize and perpetuate. In my opinion, it would have been impossible to pull together any such organization in less than six months to year, if at all. Anime Network made the decision to go ahead and accept the opportunity offered by New York Comic Con to host an awards program in conjunction with the show. Over time, perhaps a broader organization can be established to manage the awards, but for this first year, I'm just glad that there's an initial effort that will be in the public eye within a few months.

What steps are being taken to ensure fairness in both the nomination process and the vote tabulation?

One of the first steps that Anime Network took to ensure fairness was to retain ICv2 as an independent and unbiased third party to manage the nomination and voting process. They accepted all of our recommendations how to set up those processes. It was made open to all of the major anime and manga companies, so each could nominate its own titles to appear on the ballot. Independent experts were also sought out as a way to expand the nominees further.

The ballot is being hosted by a third party online survey company, which has tested and refined its survey software over many thousands of surveys. It has many features to ensure fairness, such as randomizing the lists of nominees for each category so that no one nominee appears first more than any other. There are also barriers in the survey software to multiple voting by the same person. Neither ADV nor Anime Network has any access to the construction of the ballot or its results.

Looking at the nomination and voting processes, there is nothing that stacks this in favor of ADV or any other company's nominees.

Who were the nomination ballots sent to? Were they mailed to the marketing departments at other anime companies, like Bandai, Geneon and Funimation, or were they sent to the people who are creatively involved, like voice actors and ADR directors? If the former, why?

Each company was given an opportunity to nominate its own anime or manga for awards, and they were responsible for how they made those decisions on a company-by-company basis. I know that some companies did involve their creative people in the nominations; for the most part those internal processes in the various companies were opaque to us, as they probably should be.

How many people who aren't directly involved in the marketing and selling of anime - meaning independent journalists, professional website editors, well-known and trusted writers, and so on - were involved in the nomination process? How were they chosen? Do you feel you had enough "independent" voters to balance out the number of nominations submitted by industry representatives?

Representatives of three of the most prominent publications/Websites covering anime--Anime Insider, Anime News Network, and Anime on DVD—all with no ties to any anime producer or company, were asked to submit nominations. They were chosen because of their prominence and the level of esteem in which they're held. Anime Network recommended them and I concurred. Since each nominating company or person could submit two nominations, we feel that there are a sufficient number of different nominees to offer voters a good range of choices.

The online voting ballot has many, many errors on it; short series are listed as long series, long series are listed as short series, and Akira is listed as a comedy. Who's responsible for these mistakes, and what steps are being taken toward fixing them?

First of all, I want to thank all of the people that carefully reviewed the ballot and commented on it; while it's not necessarily a pleasant process to have your work reviewed by thousands of passionate proofreaders, it definitely produces a cleaner result.

The simple answer to your question about who's responsible is that since ICv2 prepared the ballot, we're responsible for any problems. But it's not that simple. Many of the “errors” were due to the way nominations were submitted. Those submissions included nominations for the same anime under different titles (from different nominators), nominations of long series as short, nominations for cast members without an associated anime, and the submission of a cast member for a title that most see as a drama as the best actor in a comedy. I don't want to imply that the nominating companies did anything wrong; most of the problems can be traced to a need for more clarity in the requirements for nominations, something that we'll definitely correct next year.

Everything that could be fixed was changed immediately, most the first morning that the ballot went live.

The submission of a performer in Akira for Best Actor in a Comedy was put on the ballot because that's the way it was submitted by a nominator. Although most might not see Akira as a comedy, the decision was made to include it in the ballot in the way it was nominated, as there was no mechanism for arbitrating what was a comedy and what was not. That will probably change in future years. For this year, if fans that are voting feel that actor was worthy of a Best Actor in a Comedy award, they'll vote for it; if not, they won't.

Why are there so many anime series on the ballot that have been available for years? Is the ceremony celebrating the entire history of anime in America or are these awards for series released or broadcast in 2006?

The awards are to celebrate the best anime in America in 2006, as selected by fans. In order to be eligible, the anime had to be available on TV, in theaters, or on DVD during that period. Again, this method was chosen to make the process as open and inclusive as possible; rather than making an arbitrary distinction based on whether an anime was first seen during 2006, the nominators and voters will decide what's best from everything that was available last year.

Why was the decision made to let the fans vote? Doesn't that decision turn the ceremony into a popularity contest, rather than a celebration of quality? Doesn't a fan-run contest lend itself to ballot stuffing by large groups of niche fans, ensuring victory for only the most popular and widespread series? How concerned are you about these issues?

Fan voting was chosen as the way to select the winners because we believe that the many passionate, knowledgeable anime fans are extremely qualified to determine what's high quality, and don't need to have those decisions made for them. So while at its simplest level the American Anime Awards is a popularity contest, the fans of anime are a special group, who for years have driven this category by their enthusiastic participation and broad knowledge. And if there are large groups of fans voting for their favorites, that's a great measure of how much they enjoyed the anime, and the level of enjoyment and the degree to which they're motivated to vote is a great measure of quality. If fans feel that lesser-known anime are better than those that get more TV exposure, they can vote for them.

Why are there separate categories for "comedy" anime? If you're going to single out comedy, why not also have separate categories for horror, drama or action? Given the issue with ADV's deep involvement with the event and the fact that ADV Films specifically is known for licensing more comedy properties than other companies, do you feel that creates the image of a conflict of interest?

There was a lot of discussion of this issue, and in the end it was decided that comedy is different enough from dramatic anime that it was worth a separate category. Comedy is listed separately by many award programs, including the Emmys, the Golden Globes, and the People's Choice Awards. And although ADV does license a fair number of comedic anime, there are plenty of comedies from other companies as well, so no, I don't think that a comedy category creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. That said, the choice of categories is definitely something that will be reviewed after the first year, to see if it needs to be expanded or changed based on the over-all response we get.

Overall, are you generally satisfied with the nominations (with the errors corrected) and would you do anything different in the nomination and ballot preperation processes if the American Anime Awards become a repeat event?

The most important goal of the American Anime Awards for this first year was to get every major anime company to submit nominations and otherwise participate, and we're very happy that we were able to achieve that and that the ballot reflects an industry-wide awards program.

If we had it to do over again, the biggest change would be to not schedule the ballot-building process over the holidays. It made it difficult to contact nominators with questions, it meant that our staff here at ICv2 was not as available as it normally would have been to check and double check the ballot, and in general made it difficult to have the first iteration of the ballot be as error-free as we would have liked.

We'll revisit the scheduling and other issues once we see how the whole process plays out over the coming weeks.

Finally, how is the balloting coming along? Are you getting the response you expected?

The response has been great, and the number of voters has been running way ahead of expectations. We're very excited about the passion that anime fans are showing by their voting, and feel that we're off to a great start. Also, as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, New York Comic Con has let us know that there are less than 100 seats still available for the awards ceremony, so fans that are interested in attending should register at the New York Comic Con Website as soon as possible.

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