In our last feature piece on anime conventions, I sat down with Anime NYC Founder & Director, Peter Tatara, to discuss the history of anime conventions in the US and talk about our own experiences growing up in the community. Where the interview last week focused on his personal experience, this time around we dive into his professional involvement with the convention world. In this second part of the interview we fast forward to current day and discuss operations, how Anime NYC came to be founded, and even the way the pandemic is impacting the convention scene in a deeper way. I hope you’ll enjoy this peek behind the curtain at what makes conventions tick and how one of the largest events in the country is handling the current global situation.
Eddie Lehecka: Back on the convention topic, what got us sidetracked was the idea of the rapid growth of the industry and the impact it’s had. In the same way that one day there were all of these different publishers and the next day they vanished, or one-day streaming didn’t exist and the next day we had multiple platforms, conventions were the same way. One day there was 20 conventions, and the next there was one every weekend. What do you think that the proliferation of conventions has had on the industry as a whole, and at what point do you think that the number of events is just too much?
Peter Tatara: So I’m going to tackle that second part first. Prior to COVID, there was at least one event going on every weekend across the US, but there were different tiers of events. There are those that get 100,000+, those that get several thousand, and some that get a few hundred. Depending on the size of the event you are, you’ll attract different audiences. There’s no problem with multiple events going on across the US in different markets as a fan in New York is unlikely to go to a show in Arkansas, or vice versa. So if those 2 shows go on in the same weekend then that’s cool.
However, where you start to see challenges are every other element. In terms of vendors or artists on the floor, they need to choose because someone that’s selling plushies or someone who’s selling art prints could conceivably do either of those shows. So they need to make a decision about which event they’re going to. Likewise, talent needs to make the same kind of decisions. A voice actor can only go to one of those 2 shows. Same thing for a large publisher. And we’re in this space now with there being such a proliferation where we’re starting to see vendors as well as publishers starting to build out A & B teams so they can do multiple events in the same weekend. So it’s all been working, but we’re very quickly getting to the point of “how much more can the industry do concurrently” where on the industry side you’ll see vendors and publishers saying “we can’t do 3 or 4 events on the same weekend”. But there’s always a hunger for fans to gather, and I think if there’s 6, 10, or 12 super cool and hyper-local events in a given weekend that’s fine. But I feel once you get into the territory of having a national scale or scope that’s where you see the need for there to be few big shows close by for everyone to be able to thrive.
Eddie: I feel like everyone is focused on scheduling their events so that, I don’t want to use the word competing, maybe accommodating for other events too?
Peter: Yeah, and we actively talk to other events in the space before we secure future dates. No one wants to intentionally be on the dates of another event, so we’re all trying to make sure we aren’t overlapping. We recognize that if we overlap with another show it does impact guests, exhibitors, and publishers. But the frank challenge for everyone is that we’re not mandating to the convention center when our event can be. We have to negotiate and plead with the convention center as to when our event can be. Any anime convention at a convention center is dealing with the 27 business-to-business events that also go on in that venue. And very often those are larger events, or more profitable for the convention center so us nerd shows aren’t necessarily their biggest or most important client. You do see often times that pop culture shows end up on holiday weekends and other times that are considered “down time” for that convention center. It’s Like “what’s a time a business-to-business client isn’t going to want that building? We’ll gladly take it” (laughs).
Eddie: Yeah I get that, I have countless stories of going to Anime Central and seeing kids that are at the hotel who are there for prom at the same time and there’s this total culture clash that happens between the anime event and then these business or social events going on (laughs). I don’t think a lot of people think about that either in regards to the way that conventions are really at the mercy of other events happening that could occupy the space at the same time. Otherwise, why would every convention just always happen on the same weekend every year and maintain a consistent schedule?
So aside from the industry aspect of things, back in the day as we discussed there was this element of going to conventions and discovering new things or getting to watch new stuff. Given that most conventions now have more than anime, like music events, fashion, etc. what role do you think conventions have as a place to introduce and educate people further in Japanese pop-culture in a broader sense?
