I knew that as we were lining up a series of articles focusing on the importance of Anime Conventions for this month’s cover story that I was going to need to speak with someone who has had a significant amount of history in the space. Over the years of participating in conventions myself, I’ve met plenty of people who are veterans in the anime con scene but very few of them have been in positions that touch on all sides of things. Peter Tatara, the founder of Anime NYC and overseer of Leftfield Media’s anime convention business, is one of those few people. Starting off as a fan at a young age, Peter started working in the anime industry at the now-defunct Central Park Media fresh out of college, and is now on the direct operations side of the convention industry. Over the years I’ve known Peter we’ve developed a pretty wonderful habit of digging deep on nostalgia and discussing the industry as a whole during conversations so I knew that he would be the perfect choice for a western perspective on our topic. In this first of an incredibly insightful (and honestly really fun to conduct) interview about the world of anime conventions, we kick things off discussing his history in the space and talking about the way things used to be.
Eddie Lehecka: You’ve been in the industry for quite some time now, so to open things up, how long have you been attending conventions either as a fan or a member of the industry?
Peter Tatara: As Industry I’ve been going to events since 2005. My first event as part of the industry was AnimeNEXT. As a fan, I’ve been going to events since sometime in the early or mid-‘90s. Most of those were Star Trek conventions. I grew up in the upper Northeast, and I had never heard the term “Anime Con” or even “Comic-Con” as a kid. The term I always heard was “Star Trek Convention”. But you would go there and there was, of course, Star Trek but also Comics, Anime, all sorts of stuff. But yeah, I’ve been going to cons since I was little.
Eddie: Now that I think about it, Anime Conventions were always part of sci-fi cons for years dating back to the ‘70s right? It was maybe the mid-‘90s when the first real anime convention happened?
Peter: Yeah, you had Anime Con, which became Anime Expo, as well as Otakon and A-Kon all start-up in the ‘90s. Before then, it was a general con scene, and it was so different back then. It *was* a Star Trek convention or a sci-fi convention before then, and any anime events at the time were a grassroots sort of basement type experience. But still, that was where us nerds came together.
Eddie: I was living in Cleveland when I first started getting into this stuff and I remember going to the Case Western Reserve University anime club. That was the closest to an anime convention I had until like, Otakon 2001 was the first convention I had ever gone to. And that’s something that doesn’t really exist today. I’m sure College anime clubs are still out there, but they don’t facilitate the same thing they did back in the ‘90s.
Peter: Oh, totally. It’s amazing too. My start in all of this was that I ran anime clubs throughout middle school, high school, and college and that was in the time where streaming was still in its infancy. It’s amazing in those few short years though that we had VHS, DVD, and then downloads and streaming got big. Originally clubs were places where people got together to watch something new and then by the end of my college experience anyone could stream anything immediately. So just looking at the average number of people coming to any of our events had gone down. And the focus of our events had changed too, it was less about being a place to go watch anime and became much more about being a place to go hang out with other fans, which is a whole microcosm of the con scene as well.
Eddie: So you experienced those kinds of things as a fan, but you also worked with Central Park Media and you’ve been in the industry for a while, so what would you say is the difference between going to a convention as a fan, versus a member of the industry, versus now being an organizer. How would you articulate those differences having experienced multiple sides of attending conventions?
Peter: As a fan, conventions were just magic. They were my Christmas, my birthday, my super bowl. They were that one time where I was around other people that liked what I liked. This was an earlier time where we weren’t as connected online as we are now. Being an anime fan back when I was in high school, that wasn’t cool. So, going to a convention, it was so affirming to see that more people were into this than just me. I clearly remember some of those first cons that I went to, how magical they were, how big they felt, and how extravagant they felt. But at the same time, I recognize that a lot of those early conventions were like one single ballroom in a Holiday Inn in a suburb of Albany, NY. They were the smallest things possible, they maybe had 50 attendees and 2 guests. But still, they were a portal into another world that I couldn’t imagine and they were deeply meaningful.
To me, when I was in the industry with Central Park Media my focus on events had shifted in that I became an expert in very specific things. When I was working as a member of the industry my focus was on the expo floor booth, or a panel, or a guest we’re bringing and being super drilled down into those specific elements of how the show operates. I had to make sure the stuff we were doing goes well, to make sure anything we shipped to the convention center got there early, to make sure anything around our panels was done, making sure that we can make our little areas in the space flow as smoothly as possible while the larger running of the show, I had zero clue as to how it operated. There are a great number of events while I was at CPM where I wouldn’t leave the booth during the entirety of the weekend. It wasn’t until I went to Otakon after Central Park Media that I had actually seen the Baltimore Convention Center, because the entire time I was at CPM the only element of the building I was familiar with was the expo floor. So becoming an expert at a few central things was my experience in the industry.
Now, running events, I feel that rather than being an expert at everything it’s more about making sure I have a general and accurate working knowledge of the event overall. I need to make sure I’ve got in my head generally how everything is flowing. Do I need to know the hyper-specific details of every specific thing? No. But I need to make sure I know that everything is moving forward, and I need to be able to prioritize if something falls behind or has a challenge. That’s where my focus needs to be. So it’s jumping from hot spot to hot spot or priority moment to priority moment. And then having a trusted team beneath me as well to help manage everything.
Eddie: I know it goes without saying that having the previous experience in the industry and as a fan has been beneficial to you as somebody who is now an organizer. Would you say that the time you’ve spent as a fan, considering that you’ve been going to them since you were young and you’ve seen how they’ve grown, that that experience has informed any of how you handle operations with Anime NYC or Anime Frontier?
