Interview: Ray Chiang, SPJA CEO, on Anime Expo 2016

by Zac Bertschy,

2016 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Anime Expo, the country's largest anime convention, hitting a new record attendance in 2015 with 90,500 fans – and they're hoping to crack six figures this year. Ray Chiang, the newly-minted CEO of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, sat down with us to discuss the convention's controversial new Youth Protection Policy, what sort of attendance they'll expect this year, and how in the world they managed to book what might be the biggest all-star guest of honor lineup in recent memory, including the directors of both One-Punch Man and My Hero Academia, alongside the biggest new idol act in the industry, Love Live! Sunshine!!'s Aqours.

This is your first Anime Expo as acting CEO, but you've been a member of SPJA leadership for a long time. What was your path to CEO like?

RAY CHIANG: You know, I actually came onboard back in late 2009 in preparation for AX 2010. I was brought in as a vice chair, to assist in stabilizing the organization and in instilling some of the structures we have now back in 2010. Throughout my time here, I got a lot more involved. In the beginning, when I got here to the organization, it really reignited my passion, my childhood passion, for Japanese animation and manga, which I grew up with overseas as a kid. Even though I came from a commercial real estate background, as I got more entrenched within the industry, I realized that a lot of my skillset actually transferred over to our industry, which is a lot of time management, project management. At the end of the day, it's really working together with people and teams to achieve a common goal. Personally, I really enjoy working with people and doing that in a team atmosphere.

 So were you an attendee of the show before you joined the organization?

 No, I was not an attendee.

 It hasn't always been smooth sailing for this convention; taking over as CEO, you must have to take the long view of the SPJA's past at this point, and what you've got to build on moving forward.

Correct. I don't get too much into the details of what actually happened in the past, and in fact I don't care about it. We read about it, there was some stuff that was brought to my attention, but the organization at that time, in my opinion, was going through growing pains, because we're hitting certain numbers, increasing attendance, and growing the show. I would attribute it to growing pains, just like any organization out there.

 Speaking to that growth, AX is now the biggest anime convention in the country by a pretty wide margin. What growing pains have you seen over the last six years or so?

We're extremely humble as an organization and grateful that our show has grown tremendously throughout the years, at least the years I've been here, the past five or six years. Just like any growing pain, I think it's no secret to our fans and our attendees: there's long lines, there's a lot of long lines. I'll point out a specific year. In 2014, we experienced extreme long lines for picking up badges. Because of the tremendous growth that year, our system just couldn't keep up. Thankfully, we have processes and people that really looked into it, who made the badge pickup process much easier in 2015. I don't know if you were on the show site or not in 2015, but our lines were pretty much—I wouldn't call it non-existent, but they were much, much faster.

We're still looking to tweak, just like any good organization, good team. We're still looking for ways to make it more efficient. There's talk about either remote sites or more effective ways to do it, because it's really getting the best positive experience that we can possibly give to our attendees and our fans.

 AX is heading toward six-figure attendance. Do you think that growth has changed the convention itself?

It has. I have to be frank, the growth has definitely led to more industry presence at Anime Expo. That being said, we don't forget where we came from. We are still a fan community, and we want to cultivate that and grow that, because at the end of the day, it's truly about our fans and our attendees. We want to put out as much content for our attendees as possible and cultivate that platform for our community.

 Has it changed the SPJA?

We're still going through some growing pains just like any show or company or organization that grows year over year at the rate that we're growing. We have to bring more talent to really meet the demands of our show. It seems like we're always behind the eight ball. I can say it's a good problem to have, and we're working through it. We're increasing staff numbers and bringing more talent from the industry to really help us run the show in the best way possible.

Do you attribute that growth to anything in particular?

It's multiple things, I'll name a couple. I feel that the popularity of anime is growing, and also the popularity of going to conventions or music festivals or shows is growing. It's multiple things, it's social media, there's a platform there where people can talk about it. People can experience certain shows or music festivals through social media, and it generates that interest for them to go. But overall, all this stuff, it happens organically, this growth, you know? People come to AX for a good time and a positive experience, and that's what we strive to continue to do as an organization, here at SPJA.