Peter: That’s a really good question. I feel that what a lot of conventions have become now is a celebration of the anime fandom at that specific point in time. So what you’re seeing at the event is not just anime, but anything that’s popular within the fandom. So different things like Korean pop-culture, American content, just other things that anime fans like or are adjacent to the fandom are bleeding through as well. And that’s cool and it serves our fans and customers, but I think there is an important piece of “is there a higher mission or education that we want to do too” that’s difficult and can be costly. I feel there should be a few things that shows should try to do more of, and one of those is that anime is such a gateway to Japan so creating content and programming that furthers an education of Japan overall. Likewise, furthering an education of “what is pop-culture in Japan right now”, what is the actual anime scene like in Japan, what’s the music scene like?
The other element too is that so much of what’s popular in anime right now is contemporary. I would love to do more classic or retro stuff. I would love to educate as to what we were doing in the con scene 10 years ago or what was popular 20 years ago. All of those are not the sexiest things, but they’re important for us as a culture to remember. It’s always fun to go to a convention to celebrate the thing you love, but my hope is that whenever anyone goes to a convention that beyond celebrating the thing they love, I would love them to learn something or fall in love with something new or new to them. Like “Oh of course I did all of the Attack on Titan stuff, but I also discovered this new show” or “did you know about this?” or “That creator also did this!” If we can help expand the minds of a few fans then we’re all for that.
Eddie: Speaking of introducing or education on more retro stuff, I often think about how rad it would be if a bunch of conventions were to do something like show “Otaku no Video” as a main event kind of thing because that, in particular, is such a good representation of its time period.
Peter: It is streaming now on RetroCrush! People should go watch it!
Eddie: I agree, I guess we can consider that a free plug (laughs). I want to take things back a bit to Anime NYC because it has a really interesting history to me in a way. Not particularly because of how it came to be, but I remember having a conversation with you at one point in time and learning that for a period of time New York just flat out didn’t have an anime convention at all. And like in 2015 or something there was that Waku Waku fest that happened, and NYCC had an anime component for a little bit years ago too Besides the fact that there just wasn’t anything else happening, what was the catalyst that drove Anime NYC into existence?
Peter: A little bit of background. You have anime shows in most big cities in the country, and New York is the biggest city in the US. So it could be easy to say “Why doesn’t New York have an anime con?” The same thing was said about New York about 15 years ago about comic book conventions. The answer to both of those questions is that because New York is so big, it’s also expensive. And with most anime shows being non-profits put together by fans it was exceedingly difficult to marshall the resources, and frankly, the money to invest in doing a big show. So New York’s always had small anime clubs and gatherings, and there are even anime & manga publishers based here but no one was able to make that gamble and say “I’m going to make this big investment” as the only game in town is the Javits Center and it takes a lot to get in there.
In about 2007 the people that did NYCC did an event called New York Anime Festival. I was part of that group, and that was the first big anime convention in the modern era that existed in New York. Prior to that Central Park Media did an event called Big Apple Anime Fest in the 90s. New York Anime Fest was cool, it was a great show, but ReedPOP (the parent company of NYCC) made the decision after 3 years to blend it into New York Comic Con to create a bigger pop culture celebration overall. And while it certainly grew NYCC, the struggle that fans experienced was that it no longer felt like an anime show. It no longer felt like it was a show for them. After 2009 there was a lot of sentiment from the fans in New York about having lost a place that was for them and wanting to go back to a place that was just for them. In the years that followed, you saw a few small events start-up but there was nothing of any scale until the launch of Anime NYC 3 years ago.
