Sunday, March 13, 2011

I Carry a Badge; Anime Conventions, and why anime market in America is different from Bollywood

Juxtaposing foreign media segments in the USA, illustrated with Convention Badges

There's another anime blog out there in the massive universe of anime blogs: Anime of Yesteryear, which is worth checking out. Unlike other "yesteryear" type things, this blog isn't simply a retrospective on anime that happens to be from 15 or more years ago; but rather the pieces of American fandom that existed in the proto-phases of the formation of the market as we know it today in America... guess I'll throw Canada in there too.

This material is not only worth significant points in the social fandom system of "I'm more otaku than you," but I hope will also be useful in any case studies that get made regarding this very interesting and turbulent portion of the media industry, which has gone through the highest of highs and lowest of lows like an out of control Fu-Go in a hurricane, reaching amazing heights only to land in an abandoned tire yard in some forgotten part of Minnesota. These are early examples of the type of marketing that was done to grow and create a legitimate market for foreign entertainment media in segments outside the clusters indigenous to the source culture. You can talk about Bollywood in the USA, but who's buying it? It's almost all people from the region where it's produced. Such is not true for Japanese anime. Most of the U.S. market for Latin music was manufactured south of the border as well ("Latin music" in this context meaning productions that are specifically not made in the U.S., with a priority on their own domestic markets). But Japanese animation? That was everybody in terms of demographics (except age demos). The advantage of that is a much larger potential for expanding your market and presence in the overall entertainment industry. The disadvantage is that the "easy-come easy-go" rule applies quite a bit, since there is not a "built in" audience that is going to ipso-facto support productions because of implicit cultural understandings and familiarity induced desire, and thereby aggregating bad years in terms of sales into something fiscally survivable.

As an emerging market, anime was being featured in publications like NY Times, WSJ, Newsweek, Washington Post, and others by 1995. The reason? It was the intense visibility of the "top of the pyramid" of the anime consuming market. Some people might attribute this to The Anime Convention as the cause, but that's not entirely true. There were "conventions" long before the mid 1990's, and although they weren't the "Anime Conventions" we have become used to, the first AX, Otakon, AnimEast, or Katsucon, was not going to be the bait on the hook, in terms of getting MSM attention and then using that attention to build a legitimate face to show the market and potential investors. The true sherpa of anime to the media and business world was the specialty retail entity. A convention was something that happened once a year, and got a puff piece and then that was is, but a B&M location in a major media hub that could provide specific people, events, and information, combined with entrenching itself as a source of information/commentary for all things "Asian pop-culture" whenever a local media source needs a talking head. Combine the home media labels operating in the same place, and you've got a media cycle that mentions something about anime at least once per quarter.

A good solid year of this, led to anime = serious business and acceptance as a true entertainment commodity that could be taken seriously. Only after that, did conventions serve to show people what kind of market anime was in America, how it operated, all that good stuff.

But Conventions were a whole other story for the people who attended them. This is especially true looking at the pre-convention center state of things, where cons took up small sections of hotels, or college campuses.


At a certain point as conventions get larger, a connection is lost between the attendees and the convention organization. A loss of the feeling that your presence has direct value not only to the convention, but to the entity that is anime fandom in the USA. These early cons suffered form labor shortages, meaning that the potential for attendees to be called upon to assist in things was greater, and a job well done was it's own reward (most of the time). This would have been impossible if the internet was the same back then as it is now however. With the exception of some minor socializing, there's nothing a convention offers that isn't replaceable by the internet. Think about it, Dealers room, video rooms, panel discussions, news, collecting images, looking at artwork, AMV watching, geeking out and arguing about which version of Chun-li has the better outfit, all that is easier and more plentiful online. You don't need cons anymore for any of the actual activities that they offer other than autographs. So why the continued attendance?

Some of it is obviously market turnover; younger fans come in, older fans go out, and people like Bill O'Reilly get confused about miscommunications. But that's not why people keep coming back at sustainable levels. The reason conventions have grown while other areas like home media have been terrible for anime, is a sociological phenomen, mentioned at the top of this article: Points. Or intense gamification behaviour if you prefer. Otaku are always trying to out-otaku each other, and they see a lot of value in doing this in-person as opposed to online. Winning an internet argument? That's not much, ...but, like pwning some other anime fan IRL w/ ure shiznit-tastic cosplay of that obscure character and use of the word kawaii and desu in a sentence is like such OMFGWTFBBQFF7 levels of otaku-points, that you'll totally plunk down $40 (not to mention pay for transportation and hotel) to engage in dick measuring contests go to a 3 day convention, all the while complaining that a $19.95 SRP on a Summer Wars DVD that you can buy and have forever is too much. No... no one can see you buy that DVD, and thus no upward motion in the fandom stratification can be achieved through that activity. It's the high levels of visibility that gives these fan activities perceived value among attendees, and where can you be more visible to the specific group you are trying to out-fan than at a convention? Nowhere that's where. The major force at work here is called Willingness To Pay.