Switching gears for a moment, can you tell us a little bit about how the Youth Protection Program came about originally?

It's kind of what we talked about, we've been experiencing tremendous growth from year to year, and this year we're celebrating our 25th. Ever since I've been here, AX 2010, we've doubled in size, not just our attendance, but our footprint in the LACC, the convention center. We're definitely one of the largest and fastest growing conventions in North America, and we're definitely humbled by that. As we hit these marks year after year, we do feel the obligation to make sure that our show, our convention, is safe and that's why we kind of initiated as a pioneer this Youth Protection policy program. That's why we took this initiative, and we want to take the lead on it and be the pioneer of this initiative.

 So the decision then was made that the most effective way to do that would be to run criminal background checks on the whole of your professional attending population. Can you tell us a little about why that model was decided as being the most effective? Especially considering what percentage of your total attendance that actually is.

We consulted with some professional firms in regards to how to deploy this. We went back to our industry partners and they expressed their concerns, but at the same time, the majority of them, if not all of them, understand and support the initiative that we're putting out there to make our event much safer. We listened to their feedback and their responses, and we updated our policy accordingly. We're going to have a sit down with our industry partners after this convention and have a roundtable discussion on how we can better make our event safer. Because most of the industry partners I've talked to in the past month, they're very supportive of this Youth Protection policy. We will definitely have more things to work on and talk about after this convention with our industry partners.

 Did the SPJA run into any issues with guests over the background check policy? Did you reach out to guests and get a pushback because they didn't want to put their famous artist through a background check?

 I didn't hear much about that, about any pushback in regards to that. I've talked to our industry relations director and entertainment director, a lot of times it's about informing them, and once they're informed of why we're doing what we're doing, they were very supportive of the initiative. It's about protecting youth, it's also making our event a much safer event. Once the people heard that and understood it, they were very supportive of it.

So to sum up, the youth program was put into place, some mistakes were made in the implementation, you got industry feedback, and now, moving forward, you're going to meet with your industry partners after the convention and we'll see what next year's policy is?

 I wouldn't call it a mistake, Zac. We refined it, we updated our policy, and after the convention this year, we're definitely going to have a sit down with our industry partner and discuss this matter and how we could proactively make our event safer. I think the current policy is going to stay the way it is, I personally don't think there's going to be any changes. I've talked to our board directors and to our leadership team as well here. We're not planning to change anything in our policy that we currently have right now, but we're going to talk to our industry partners after the convention and figure out other ways to make our event a much safer place. At the end of the day, it's about our fans, our attendees, and it's also about the industry exhibitors as well that come to our show. That's why we didn't get that much pushback on it because they're fully in support of the initiative, of making our convention and our show a safer place to enjoy.

Can we expect mandatory background checks for attending professionals to return next year?

 I don't think so. We've talked with our leadership team and our current policy, after the update, is most likely going to stick, is going to be the same policy going forward.

Anime Expo booked Aquors this year, which is very impressive – how did that come about? Logistically, how difficult was it?

Jon Baumgardner, Director of Entertainment, SPJA: Over the last 25 events, the Anime Expo team has worked very hard to build long-lasting sustainable relationships with most of the Japanese animation, music and production studios. This time, we have partnered with 6 Japanese Companies (Lantis, Sony Music Entertainment, Amuse, Bandai Visual, Anime Consortium Japan, Bandai Namco Creative) to create a set of multiple experiences showcasing Anime and Japanese Anisong events. “Love Live! Sunshine!!” is big part of that partnership and since the new series “Love Live! Sunshine!!” will start airing in July in Japan, our partners in Japan wanted to bring a very popular show to Anime Expo 2016!

Love Live isn't the only musical guest you have this year – your Anisong World Matsuri Japan Super Live event is packed to the gills with headliners. How long has that show been in planning? How did you go about curating artists for this event?

Jon Baumgardner:  This event has been in the planning stage for about a year. Anime Expo, Lantis, and Sony Music Entertainment (among the six other companies we worked with) have all partnered together to arrange, negotiate, and manage their talent and band performances.

