Chase Wang on Anime Expo 2007

by Zac Bertschy,
According to many attendees - who have spoken up online, in emails and at the show itself - Anime Expo 2007 in Long Beach, California, was rife with problems, moreso than ever. Concerts were massively delayed, main events were plagued with problems and the convention's next location - Los Angeles - made many longtime congoers unhappy. We sat down for a few hours with the con's marketing consultant (and go-to guy for problems during the show itself) Chase Wang with a laundry list of problems from this year's show, in the hope that he can clear the air on what went down and shed some light on Anime Expo 2008.

ANN: Give us a little background on exactly what your title means and what your duties at the convention are.

Chase Wang: I don't really have an official title for Anime Expo, but I handle their marketing and promotions. Basically I consult from the outside; I represent BAM! Marketing, Publicity & Promotions. What I do during the show is take care of press, interviews, deal with certain problems that come up at the convention. Outside of the convention itself, I do a lot; I help select Guests of Honor (GOH), assist with programming, creating partnerships with other companies, bringing in sponsorships… I do a lot both inside and outside the convention.

How would you, personally, characterize this year's AX?

I think overall it was a very good year. It was definitely a learning experience for the industry, for the staff, and for myself. It's definitely a learning process, one I think will continue every year.

Do you think it was a learning experience for the Board of Directors?

Hopefully it was a learning process for everyone, including the board.

You've been working with AX for 4 years now. Would you say this year's show compares to previous years?

It's very different in that number one, we had a different venue; coming from Anaheim to Long Beach, the physical space is very different.

Well, it's been in Long Beach before.

True, but you have to understand that the staff then was different from the staff now; for the people on board now, Long Beach was a new experience. We have some retention in the staff, but the majority of the people here now weren't here years ago when the show was in Long Beach.

 We're here primarily to discuss the problems at this year's convention. Normally, people expect the usual problems at a large show like AX; long lines, crowd control issues, the usual. This year, however, the problems appear to be a bit more dire; the complaining louder and angrier, and the number of complaints higher, not only among the attendees but the staff as well. That may be a matter of perception, but it's difficult to look at the number of complaints this year and not notice a big increase. Why do you think that is?

When you're dealing with conventions that are the caliber and the size of Anime Expo, there are many more issues to deal with than, say, a smaller convention, maybe at a college or a hotel ballroom. I understand there were many issues this year; the heat, the long lines, the wait for main events to happen, certain things that may have occurred. The convention committee recognizes these issues.

Like I said, this year was really a learning experience for us. I believe everyone on staff tried their best; what we can do now is look toward 2008 in Los Angeles, and really try to use what we've learned from Long Beach. I think a lot of the complaints are warranted, but I know there were a lot of positive experiences as well; I acknowledge that there were problems this year, but many of them were outside of our control. So hopefully the attendees will understand that it wasn't because AX staff were lackadaisical or ignored the issues, but that they tried their best. Maybe it wasn't up to some peoples’ expectations, but I believe they tried their best.

We'll talk about Los Angeles a little later, but now I'd like to discuss the specific major issues that have been brought up regarding this year's show. Let's start with the SKIN concert. Attendees were reportedly met with an unexpected 3.5 hour wait time. Why was the concert so late? Did AX consider this an acceptable wait time?

I don't think starting late is acceptable to anyone. Based on the schedule that's provided, attendees have expectations regarding start times and end times, and obviously AX would like to uphold that as much as possible. With the SKIN concert – and with many of the other concerts – there were certain things that needed to be addressed for safety reasons. We had a situation where the set wasn't ready, and we had to make sure that the set was prepared properly so the attendees wouldn't get hurt.  There were other factors behind the scenes, too, but primarily it was an issue of safety and readiness.

Understandably, 3.5 hours  - even 30 minutes, in my mind – is way too long to wait. Once again, learning this during 2007 will help us prepare for 2008.

After that long wait, many concertgoers complained that the show was a mere 45 minutes long and the band only played 3 songs – one of them twice – for a total of 4 songs, and that most of the show was the musicians screaming their own names. While AX is certainly not responsible for the quality of the performance, given the incredibly long wait for the program, will there be any attempt to curb wait times or even screen performances for quality in the future?