This kind of thing doesn't really exist in other foriegn entertainment media market segments in the US (like Bollywood films), because there's not really an "I'm more Indian than you" kind of behavior going on within the consumer market. I'm not saying there isn't some "I'm more Indian than you" contest going on somewhere out there, but it's not a driving force shaping that particular segment for the market of this consumer good. Remember when there was all this talk about Bollywood becoming the next big breakout entertainment market and all that? What happened? Lack of gamification opportunities in the general media consuming public = fizzle. That's what happened. You wanna see the PowerPoint? Then pay me, 's what I do for a living.

Getting back to the subjects of Otaku points and Anime conventions:

AnimEast 1994

AnimEast 1995 or Anime East 1995 it seems. There was never another Anime East or AnimEast, though Anime Next is like some sort of distant future descendant. See the footnotes below for more. Bonus points if you can guess which anime the image is from.

Katsucon 1995 You've already seen this...

Katsucon 1997 (Funny thing about 1996, there was this huge snow storm that closed the Jersey Turnpike and I couldn't make it. It wasn't cleared until late Saturday. I did not get a refund... or a free t-shirt... and the hotel charged my ass a fee for not showing up.

Otakon 1995. My Otakon 1994 badge exists, but isn't here, so if anyone has one send a scan and you'll be all special like!

Otakon 1996 still in the tag holder

Otakon 1997 ...I also had a dealer badge from 1997 but I have no idea what happened to it. I think I gave it to someone to get in and out and bring me pizza because there was a Pizza Hut right in the hotel where this things was and it was awesome and blah blah blah

Otakon 1998. Oh look the badges are huge now... and laminated.

Otakon 1999. First year at Baltimore Convention Center.
After this point badges are "meh" but that's ok because after this, my con badges started having "industry" written on them.

The first Anime Central (Acen) 1998. Whoever the Con Chair was that year was a total d-bag.

Anime East / AnimEast:
Anime East should by all rights have been the major East Coast anime con. It was same year as Otakon, in a much bigger market (NYC Metro), much better served in terms of transportation, had access to many dealer/retail accounts, had better PR, better funding, and they even gave out the Tezuka Award Nominations (Or something to do with the Tezuka awards... I forget exactly what, but it was a big deal).

There are 2 reasons out there as to why Anime East is no longer with us: Some say that since Anime East was where Apollo Smile was first unleashed upon the world, it was simply Karmic Retribution to have this event smited by an angry god (smited, smote..?). But then, some say that it was the dirty dealings of one man, whose "take the money and run" move ensured that the funding for 1996 went with him into the shadows, never to be seen again. This is why we can't have nice things.

Some say Martin King (pictured on the right) is that person. This was taken in 1995 at the Anime Crash offices in Manhattan and published in NY Japion. It was when we at Crash were working out sponsorship of the con. The Anime East 1995 badge has the Anime Crash logo on the flip side. There was even talk of Crash becoming a label as early as 1995 in cooperation w/ and acquiring anime with Anime East, but it fell through and we eventually went with martial arts as our first acquisitions for Crash Cinema in 1998.

This con was hard core. Best guest roster by far (New York City is like some kind of enchanted fairy land to the Japanese, and so they were on board like nobody's business), a huge cosplay, big dealers room, great location, and an open bar. They even had their own CCTV channels running on the hotel system so you could watch panels or interviews you may have missed or just check out the AMVs. Seriously. Anime East 1994 was also when I survived on nothing but con-food: Nutra-Grain bars, Candy Corns, and Dr Pepper.

The 1994 convention that by all accounts should have been a campus affair but wasn't, this now megalithic entity started out in a corner of the Days Inn in State College PA. It would stay in State College in 1995 but be held at a place called The Scanticon that year, which seemed like it was from the future. It was a hotel/convention center, and there was a wedding going on at the same time... the reception was nice.

