Interview: Japan Expo USA First Impact CEO Sean Chiochankitmun

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Japan Expo USA's first foray into the anime convention scene ended on Sunday, August 25, as quietly as it began. The convention pulled in headliners like Evangelion character designer and manga creator Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Bones anime studio head Masahiko Minami, American manga artist Felipe Smith, and staff from CAPCOM's Ace Attorney game franchise.

Despite the big names, the convention's first day passed by without much noise. Industry panels drew approximately 20 attendees in rooms that could seat three times or more people. The saddest part of the day was a Yu-Gi-Oh! panel, one of the handful of fan panels, that no one attended. The host began hawking free posters to draw in passerbys in the hallway to try to fill seats. The dealer's room was equally empty throughout the day.

Tension broke on Saturday as attendance picked up considerably, likely as a result of the day's concert line-up. By the time Sunday rolled around, industry panels like Crunchyroll and Shonen Jump were much closer to capacity compared to Yen Press and Viz Media at the beginning the weekend.

For attendees, the Santa Clara Convention Center might not be right place for a summer anime convention. The location lacks any food or entertainment within walking distance for out-of-state visitors. While overpriced convention food is an option, Japan Expo USA closes shop at 7:00 p.m. Hailing a taxi for dinner plans every night can get pricey for visitors who already forked over cash at conventions earlier in the summer. There are other logical growing pains, like containing one of the largest panel spaces as a stage within the dealer's room.

As a smaller size con, Japan Expo USA could offer fans a more intimate setting to some of their favorite musical and industry guests that is not possible at bigger venues. The con has the benefit of pre-established connections thanks to its Paris mothership convention. Pushing and shoving in hallways is nonexistent and the overall mood is much more relaxed.

CEO and Chairman of SEFA Entertainment Sean Chiochankitmun sat down with ANN as First Impact drew to a close to discuss his impressions on the convention's first running and plans for the future.

ANN: The first Japan Expo USA is over. What are your initial thoughts on how it went?

CHIOCHANKITMUN: I think it went really well. There were a lot of challenges we faced this year. Our Saturday was a tremendous day. We had a lot of really good performances. We had some issues with timing during the year, but overall I'm happy. We ran a bunch of customer satisfaction surveys throughout the weekend, about 1,000 of them. About 97% said they were happy. We had some challenges with the vendors and industry with the layout but we'll move forward next year and find a better way to get that done.

When you say challenges with time, do you mean the date?

When we first planned the event there were not school days at the same time, but then they shifted school days after we finalized the contracts. Friday was murdered by school days and Sunday, not a lot of parents want their kids going out on school nights. It's something we'll be looking at for next year.

So, next time it'd need to be within summer break.

It either needs to be in summer break or firmly out of summer break because then you get the college students back in the area. One or the other. We're in this grey period where it didn't quite hammer out, but we know that there is an interest. Saturday was a really, really good day for us. We were really excited about that.

Some of the vendors said they did a fair amount of sales on Saturday. Were you guys initially worried with Friday's turnout?

Every showrunner who launches a con their first year is sweating bullets on their first day. We knew from pre-registration that Friday was going to be a tough day. Saturday had to be a good day for us to be happy about Sunday, and it was. We were really happy with Saturday. Friday, it was okay. For a first year show that opened way too early, it was okay.

What do you think was one of the best moments of the con?

My favorite moment was the Japanese consult's performance. It was tremendous to see all the odori dancers. I'm a big fan of that. We had a really unique show that sets us apart from a lot of other shows because of our cultural programming, I think. It's pretty strong. Other than that, I loved the Gamushara Oedan so much. They've been cheering for everyone all weekend long.

Is Gamushara Oedan local?

No, they're from Japan. They're a professional male cheerleading company. They've come to Paris, I've seen them at a couple of things. Hopefully, they'll be back. They're super genki and really great people.

What kinds of changes would you want to make for next year? What would you want to keep the same?

I alluded to it before, but we're going to shift the time a little, I think. That was a pretty universal want for both the attendees and the industry. If attendees and vendors tell you to do something, you better do it. I like how the booths look. I like the hardwall booths. I think if we switched it to even more of those it gives even more space to decorate a booth. We're going to do some fun incentives for vendors to get them to come back and to punch up their booths a little bit. We think a beautiful dealers room makes people want to come back.

Changes, though? Finding a better time in the year and some collectible stuff from the show. We didn't have that this year, but we didn't have lines this year either. I think we're going to redesign our tickets so if you fold them into the lanyard holder you can walk in the door with the ticket right in your hand. Then you come out with a collectible item.

What about the guest variety?

I think we had a lot of people from Japan. It probably looked a little skewed compared to American guests. Next year there are a number of American guests I'd love to have out here.

Can you say any names?

I hope if you're reading, Vic Mignogna, I would love for you to come to our show next year. I'd love to have him come out because he's lots of fun. I'd also love for Crispin Freeman to come. I think it'd be a good time for him and he lives in Northern California.

The musical guests this year didn't have much of an "anime" connection. Do you think there's enough of a fan-following here for guests that are straight J-pop?

We like to have an even mix. We had a couple of bands from our Paris show that were straight J-pop and J-rock that launched their careers at our show. We do think having a tie to anime does make it a little easier, so it's something we will look at in the future. I think doing that will get more people going to the concerts, so it's something we'll definitely look at.

You worked at the Paris show as well, right?

In France I was actually the American press liason for the show. I basically had to go through bootcamp before they'd let me run a show over here.

Compared to operations in Paris and operations in America, what are some of the differences and what are some things that were imitated?

One of the things we first tried and then absolutely failed on was the "one-in, one-out" ticket thing. For the record, and for forever, come and go as you please, that policy is dead. That said, the hardwall booths are straight from Europe. It's not a very American idea. The cultural programming, that's coming out of Europe. That's what they focus on and what we're trying to imitate and spread here, a love for culture.

What is some of the cultural programming Japan Expo USA had this year?

We had karuta, ikebana, and live martial arts performances, which I don't think I've seen at a con in years. We had live sword cutting at our martial arts mats, odori dancers, and we had mochi pounding as part of that as well. We would have loved to have people eat the mochi but the health code said "No." We would have had to pay $6,000 to have health inspectors come in and certify the mochi was safe to eat. We had a lot of good stuff, and we'll try to grow that in the future too. We see anime and manga as a gateway to the traditional culture of Japan.

Are there some advantages of running a con that is branched off from a larger convention?

There are some massive, massive advantages. I don't know that we'd have gotten Sadamoto if this had been a first year independent convention. I don't think I would have gotten the Japanese consulate to perform. What a lot of people didn't see on the convention side is we actually had a business event on Friday that was really well attended. We had 180+ leaders from the industry and the Japanese side come and meet.

Do you have a message for attendees and those who didn't come this year?

For those who didn't come, man you really missed out on some cool stuff and I wish you would have come. For those who did come, we'd love to hear your feedback. Let us know what we did right and let us know what we did wrong so we can improve the show and you come back next year. We really, really want to be responsible to those who come to our shows.

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