Obviously a big focus for us is to curb these wait times for Los Angeles in 2008. We're taking this very seriously. For example, I just had a meeting where we spoke about the heat, and we're looking at this underground parking area that LA has that we could use to queue long lines and keep people out of the heat.

As for the event itself, we may have playlists ahead of time, but with a group like SKIN, that had just been formed, we had no idea what they'd be playing. I think – well, I hope – most of our attendees were looking for was the chance to see their favorite J-Rock god on stage with the others in the group. It was an exclusive world premiere, and from my understanding of it, the majority of the concertgoers felt it was worth the wait. These may have been extreme fans, but I think seeing these J-Rock gods smash their instruments on stage may have excited the crowd even more.

So you're saying that the people who wanted specifically to see the members of the band got what they wanted.

Yeah. I got an email from a member of one of the fan clubs for one of the band members, and they thanked us for bringing the whole thing together. I don't think any other convention has ever done anything like this before.

But again, the wait was really long and threw off a lot of programming afterward. It's something we have to learn from.

Something very similar happened at the ASOS Brigade concert. Now, I can understand with the SKIN concert – a lot of fans were specifically there to see Gackt or Miyavi or whoever, not necessarily their music. With ASOS Brigade, the show was delayed an hour or more and the concert itself was described by many fans as a “disorganized disaster”, complete with microphone problems and an unprepared staff. It was difficult to find fans who would praise the show. The autograph session was also reportedly cancelled after 10 minutes. At a certain point, you start to wonder if this is simply a comedy of errors – meaning lack of communication between AX staff, the event coordinators and the performers themselves leading to a perfect storm of accidents and mistakes – or was it simply poorly planned? What's the story behind this particular event?

To speak frankly on the ASOS Brigade concert, I think everyone who was involved did what they could to make the program the best it could be… but this question is probably best directed toward Bandai Entertainment. From my vantage point – and I missed most of the last half of the show, so I can't speak about that – but when they were doing the Haruhi dance on stage, the show was well-received.  People were cheering and screaming. From my experience in the audience, I mean, it seemed like a positive thing.

So in other words, the complaints we've heard were unfounded?

No, no, not necessarily. I wasn't there for the entire show; I was dealing with a lot of other things so I couldn't stay long. But again, Bandai brought the trio over, they coordinated the program, so this question is probably best suited for them. I think they and the AX staff did their best. I don't know what could've happened in the last half of the show that set people off, but I hope overall they had a good time.

 The initial evening  Anime Music Video program was basically scuttled – they only had a third of the videos available - at the last minute, after fans had waited for hours outside and in the auditorium, when it was finally revealed that a laptop containing the year's contest had been “stolen”. Is there any truth to that? If so, why was there no backup made of the contest? Why would something like that be allowed to happen?

I can say that at that period of time I understood that the videos were stolen. The best decision at that time was to move the program to a different time when backups could be obtained. Again I think AX learned from this, and obviously in the future we'll take precautionary measures to make sure this doesn't happen again.

So next year you'll take some precautions and have a backup of the video files on hand?

Yes. We'll have multiple copies, not in just one person's hand, but maybe also with the programming director so if something like this happens we'll have a backup immediately available.

At the con gripe, there was someone complaining that AX was “out to get” the music videos shut down because they're becoming increasingly worried about the legality of the event. It's easy to understand this perspective; music videos are basically copyright violations, but for decades they've been tolerated across the board as a harmless fan event. Is there an attempt by AX to clamp down on the music video programming due to the legal issues with it?

I can tell you for a fact – and those are rumors – but to my understand there's no attempt to “clamp down” on the AMV programming. I can also tell you that the programming director has said to me that one of the reasons she got involved with anime was because of AMVs.  I mean, I really can't speak for her, but I do know it isn't her goal to destroy the program.  AMVs have been a big part of our programming for many years, just like the masquerade. If anything, we'd like to expand that program.

