Tales Of The Industry
by Justin Sevakis,
Welcome to “Tales of the Industry,” a column where we will share stories from real working professionals in the anime business. This week, we return to an autobiographical story by the author.
Are you a current or former member of the anime business or convention staff? Do you have a story you've been dying to tell, but just can't tell it the normal way? Get in touch with Justin Sevakis through any social media you like. His Twitter account is @WorldOfCrap, if you aren't acquainted.
As my second semester of college began, the financial realities of living in New York City were becoming more and more apparent. Food was expensive, and the amazing restaurants of the city were calling my name. Also, anime DVDs were a new thing, and I wanted more of them than I could reasonably afford. A student's second semester in New York is full of these realizations, and as the excitement of moving to the big city begins to fade, a certain depression sets in.
Despite having given up on working for an anime distributor for the time being, and having given up Anime News Network a few months earlier, I was trying to keep busy and stay prominent in the anime world. I was writing a column on anime for a then-influential website called DVDFile.com, and had made a presentation to an ailing Newark-based home video label to see if they wanted to be in the anime business. (They didn't.) But most days I was home to watch Judge Judy. I was starting to resign myself to having to get a real job.
Then one day, out of the blue, I got an email. It was from a fan of ANN, and of my VHS fansub work. This guy – let's call him K – worked for the web department at Syfy, then called Sci Fi Channel. He was starting a new anime website at Scifi.com called “Anime Colony,” and he wanted to hire me to help run it. I was, perhaps, a little too eager for this job, but I really needed it. I called him, and agreed to meet K at his office in Rockefeller Center the next day.
After dealing with the front desk, and the huge elevator bank at the giant McGraw-Hill building, I made my way up to the Sci Fi Channel offices, nervous as hell. (Keep in mind, I was 19 years old at this point.) K came out to meet me. He was a bubbly, slightly effeminate Asian guy in his mid-20s with a big smile and a slight lisp. He was very excited to meet me, and explained that he was a huge fan of my work, and that he wanted to bring my talents to Anime Colony. “This is about giving back to the anime community,” he said. We stopped by his desk, and I noticed that his “office” was a packed and stuffy old conference room, which was being shared by 8 or 9 others. Clearly this guy did not rank too high on the totem pole.
But this was spring 2000. The first dot-com bubble was in its fullest, most idiotic bloom, and everyone was trying to figure out how to make money from the internet. Sci Fi Channel figured they'd gotten some prime real estate by registering the domain name “scifi.com” and, while they were currently using it for promotion of their TV network, they thought it could be much more. They had allowed their junior level web content producers to pitch divisions for the site – to be referred to as “colonies” – that would be self-contained businesses, and generate revenue on their own.
K's vision was actually somewhat similar to ANN as it is today. The biggest feature was to be a reviews database, featuring 1-3 different reviews of every anime published in the US (which was several hundred by that point), plus news, an encyclopedia comprising anime parlance and characters… and his favorite feature, “deathmatch,” which was a boring fan fiction feature he'd ripped off of Wizard Magazine, wherein two characters from unrelated anime fight for no apparent reason. “Think of how cool it would be for Spike Spiegel to fight Vash the Stampede!” he chirped excitedly. I didn't get the appeal, but whatever. He wanted me to be editor of the site, and work from home for 20 hours per week while going to school. The best part was, he was offering me $25 an hour – mind-blowing money for a college kid, especially in 2000. I could buy all the DVDs I wanted! I'd edit reviews on the various flavors of dog poop for that kind of money.
The weight of being a part of Sci Fi Channel made it so that everyone in the anime world wanted to work with us. K managed to get ADV Films to let us use any and all artwork from their shows on the site (so long as we remembered to include the copyright line). The Anime Web Turnpike, a directory of anime websites that was indispensible in the early days of the internet, painstakingly added EVERY ANIME REVIEW PAGE to its listings.