Peter: I wouldn’t say operations so much, but I would say in terms of content or other elements of it all, yes. Very deeply rooted in me is the fundamental thought that events are communities, and it’s about building a place where fans can come together. The kind of things we do when we come together, those things started to get ingrained in me at a young age. Honestly, the operations element only started to come to me during my time at Central Park Media in the industry. But it’s really the deeply held conviction that anime cons or any sort of event is important that has been with me since I was a fan. It’s where your tribe comes together and there’s really nothing that can replicate that in-person experience as I think we’re all experiencing first-hand right now (laughs).
Eddie: Yeah seriously, try as we might (laughs). I don’t really know what your timeline was when you were at CPM, but did you have a period of time where you were volunteering at any conventions or events as well? Aside from the anime clubs you had mentioned earlier I mean.
Peter: No, my trajectory was running anime fan stuff from like 6th grade until the end of college. I had interned at CPM when I was in college, and literally the week after I finished school I started my job at Central Park Media. That job at CPM led directly to jobs with New York Comic Con and other organizers, and then ultimately brought me to where I am today. So it was a pretty solid through-line, and I’ve been doing stuff professionally in this space in some way since 2005.
Eddie: Gotcha, that’s almost 20 years at this point, not to remind you of the timespan (laughs). That also kind of speaks to the idea too that people who go to conventions today or are now having their first convention experiences are having a completely different experience from what we had when we started. What would you say some of the biggest differences between conventions now and the way they were in the early 2000s?
Peter: There are a lot of major things. In no particular order, one is the focus of the gathering has shifted a lot. In earlier times a lot of the excitement with a convention was that it was a time and a place where you could actually see anime. There was that time where anime was rare, and you would spend months hunting something down on VHS. So, a lot of the excitement was “I could actually see anime”, but now I feel like anime viewing rooms at conventions have all but disappeared. It’s really only premieres that are shown because now your phone has more anime on it than you could ever watch.
Other big elements are the size of the shows were much smaller. It was a much more underground movement back then. If you went to an event with 100 people that was considered a “big convention” in most places. Related to that, the kind of audience was also different. It was typically an older, male crowd. A 20 something to 30 something crowd of primarily dudes, and we’ve seen that change dramatically within fandom overall where the audience has gotten much much younger thanks to having more access to anime on every media possible. The audience is also much more diverse, and any convention I’ve been a part of lately it’s pretty much a 50/50 split, if not there being a smaller percentage of male attendees as a whole.
The other big thing is that they were much more homespun, duct-taped together things. Nowhere near the level of grandeur or polish, or just money involved that you see today. An industry booth way back when was just 2 8 foot tables. I still remember going to Otakon when most industry booths were a few tables and some backdrops. Now you look at some of the investment from major publishers and they’re grandiose, they’re experiences that would rival what you could see at E3 or San Diego Comic-Con. So just the overall mainstreaming of anime and greater involvement in the industry led to a much glitzier and cooler experience than we saw growing up.
Eddie: It’s probably worth mentioning too that back at that time the number of conventions that were happening was much less. I remember being on staff for Ohayocon the first year they did that event in Cleveland, and at the time the only other conventions I was cognizant of were like Anime Central, Otakon, Katsucon, and Anime Expo. I know that there was also A-Kon and others, but you could say that there were like 20 or 30 conventions a year back then but now there’s something going on every single weekend.
Peter: Agreed, yeah. Prior to COVID, it’s a very fair statement that there was something going on every weekend somewhere in the US. When I was growing up it was the opposite. There was the occasional hyper small show in Albany, but anything with scale was in Boston and I would get to make that trek once a year to go to the sci-fi convention in Boston. And those were amazing moments. As an aside, I remember how they did marketing for that show. It was the early internet days, so I would get postcards. It was all direct mail, physically getting a little pamphlet in the mail about the Boston Star Trek convention and then physically mailing them a check to get a badge.
Eddie: When a mailing list was actually a mailing list (laughs).
Peter: Yes! And it’s just amazing how business used to be done. How quaint that was, 30 years ago.
Eddie: If you think about it, things moved really fast. Once Toonami started airing Sailor Moon & Dragonball in the early 2000s, that was obviously the explosion point for everything but I think that the speed at which everything blew up, I don’t think anyone was ready for. And I have to wonder too, was that inability to keep up with that speed and rate of growth something that resulted in companies like Central Park Media, ADV, or even Geneon going out of business? Like, did that rapid growth rate have an adverse effect on the industry in any way before the shift to digital?
Peter: I don’t know. I do feel from my personal experience that the industry wanted to go digital very early on. As technologies advanced the anime industry kept trying to find ways to go digital. I remember when I was at CPM we were uploading single episodes of Armored Trooper VOTOMS to be able to watch on your iPod. The challenge was fandom was extremely swift to put full content online though, and there was no legal solution at the time, and there was no mechanism within the industry to present an alternative yet. Rather, it was us trying to issue takedown notices and get unofficial torrents removed, but doing something significant with streaming was still far away. In terms of the struggles that befell CPM, digital was part of a bigger shift that lead to major shakeups that a lot of companies ended up seeing.
Eddie: It’s something I’ve always been a bit curious about because it feels like one day they were all there and then the next day they were gone. It’s kind of a shame too, and we’ve had this conversation a million times now, but there are so many things where the licensing is just in limbo as a result. I would love to see a lot of that stuff return in some way, and while it doesn’t really have to do with the convention topic it’s just something I don’t feel like is addressed as much as it should be. It’s like a lost bit of anime’s history in the US, and thankfully we have some companies out there like Discotek Media, AnimEigo, or Sentai Filmworks that are rescuing these classic properties and doing a great job with it.
Next week in the 2nd part of this interview we’ll fast forward to the world of anime conventions in the present day, the origins of Anime NYC, and the challenges of running an event during a global pandemic.