The origins of Anime NYC was really just talking to fans, talking to publishers, and asking “do you want to see a big show in New York, and would you support it?” And the unanimous answer was yes. That fans wanted a show to call their own, publishers likewise wanted a show where they were on the center stage. So it was probably 14 months of planning before the first Anime NYC launched, and we couldn’t have been more heartened and amazed by the response to the event. In 3 years we’ve grown to 50,000 unique attendees, the 2nd biggest show in the country, done US & world premieres, massive amazing guests, and the largest Japanese pop concerts in the history of New York. So it’s all been super cool, and our guiding mission since the day we started has always been two-fold. First off we want to build a show for the fans of New York, making sure that anime fans are front and center, that this is a show for you and this is a show about what you love. Tied with that, just as important is that we want to do this professionally with the industry. We work very closely with our friends at Crunchyroll, Aniplex, VIZ, Bandai, Funimation, Sentai, and many other companies to build this as a platform for them. To celebrate what’s new, what’s upcoming. How can we in the convention space help them grow their business and in turn help create more fans? We’ve been amazed and we were looking for our biggest year yet, we’re still hopeful, but some of those things are out of our hands right now.
Eddie: That actually leads perfectly into my next question. You guys were supposed to have had the inaugural Anime Frontier in Texas this year, which was canceled due to COVID-19, and we’ve spoken a bit on the backend about how Anime NYC is taking precautions and preparing for the worst in case something should happen as you’re still figuring things out and taking it day by day, but how has this whole thing been for you and your whole team? Is it just business as usual on most days, or are things a bit crazier as a result of the pandemic?
Peter: It’s always crazy. So our event is scheduled for the end of November which is months away. So we’re still optimistic and hope that the event can take place. That being said, we only want to do the event if it can be done in a safe and healthy way so we’ve been working closely with the Javits Center, with the city on precautions, on guidelines, on social distancing, PPE, on what are the things we need to do in order to make the event safe this year. Because no one knows where coronavirus will be at that time we probably have 10 different plans for 10 different scenarios depending on where COVID is in New York, in the US, around the world. So I can’t actually tell you what Anime NYC will look like right now, but our hope is that by the end of summer to have enough knowledge around what coronavirus will be towards the end of the year to select which of those 10 paths we’ll utilize.
But we’re hopeful that we can hold the event in person this year, but like any other live event business in the country right now we’re looking at every single option from a purely physical event to a physical event with some digital components, to a largely digital solution. Anything and everything is being explored on a daily basis right now.
Eddie: A lot of conventions, unfortunately, had the situation where it was just dropped in their laps and they had to deal with it as they did. With cancelations happening the way they are and with some conventions that are in similar situations as Anime NYC which are still scheduled for later this year, what kind of things do you think that maybe attendees aren’t realizing about the impact of the pandemic on conventions and what can they do to support conventions whether they’re still ongoing or whether they’ve been canceled?
Peter: Looking at it all, some things that fans might not know is that as an event we spend all year building the event. But for most of the year, the work being done is creating power points, excel files, documents and plans. It’s really not until the last few months before the event that all of those pieces of paper become real. That’s when we’re printing all of the assets, that’s when flights are booked, that’s where everything comes together. It’s also where all of the money is spent. So looking at events who have been able to postpone or cancel months in advance, they’re in a much better position than events that had to cancel a week or 2 before they were scheduled to take place. There’s a lot of investment that’s just gone.
I think the other thing, early on with COVID before we as a country realized that this thing is serious and it’s here to stay, a lot of convention held on until force majeure was declared which allowed them to get back any initial investments or deposits with the venues. If a random event just says “I don’t want to take place” the convention center can say they’re breaching contract, so they would still owe the money put down. I think you’ve seen a shift in the months since things began where the live events industry has become much more accommodating. Those are 2 things that impact when and how events can cancel.
Looking at how fans can support events, with events themselves, these things – whether they’re driven by individuals or groups of people – their main source of funding throughout the year is ticket sales. So if an event cancels and offers the choice of rolling your ticket over to the next year or getting a refund, I think any convention organizer would deeply appreciate that ticket getting rolled over to next year. That allows them to keep some money in hand, allows them to keep planning for the next event, and allows them to keep things moving forward. So any event you’re planning to go to that has to cancel, if you’re in a position to let your ticket roll over, I think it’s greatly appreciated.