You've also booked the director and star of One-Punch Man, but the panel itself is a ticketed event that attendees have to pay extra for. With concerts this is expected, but for standard Expo guest of honor panels (even one with a performance by JAM Project), this is new. Is this the model going forward? Is the ticket pricing based on the cost of bringing over these high-profile guests, or is this surge pricing?

Jon Baumgardner:  Anime Expo doesn't actually see this event as a ‘standard Expo guest of honor panel’. It is a premium experience that typically (but not always) provides a music component, a voice or staff talent component, an animation component, and most times an additional special giveaway with purchase. This type of event is extremely expensive to produce, but allows us to provide most recent information and higher production value entertainment by partnering with Japanese companies to give a special experience to our attendees.

From your perspective, how is the convention industry in the United States changing?

It's really how you view things: glass half full or glass half empty? If you really think about it, the market—if you look at it half empty—it is very saturated, there can be an anime convention in any given weekend in the US, it's considered that saturated. But at the same time, there's a lot of anime conventions out there that are looking for content from the industry.

Do you see that market saturation as a threat?

We don't, we focus within ourselves. What I meant by that is, we focus on ourself to make sure we create and we have the best content possible for our fans. I understand that we have to understand the macro standpoint of things, but we're not really too concerned about it. It's really about just creating the best content out there for our fans.

For people who've been going to AX for a long time, aside from your programming announcements, will there be anything different about the show this year? Have you instituted any new policies or changes to the show that people might not know about yet?

No, no. No new policies, but I can tell you this: I'm super extremely excited about 2016. We will have an archive display of Anime Expo's past two plus decades that includes memorabilia and kind of shows the Anime Expo legacy, where we started and where we're at today. That will be displayed in the Entertainment Hall this year, and I strongly encourage, even for you if you have time, to go out there and take a look at it.

It's a lot of the stuff that we've archived over the past twenty five years, it's all going to be displayed. The booth, I told my ops team and my marketing team to make sure it looks very presentable and nice. So we're all excited about that. We're anticipating that attendance will eclipse that hundred-thousand mark this year. With that said, we have a bigger artist alley, a bigger Exhibit Hall. To give you some numbers in terms of square footage of our show floor in the south hall: we increased, from last year, AX 2015, to this year, approximately a 40% increase. That's an influx of a lot more merch for our fans to see and purchase. So we're definitely excited about that too.

 The exhibitors have 40% more space this year?

Yeah, they do. You kind of know about this, because of the growth of our Exhibit Hall, we dedicated an area inside Kentia Hall specifically for our Artist Alley. The Artist Alley has grown significantly. We're looking at approximately six hundred tables this year. We're definitely excited about that and so are the artists, I've been hearing from my team.

Before we wrap up, a personal question - what is your favorite, or some of your personal favorite anime series?

There's a couple, and this is very typical: the first one is Dragon Ball. I literally grew up, started reading it when I was five years old. Of course I read it in Mandarin, in Chinese. I started reading Dragon Ball, was hooked on it. I can't tell you how many times I went back to that manga, which I still have in my house. Of course, being a basketball junkie back in the 90s, Slam Dunk. I don't know if you've heard of it.

 Of course, yeah.

Oh yeah, it's awesome. I have that at home. I could totally relate to it, because a lot of the characters you can relate to, all the NBA players back in the 90s ranging from Jordan to Patrick Ewing.

Finally, for people who've never been to AX, if this is their first one, what advice would you have for them?

 The tip that I wish someone would've told me is: wear comfortable shoes and, if possible, change twice a day and drink plenty of water. It's the month of July, end of June beginning of July, the weather tends to get a little warm out there, so drink plenty of water and the best thing to do is probably bring a refillable bottle because there's drinking fountains throughout the convention center. The other thing is: set money aside for food. We have food trucks that change throughout the day, so there's different food for our fans to try on-site and in the concourse hall and outside the south lobby as well. This is a downer a little bit, but be prepared to wait in lines, there's just a lot of people, but again there's a lot of content that we have and we're extremely excited about that. Be sure to read through the program guide to really pre-plan your day. We'll be launching our Guidebook, that'll be rolling out pretty soon. In Guidebook, our fans could take a look at if there's any schedule changes or the most updated information. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

Thanks to Ray Chiang and the SPJA for the opportunity.

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