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NYCC's Inaugural Anime Fest Draws Mixed Reception From Fans, Vendors

posted on by Lynzee Loveridge & Zac Bertschy

ReedPOP and Anime Expo's The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA) announced the inaugural Anime Fest @ NYCC x Anime Expo event in July to mixed reactions. Some con-goers saw the event, which is housed separately from New York Comic Con and took place at Pier 94 last week, as an attempt to compete with the relatively new Anime NYC convention set to take place a month later in the Javits Center.

It's unclear what the chief reason for a depressed initial turnout was, but there are several candidates: the negative sentiment surrounding the event's initial announcement, Anime Fest's location at nearly 15 city blocks from the main convention center or simply a lack of programming. Images from attendees began circulating on social media on Friday and show a near empty venue and reactions were far from positive.

The sparse attendance was surprising. The official Twitter account for the Anime Fest event tweeted on Friday that 95% of Anime Fest badges for Saturday were sold out. The event's less expensive Anime Fest badges allowed access to New York Comic-Con programming in addition to what was available at the Pier 94 location, leading to some speculation that attendees were snatching them up to see things like the DreamWorks Voltron: Legendary Defender panel, the Dragon Ball Super: Broly film panel, or the RWBY and gen:LOCK Mega Panel in the Hulu Theater. Single day tickets for Anime Fest were priced at US$20-25 compared to a NYCC ticket for US$50-55. NYCC tickets and Anime Fest tickets were sold separately.

Anime Fest's Main Stage on Thursday. Approximately 10 attendees sit in for Voice Actors Go Full Weeaboo panel with Blake Shepard

The Anime Fest location's programming included anime film screenings, fan panels, industry and guest panels, and an area called "The School Yard" that hosted children's games like Red Light, Green Light and "Sempai Says." That said, the programming is comparatively sparse compared to a typical anime convention with two panels or events happening per hour. Attendees could choose between heading to a screening of Goblin Slayer or participating in "YogaQuest Presents Pokémon: a Narrated Yogic Adventure!" at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, for example.

The site was also competing against programming at NYCC proper, where most of the major players in the anime and manga industry held their panels. Viz Media, for example, had its primary industry panel on Thursday at NYCC, not at the Anime Fest location. Its Shonen Jump panel and K: Small World film screening were also over at Javits while Radiant creator Tony Valente, whose comic is inspiring an anime series this season, was at Anime Fest. Funimation, Crunchyroll, Kodansha and Vertical all held their respective industry panels at NYCC instead of Anime Fest.

In an interview conducted prior to the event, ReedPOP event director Michael Armstrong explained that the split venue programming was a result of Anime Fest's announcement timing: vendors and exhibitors had already purchased space at the Javits Center at the time of announcement. If anime companies wanted to add additional programming or booths to the Pier 94 space, they would have to pay an additional fee to use the space, on top of what they'd already committed to for New York Comic-Con. Some companies opted to do both, some passed on the opportunity, and others took programming that otherwise didn't have a space at Javits to Anime Fest.

"The issue we're having is, this [Anime Fest] got announced in July. Ideally it would've been announced in February. So this year, this event is something where we're really trying to get it right and deliver an excellent fan experience, and that's when we'll start to see this grow into 2019," Armstrong said.

Attendance did grow as the weekend got into full swing. The sold-out Saturday tickets were put to use as the Pier 94 venue reached max capacity of approximately 7,000 people. There was still plenty of space to move about and peruse the on-site vendors. ANN's Rai Kelly described the venue on Saturday as more lively than the previous days, culminating into passionate excitement for the My Hero Academia panel that evening.

Anime Fest panel on Friday shows improved attendance

The increased foot traffic at Pier 94 over Saturday unfortunately didn't spell success for many vendors' wallets. Anime News Network spoke with KC of Collateral Damage Studios, a graphic design and Art Studio that creates custom artwork for clients, including Anime Expo and NYCC's Anime Fest. CDS could be found at a booth in the Anime Fest Artist Alley for the extent of the convention. According to KC, attendance was so poor on Thursday that some vendors cut their losses early and left after the first day. CDS waited out the lull, but after the costs of traveling from Singapore to New York, renting an AirBnB for staff, and transportation costs, CDS found themselves at a net loss of several thousand dollars.

KC attributed Anime Fest's problems to a mix of high expectations based on the pedigree of organizers from NYCC and Anime Expo, poor publicity, and lack of exclusive content for attendees.

"On the attendees' side, there is little to differentiate between Anime Fest and NYCC. There is nothing at Anime Fest that NYCC doesn't already have. In terms of anime-related content, NYCC had significantly more of those. Even though it is Anime Fest that has the 'anime' focus for it. The only prominent anime presence was Good Smile Company and Bili Bili. Those can also be found at NYCC. For your average American fan, I think that they will naturally go for the convention that carries the content of Dragon Ball, One Piece and Boku no Hero," KC said.

Anime Fest has potential to be the destination for its own fandom, separate from NYCC, but the vision for the event remains non-committal. Michael Armstrong described the idea as something that could come about in the future if the demand grew enough, but also noted that anime industry companies are hoping to attract mainstream comic fans will want to stay in the main venue. He described Anime Fest as a place for "die-hard" fans who are uninterested in the offerings at NYCC.

Armstrong made a similar statement in an interview for New York's Metro magazine.

To that KC said, "It reads to us that Reedpop wants to have their cake and eat it, too. As far as we can tell, there certainly wasn't any additional content within Anime Fest that will target the hardcore anime fans. Most of your hardcore anime fans will still go to NYCC."

Another vendor at Anime Fest, who asked to remain anonymous, also took a financial hit at their booth. This vendor has previously sold at NYCC in past years and was surprised to find that their application was declined this year but included the offer for a table at Anime Fest instead. They accepted, but found sales were nowhere near their usual margin.

"I estimate the difference in sales between the events will be significant. Like making enough rent money for one month vs making enough for one year," the vendor said on Friday. "The Dealer's Hall needs the most work. It is mostly made up of more fanart print sellers instead of anime merchandise booths normally found at anime conventions."

The vendor reiterated that the lack of sales at the event will definitely affect their bottom line.

"If it becomes a regular thing of me being pushed into this side event, I'd rather not come back until I hear much better things. I really do want to see this event thrive, but until that happens I'd rather be in the hall that boasts 100,000 attendees," they said.

It's tough going for most first-year anime events, but this was a collaboration between ReedPOP and Anime Expo, which meant the expectations for this one were understandably - and not unreasonably - high. Asked for comment on the developing situation Friday evening, ReedPOP event director Michael Armstrong said "We're continuing to work to make the experience an enjoyable one for fans, profitable for exhibitors and artists and successful for our content partners. First year shows always have their ups and downs and we remain focused on creating a successful event for years to come."

Photography: Rai Kelly, Cindy Sibilisky

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