The other thing is any artist or general exhibitor that does events is hurting right now as well. For a lot of artists and exhibitors, their primary source of income is what they’re making at events. So if there are artists you see in an artist alley that you love, go to their online shop and buy a print. Likewise, if there’s an exhibitor that you really like that you see every year, odds are that they have an online shop too. Any prints, merchandise, and media that you can buy from them online, I think that would be greatly appreciated. Anything that used to be done in person has gone away right now, and we have not found a purely digital solution that saves it.
Eddie: I’ve seen some conventions do digital artists alleys or digital vendor’s halls, Anime Expo had a pretty impressive digital vendor’s offering for their recent event and we’re teaming up with Tokyo Otaku Mode to do something similar for our event. I think that’s a component that even I didn’t consider at first, at least not until we really started planning out events.
All of that being the case, the fact that we don’t have a fully digital solution, there’s a lot of stuff that’s still up in the air even with planning being done. And frankly, we as a society still have a lot to learn about COVID-19 and are still unsure of how it really is going to impact things, but with the knowledge we currently have and the preparations Anime NYC has been exploring, what do you think the new normal of conventions is going to look like when the dust settles?
Peter: I’m really intrigued by that. I think it’s going to be really telling about us as a community or as a culture, what we’re willing to expose ourselves to, versus how quickly we want to just jump back to the way things were. My feeling is that masks are going to become a lot more prevalent. If you go to Japan or other Asian countries, any day you walk on the street masks & facial coverings are very normal. So I’m curious to see if COVID is the thing that flips the switch in the US and we start to see masks on a more daily basis both at conventions but also in our daily lives. I think that’s a big thing you’re going to see. I think as well, we’ll probably see restrictions on social distancing for a good long time. When things start to open, just like any other venue, we’ll start to see convention centers are capped at different percentages of capacity.
The other thing that we may have to make some decisions around are elements of events that are extremely high touch. Looking at game rooms, for example, that is an incredible tactile experience. It’s super fun, it’s amazing, but it is also all about getting your hands on things that 500 other people just touched. There may be elements of that which can’t be replicated immediately, like there may be a time where game rooms just can’t be at shows or games rooms operate very differently to allow for sanitization. I think panel rooms are also going to be a lot different with social distancing and chair numbers. Everything with selfies or autographs, we may see restrictions around those. So all the kinds of things we see talked about in wider society I think are going to be adopted into events as they start to reopen. The big question I have though is how long is that road? 3 months, 6 months, a year of things like that? Is there a time, and when is that time where you start to see big events start to reopen without masks or social distancing. It’s a thing we’ll probably see differently in different cities and states just around what the specific norms are in that area and just how is COVID doing there. Like how COVID is going in New York is very different from how it is in Oklahoma right now. So we may see events return at different levels and different times across the US.
Eddie: That’s really interesting, I didn’t even consider the high touch element myself. Thinking about the game room thing in particular, you’ve seen events like EVO get canceled due to the pandemic, and that’s one of the biggest communal gaming events of the year.
Peter: It’s interesting too because a lot of the high touch elements are very communal. They’re things that the fans love. Game rooms are an easy example, big cosplay photo groups are another. Everyone loves that and it’s just part of what adds fun to an event, but we could be in a time where we don’t allow or we have to limit the size of cosplay photo ops. That giant 200 person Digimon photo op was super cool, until you realize that’s 200 people just shoved right on top of each other in a COVID stew. So we may see more policies or limitations around that. It’s going to be a very interesting, delicate, and evolving line as to how we celebrate and how do we do it safely.
Eddie: That’s all really insightful honestly. Do you have any additional thoughts or a statement you want to make before we wrap things up?
Peter: I’ve been an anime fan since I was a young child, and I’ve been fortunate to build anime clubs and anime cons across my adolescence and adult life. We’re in a very unique and very trying time right now with the coronavirus. My feeling is how we express ourselves with events is definitely going to change in the coming months, but I feel that even if events change, the community is going to be there. The fundamental part of all of this is about the community and while we’re being forced to evolve right now I am excited to see how the anime community grows from this and where we take this community in the next year together.