On the show floor itself, Viz Media was conspicuously absent from the show, save a single industry panel on Friday morning, some Viz Media titles in the manga café and a screening of the live-action film Ping Pong. Many fans have commented on the fact that Viz's absence – meaning no Viz anime screenings or guests from Viz properties or any visible presence on the show floor – was puzzling, considering that that company controls most of the major mainstream franchises in the US, including Naruto and Bleach. We asked Viz why they didn't attend the show, and Evelyn Dubocq, Senior Director of Public Relations for the company, had this to say:

Due to conflicting schedules and some of the changes made to this year's  Anime Expo, exhibit participation in this year's show did not fit into our marketing plan for 2007, we hope to be back in the future.

Does AX consider Viz's absence this year to be a problem? What's your take on that situation?

From AX's perspective, it wasn't a problem per se, but more of a disappointment. To my understanding there were a few years in the past that Viz didn't show as well – I'll have to double-check that – for whatever reason. Unfortunately, AX didn't fall inside their marketing plan this year and hopefully they'll return in 2008. It was quite a disappointment, not only for the attendees but for us as well. I'd personally love to have Viz there every year. But if the largest anime convention can't bring them in, then we have to respect their decision. We don't know what their plans are and we can't expect them to share that with us. So we just have to respect their decision.

On a similar note, Del Rey manga – one of the largest and most successful manga publishers in the US – was completely absent from the show. Del Rey declined to comment for this article; can you provide us with any insight as to why they weren't in attendance? Given the relative absence of two of the largest manga publishers in the country, what will AX be doing in the future to bolster their manga-related programming? Will AX be working with these companies in the future to ensure that the manga industry has a larger presence at future conventions?

In regards to Del Rey, that was also a disappointment. We can hope they come back in 2008.

There's a silver lining to all of that; granted, the two largest publishers weren't there, and that's a sad sight to see. But it gave an opportunity for some of the smaller companies like Go! Comi and Infinity Studios to get a little more attention.

Okay, but in the future, will you be working closely with these companies to ensure that the manga industry has a larger presence at this show?

Absolutely. The manga industry is growing, and it's definitely something we have to look at. Hopefully companies like Viz and Del Rey will see that AX is an organization that's attempting to aid that growth.

Moving on. During the show, one of your Guests of Honor, Halko Momoi, slammed the convention on her blog saying she was mistreated and was crying. She later posted a positive note, saying things had been smoothed over. Can you give us any insight as to what happened there?

I don't know exactly what happened with Ms. Momoi; I do feel for her, and nobody should invalidate her feelings. Her initial blog response was taken very seriously and AX moved as quickly as possible to make sure her experience became a positive one. I did speak with Ms. Momoi very briefly; this was a bit later, but she seemed pleased.

Have you ever had problems like that in the past with a guest?

For me, this was a first. It was an unfortunate situation but I'm glad AX was able to pull together and make better decisions, to change her experience from one she wasn't enjoying to one that was positive for her, which she did express later in her blog.

In regards to the staff, most shows of your size are handled by professionals for whom running a convention, maintaining a convention and staffing a convention is their full-time job. Anime Expo still operates with a volunteer staff, and even a board of directors where the show isn't their full-time job. Do you feel AX has outgrown that method and that it's about time to move on to a more professional level of operation? Is bringing in a full-time professional staff something that AX is looking at?

From my perspective, I don't think that's a wise way to move forward.

Why not?

It's a fan-driven convention. Fans know what they want to see, they know what kind of programming they want. For instance, this year we had the first Otaku Parliamentary Debate. To me, that's brilliant; I'd never have come up with that. And it's because we have real fans on the staff. An outsider coming in just to run a show would forget what the fans want, and AX would become a cookie-cutter show, not as tailored to fan taste as it is now.

But AX is widely considered to be the trade show for the anime industry. Many of these companies do a lot of important business at this show; it's the most well-attended show in the US. And at a trade show, people expect a professional staff. Not to knock the fan staff, but I think at a show of this size, everyone – attendees, press, and industry included – expect a staff that's comprised of professionals for whom running this show is their job.

I understand what you're saying, but AX grew because of the fans. I recognize that AX couldn't be where it's at without the fans, or the industry; everyone has to work together. But I also believe that it wouldn't be the same show – it would become a cookie-cutter show – without fan input. I mean, there are pros and cons to everything, but I think AX would lose something essential without the fan staff.