Honestly, I was never fully sold on the idea of the site. Sci Fi Channel had long since stopped airing anime at this point (having aired a number of old Streamline and CPM dubs in the 90s), so K's pitch of starting an Anime Colony didn't really make much business sense. He had gotten a sponsorship commitment in writing from a company called SyCo Distribution. SyCoNet, as they referred to themselves, was a little known company that had both an online store and frequently showed up to sell tapes at anime conventions. They were also the only anime-related company in America to be publicly traded (albeit, on the penny stock exchange). In this agreement, they were to pay over $800,000 for sole sponsorship of Anime Colony.
I'd dealt with SyCoNet before, and they did not strike me as dependable people. First, they seemed to put out a crazy number of press releases, and many of them didn't really check out once I looked into them. In fact, they'd offered to buy ANN at one point, and when I refused, they put out a press release stating that they had, in fact, agreed to buy the site. They clearly had delusions of being a publisher themselves – at one point announcing home video rights to Osamu Tezuka's religious series In The Beginning – but never actually managed to release anything. There were also rumors that the president of the company wore dentures because he had once gotten really high on PCP and pulled all of his own teeth out.
And as for K, he wanted to be my friend. I was amenable to this, at first. We hung out a few times outside of work. I went to see his friend's terrible improv comedy night, and we piled in his car to go see a screening of Blood: The Last Vampire. I hung out at his apartment in New Jersey once, met his cat (who he was creepily obsessed with, and had constructed a web shrine with its own domain name in honor of), and watched some anime with him. I even met his girlfriend.
At any rate, working from home was not exciting, and kept me bizarrely insulated from the goings-on at Sci-fi. K was literally my only point of contact at the company. Every once in a while he told me about an amazing meeting he had, or some anime celebrity that he'd been hanging out with (voice actors like Jessica Calvello, or director Kunihiko Ikuhara). He never invited me for outings like this, and after a while it seemed more like he was holding it over my head.
My job kept changing as the site took shape, but it mostly involved supervising our writers. We had a huge number of writers, of extremely varying quality and dependability. K had put out an open call on several anime forums promising “easy money” for anime fans that could write. Of the 40 or so fans who responded, K didn't really vet any of them, beyond glancing at a writing sample, and asking them what they wanted to write for us. They flaked very often, and K fired them very often. Eventually we were left with about 7 or 8 dependable ones.
I don't remember most of those writers, but a couple of them became long-time friends. This was my first interaction with a guy named Darius Washington, a longtime member of the Anime Weekend Atlanta crew, who I am friends with to this day, and who now writes for Fandom Post. There was also this one guy, who I got along with, but really got under K's skin. This guy was named Zac Bertschy.
Most of the reviews were about what you'd expect of a fan-contributed anime website of its day – usually 500 words or so, and mostly vaguely positive gut reaction without much analysis or background. Zac's reviews were far more insightful and incisive, but next to the other reviews they seemed hilariously harsh. For example, we had three reviews of Tenchi in Tokyo. The letter grades they got were B, B+, and, from Zac, a D-. “Why does he have to so damned negative?” K demanded, annoyed that his low grades were throwing off the average scores. He challenged Zac on it, who usually replied with something along the lines of, “sorry you don't like it, but that's the grade I think it's worth.” This really frustrated K, and was the subject of many meetings.
It became clear very quickly that we were in way over our heads. I'd never really managed writers before – pretty much everything from my early era at ANN was written by me – and K had no experience in publishing at all. Writers flaked out at an alarming rate. Editing them for grammar mistakes and writing my own entries took way over the 20 hours per week I was getting paid for.
As things heated up behind the scenes at SciFi.com (I wasn't privy to the details) K got less and less pleasant. Whenever things went wrong, which was often, he would impress upon me how it was somehow my fault, and that my job and personal reputation was on the line. We had agreed, in an email conversation with K's boss, that I would not bother writing news stories until after the site launched, because what good would old news be weeks or months after the fact? Nonetheless, one day K realized we had no news stories, and wrote me a nasty email about it, reminding me that he had gone to bat for me, and not having news stories made us both look very, very bad.