I was at Otakon in 1994, but my badge being somewhere else (I won't be unpacking it any time soon so if you have one send it in or leave a link or something) will not be making an appearance. So instead enjoy the program book cover signed by the only guest who seemed to be around at the time; Robert DeJesus:

Otakon 1994
(Otakon 1994 program book)

If I get requests, I'll scan the whole thing so you can see what a con-goer from 1994 was in store for. Finally as for Otakon, there's this I made from way back:

Anime Central:
It was 1998, I flew to Chicago, got Kenichi Sonoda's autograph, and then brought him up to the control tower at O'Hare (I know people). I got work done for Crash, slept in the dealer's room, and raided the mini-bar of a convention suite after being exposed to the genuinely terrible behavior of the skeevy Con Chair (whoeverit was in 1998, I don't even remember the d-bag's name). I haven't been back to an Anime Central since.

Held during the time of year that is definitely not convention season, Katsucon has always seemed the most "fun" of all the cons, and is where I've never had to actually "do" anything. Going to that con was something nice, and the hotel it was in was very cool since some rooms could look into the giant covered atrium. Ever since it split off into Katsucon and the newer Nekocon, I've felt a little split between the two. I find Nekocon a bit more relaxing because of it's size and where it is.

Nekocon 2004. Not my earliest Necko con, I don't think it's the last one I was at either, but it was the favorite year.

There are other conventions to be sure; Anime Boston, Anime Next, BACC, BAAF, NYAF, NYCC, Icon, those tings in Florida, Anime Weekend Atlanta, A-Kon, and Anime Expo. I have never been to Montreal's Otakuthon which is closer to me than AWA, so it makes sense to go.


So the experience is the perceived value, the impetus to part with cash in exchange for the ability to participate in activities that will generate a set of memories based on not only one's own activities but the interpretations of those activities by others either real or imagined. To observe being observed in a unique setting, which can only be substituted in form and not in function.

Unfortunately, until the American market itself can be satisfied with the same kind of delivery mechanism that exists in Japan (ie, anime can actually make revenue on TV because it's not pirated for a month before it airs, people have to actually pay money if they want to buy/read/download manga, and ...well you know), the convention will always mean the cake is a lie. It will just represent how strong anime is in terms of a draw for American otaku but not for doing actual business ... but for the fans to really care about not hurting anime producers by taking stolen goods? That will take something more than making it a source of Otaku peen points.



Daryl Surat said...

I've still never actually seen Moldiver on the grounds that I always heard about how the US release was "dubtitled," but even I can tell that's what on the Anime East 95 badge. That was right before AIC entered their "we only need to make one set of character designs and then reuse them for everything we make" phase.

I used to keep my badges as souvenirs of the conventions I'd gone to. I used to keep them all in a box along with the program guides and what have, since I figured they'd have some fan significance. Then at some point I stopped caring, perhaps because they were markers of what I did with my life. I think there are still some years-old con badges on the floor of my car still, some of which transitioned between this car and my previous one.

The Angry Otaku said...

I just got comment spammed, but this time it was actually relevant to the subject of the post. It was for a cosplay website (I think), but the language still sounded like a bot. I didn't know cosplay sites like cosplay1. com had to spam bloggs to get traffic, but it makes sense I guess.

Dave Wilson said...

This posting was as wonderfully nostalgic as it was disappointing. I often wondered what happened to Martin King; imagine my dismay upon reading your article. Personally, I believe Apollo Smile gets too much undeserved hate,(the term's 'smote' I think). What's more , I have a lot of those badges, and I think I'll post them on my deviantart page. Sorry for rambling, ti's the energy drink after 1/2 hrs sleep talking.

Gabriel Seador said...

I remember Anime East 95. I also remember going to anime crash on a weekly bases, down on an offshoot of broadway. I was a nutty high school art (High School of Art and Design) student and dressed up as tuxedo mask for that con. It was one of the few cons I attended. NY didn't get many cons back then.It was in a time before the internet exploded and collecting was far more satifying, you could always find something new and cool no one else had seen. it's not like that anymore. It's fun remembering thanks for the post and the name tag upload.

Nick Iannone said...

It's funny to see such an old Anime Central badge; I just ordered my badge for Anime Central 2014, and they're now bigger than ever. Funny that (a) they had such a stupid badge design, and (b) you thought that someone from Illinois could *possibly* **EVER** be a d-bag, especially a con chair. OH WAIT

TheNeovaderIII said...

Wow, I can actually say that that is my handwriting on that Katsucon 1 badge....I worked Registration for it. Those old hand written slide in badges. Remember the 'Free Lum' ones that were going around that con?