The con's grown exponentially, and we understand that. One of the things we learned in 2007 was that we need to train our volunteer staff more. Maybe give them cheat sheets so they know where everything is at all times. We need to give them more tools and more training, and that's one of the things we'll be working on in 2008.

You announced at the show, among the numerous people unhappy with Long Beach, fearful of rumors that the show is moving to Los Angeles screaming “ANAHEIM” at the con gripe and elsewhere at the convention, that in fact AX 2008 is going to be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Now, from what I've heard – both at the show, online, from the industry, the press, and the fans, is that most everyone prefers Anaheim as the choice venue for AX. Obviously that venue was not available for AX's traditional July 4th weekend. Before we discuss LA in detail, let me ask you this; why not just change the weekend so the convention can remain in Anaheim?

I understand that people have issues with Los Angeles, but there are also issues with Anaheim that I don't think people are aware of. For instance, we have to deal with the issue of growth -

Anaheim is huge. There are routinely 2 or 3 other shows running  in the convention center at the same time AX is going on there. I don't mean to be antagonistic, but you have to understand why people are confused on this issue.

Well, I believe the arena in Anaheim is being torn down. If we needed to expand into the arena space there, that would be a concern.

People may not see the benefits of moving to Los Angeles yet, but I personally do know that we're working very diligently to make it work great for our attendees. We're looking into having shuttles, we're working with the LAPD to ensure attendee safety-

So you're going to have them round up all the homeless on skid row, conveniently located right next to the Los Angeles Convention Center?

I know that in Long Beach we had 8 police officers roaming around the area, patrolling. We may need more than that in Los Angeles. Maybe we need to alter our programming, so things end at a certain time at the LACC, and everything else happens at the hotels after hours, and maybe we'll have shuttles for fans to get to those hotels. And I'm not talking about little tiny shuttles, I'm talking big buses, to take care of people with large costumes. We want to make this experience as positive as possible for the attendees.

That's all well and good but I'd like to get back to my original question; there's plenty of space at Anaheim and it's not an unfair generalization to say that most people seem to prefer it. So if it's booked by someone else over July 4th, why not just change the weekend – forward a weekend, backward a weekend – and then just claim it 5 years in advance? Every year it's always a big mystery where AX is going to be; it's always announced as though it's a big deal. Most other shows of this size book their venues 5 or 6 years in advance, so people know what to expect a few years out. It's not a big surprise or anything. So why not just change the weekend and book up the next half-decade?

Well, the difficulty of that is that historically, AX has always been the 4th of July weekend. Everyone usually has an extra day off, and it's a 4-day show, so that helps too. For many people, they expect AX to be on that weekend because it has been for so long. I understand where you're coming from, but there are limitations, and we felt it would be better to keep it on that weekend not only to maintain the association with July 4th, but we also want attendees to be able to come to the show without having to worry about getting extra days off from work.

San Diego Comic-Con is four and a half days and has never relied on a holiday weekend to bring in droves of people.

Well, that's comparing apples and oranges, I think.

Let's talk more about Los Angeles. AX has historically been a 24-hour event; obviously, LA is not a 24-hour venue. How are you going to handle that?

Well, we're looking at a number of options. LACC is a gigantic venue; we have a lot more space. There's an option to possibly run the LACC 24 hours.

Is that on the table?

It's something we could consider. We could confine 24-hour events to one area and have people in a specific loading zone to board 24-hour shuttles back to their hotels. That's one option we could explore. As I said before, we can also run 24-hour events at the major hotels and shuttle people from the venue to the hotels.

I mean, I've heard LACC is very ghetto – I can tell you, it's not ghetto. I went to USC, I know what ghetto is. Ghetto is south of the 10, the venue is north of the 10 [laughs].

Seriously though, the city is working hard to clean up that area and we are working closely with the LAPD to make sure this runs smoothly.

Ultimately, we have a lot of options to explore regarding the LACC. Our main focus is safety and accessibility; we're going to pull out all the stops to make sure everyone has a good time. We'll spare no expense to ensure everyone's safety and happiness.

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