As time went on, his behavior got more and more psychotic. He would call me at home at 2 in the morning, to yell at me for missing deadlines that were still days away. Conversations would turn into bizarre, hour-long lectures about what he perceived to be my personality flaws. “Your problem is that you're very intense, and you intimidate people. It's good that you know what you're doing and you let people know that, but sometimes it's just too much.” This meandering dad-lecture, which was really frankly embarrassing, would even happen in front of strangers. The first few times I listened, but after a while it became clear that he actually had no point, and was talking in condescending circles, and mostly to himself. When it was over the phone, I learned that I could set down the receiver, go do something else, and come back 20 minutes later, and he wouldn't even realize it. When it was in person, I just zoned out.
We had a bigger problem: since SyCoNet never paid for anything, and since the site wasn't bringing in money, Sci-fi was not paying the writers. While some of them waited patiently, others got increasingly angry at us. I was helpless to do anything about this – I was working at home from my dorm room and didn't have anything to do with finance. K made excuses. One writer demanded that we take down his writing from the site. Zac got into an increasingly heated back-and-forth with K over email, with most of our other writers CC'ed. After months of waiting and never getting paid, they were positively mutinous.
After 3 months, we had a website with a ton of mediocre reviews, a half-assed encyclopedia that would quickly become outdated, and some bad “death match” fan fiction nobody would ever care about. Our writers were furious with us, and refusing to turn in more work. My boss was a psychopath. Our sponsor was flaking out. Even separated from K and the rest of the company, I knew this was a ticking time bomb. I didn't really know what to do about it, but it weighed on me.
One day, K asked me to come by the office for a meeting. I did, and he grabbed me a notepad and pen from the supply closet, and he led me to a bench outside for our meeting. And so he began. “Justin, you know, I've been thinking a lot about this, and I think I know what your problem is. You think way too much about the writers' point of view, and you don't listen to reason. There's so much out there you could be doing….”
Oh god, it was another lecture. I couldn't take another one of these. As I tuned him out, I thought to myself, “you know what? You're 19 years old. You're in college. You will never have this much freedom and this little responsibility again in your life. And you do NOT need this.”
With that, I stood up. “K, I can't take any more of this. I quit.” I dropped my notebook on his lap and walked away, down 52nd street.
K leapt up and ran down the crowded street after me, shouting. “Justin, you are SO lucky I am chasing after you right now. You're so immature that you don't even know what you're doing. You're just going to throw away this enormous opportunity and ignore everything you've been given, like an ungrateful child! And thanks to you, this looks like a gay couple breaking up!” he said, in an odd moment of self-realization.
I stopped and looked at him. “This is not the job I signed up for. The site is a disaster. YOU are a disaster. I'm done.” I kept walking. He grabbed me by the shoulder and started yelling again. “You're gonna be flipping burgers after this, huh? Is that what you want?”
I couldn't believe the ego on this guy. I stopped. I turned. I looked him straight in the eye. “K. I would rather work at McDonalds than work for you for a second longer.”
K let go of my shoulder. As I walked away, I heard him shouting still. “Fine then! Go, be a loser! This site is gonna be enormous and you're gonna just walk away from it!” And then he was gone.
I didn't hear much about Anime Colony after that, other than the occasional industry acquaintance asking what ever happened to it, and to K. Years later, through a mutual friend, I found out that, to nobody's surprise, SyCoNet didn't pay a single dime of its sponsorship money, the site was deemed a loser, and K was let go. I haven't seen hide nor hair of him since. I recently visited the domain name he had registered for his cat, and all that was left was a poem bemoaning the loss of a loved one.
I also heard that the president of SyCoNet shut down the company, while faking his own death via cancer. The myth of his demise was dispelled when a friend called his mother to offer his condolences, to which she replied, “what are you talking about? He's right here!” A store name used by SyCoNet for online retail was taken over by someone else, and remains active to this day.
As for me, I found a job working at a service bureau in the basement of another building at Rockefeller Center, printing 35mm slides of pharmaceutical Powerpoint presentations, and large mounted posters for conferences. I worked there for a summer, until a fateful plane ride landed me an unexpected job at Central Park Media.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the expressing party and do not necessarily reflect those of Anime News Network, it's staff, or it's owners. While Anime News Network will never knowingly publish a false or inaccurate story, please remember that there are two (or more) sides to every story.
If you are a current or former anime industry professional and have a story to share (we can keep everyone anonymous), get in touch with Justin Sevakis via social media.
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