You Can (Not) Attend
The Anime in America series is available on crunchyroll.com, animeinamerica.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
EPISODE 3.33: You Can (Not) Attend
Guests: Mary Franklin, Adam Sheehan
Disclaimer: The following program contains language not suitable for all ages. Discretion advised.
So you may have noticed our convention episode left off on kind of an optimistic note about the future of anime conventions and… umm… yeah, some stuff has happened since then, so we’re adding a bonus episode to go over the massive transformation that has taken place in the convention landscape now that COVID-19 has made large gatherings inadvisable, against the backdrop of possibly the largest civil rights movement in American history, which I have to stress is more important than anime. Yeah, it’s been a year.
I’m Yedoye Travis, Black Lives Matter, and this is Anime in America.
Surprisingly, this episode might also end on an optimistic note, but this tectonic shift in conventions affects a lot of people, from the owners and operators of convention spaces, to the staff of anime conventions themselves, anime licensors, publishers, celebrities, dealers, independent artists, and yes your common anime fan.
[Voice echoing] In case you’re an alien listening to this podcast after its broadcast traveled the vast darkness of space to your solar system, probably only reaching you once the human race has already gone extinct so this doesn’t really matter anyway [echoing stops], I will just go ahead and recap the whole pandemic thing. Experts began warning that a virulent new strain of coronavirus, SARs-CoV-2, was rapidly spreading in late 2019 and developing into the disease COVID-19, which escalated to a worldwide pandemic in early 2020, finally resulting in a wave of national quarantine orders spanning the globe mostly beginning around March. So now that the aliens are caught up, let’s continue.
Needless to say, many event coordinators had been sweating since January which is where we’re gonna take a first look under the hood at the whole situation. Anime fans were growing nervous in February since many conventions had suddenly gone dark on social media, which is where we’ll start with an inside prospect courtesy of Crunchyroll’s own Mary Franklin and Adam Sheehan:
Franklin: I’m Mary Franklin, I am the Head of Events at Crunchyroll, and I’ve been here for a little over a year. My background is in fan passion events, I started at Lucasfilm in 2001, was there for 14 years working as Head of Events and Family Relations on shows like Star Wars Celebration and all the other great things Lucasfilm did. Then I went to ReedPop, launched Comicons in multiple countries, which was super exciting. And now I’m at Crunchyroll which, I’m here because I love the way Crunchyroll treats their fans, and that’s why I’m really excited to be creating events for anime fans here.
Sheehan: I’m Adam Sheehan, I’m the Director of Events over here at Crunchyroll, which of course I work for Mary doing all the cool stuff. I’ve been at Crunchyroll since 2015, my second day on the job was AX, well luckily I’d done before because I spent 10 years before that at Funimation, before that doing some anime card game stuff and travelling the country in a Dragonball Z hummer. But that’s a story for a different time. But overall, basically talking to fans, being a fan myself of anime for my whole life, and basically getting the chance to be getting into conventions since… I think our first con was in ‘96, I started working at cons in ‘97, it just was in our blood. Basically the best way to do cool things for the fandoms. And I loved anime, so it made a lot of sense and [I’m] extremely happy to be a part of the founding team that brought Crunchyroll Expo to life and really happy to continue to see where it’s going into the future.
Upcoming cons had stopped announcing new guests and panels, and stay at home orders were beginning to look like a certainty in the U.S., but the cons weren’t cancelling. Rest assured, the organizers of your favorite annual events were not trying to make off into the night with your early registration money. Many of them were just caught between a rock and a hard place.
Franklin: Well some of them, you just hope, you hope it’s going to get better, I think. They just hope. You just want, you work so hard, you worked all this time on the show, and you just want to do it, you’ve got everything lined up. With some, there’s the business reason, because if you cancel or the convention center cancels first, like who loses the money? There’s some kind of weighing those kinds of things. Like playing chicken with the convention center, who has to make the call first? So some of that. And yeah, I also think that states, I’m not trying to get political here, maybe I sound it, I think the direction in different states, too, is so different. Like here, it’s been very clear. Phase 4 events are not going to happen until X, Y, and Z. So you know, concerts, conventions, sporting events with fans, like this, this, and this have to happen. So we’ve had it pretty clear, with these things have to happen. Some states, it hasn’t been. At all. And yeah, I think that it’s much murkier for some of those event people to have to decide what they’re going to do.
Muddying the waters even further and, I can’t believe I even have to get into this on an anime podcast, is insurance. As of January 2020, most event cancellation insurance policies mysteriously changed their exclusions to include pandemics or diseases suspiciously similar to COVID-19. But even policies purchased well before this point often include language requiring either a state of emergency declaration by the state, or for the World Health Organization to declare the disease a pandemic before they’ll pay out, and obviously you can bet insurance companies will do their best not to pay out, regardless.
Since many states and counties were designating a state of emergency at different times thanks to a slow response on the federal level, cancelling before the requirements of your policy were met by outside forces entirely out of your control could mean a massive financial loss and so many conventions were forced to hold out the hope. They weren’t just sitting there with their finger hovering over a big red “CANCEL” button…
Sheehan: I forget how many stages of grief there are, something like that, like first it’s denial, then anger, and the exact order of them, I’m sure I didn’t go in order, but as online was like “oh, that’s a little rough, that one got cancelled.” We actually came back from C2E2 in Chicago and then quarantined ourself before the mass quarantine came out, because we’re like “oh, well let’s just be safe, let’s all go back to the office.” And then like a week later is when we got like “no, no, no. No one’s going back to the office.” This is only like a month or so, right? Like, we can sweat this out, no problem. No, no, no, this is for reals. When the first couple cons were cancelled, I forget which ones they were, it was like “oh my goodness, that one cancelled! Then that one cancelled, then that one cancelled.” And then after a while it was like now you’re expecting them to be cancelled or go virtual, or something along those lines. So it began with like “oh, this isn’t that big a deal, we’ll figure it out,” to “holy crap, holy crap. Holy crap.” To “okay, where do we pivot to, now? Because clearly this is going to be a bit.” So that was my passthrough of time, for dealing with that when I first heard about it.
Finally the cancellations of March conventions began to roll in and the writing was on the wall. Many of the major anime cons are between July and October and it was becoming increasingly clear that the situation wasn’t going to blow over by then. So organizers had to ask themselves… what now?
Well, turns out the answer was pretty obvious: The internet.
In what’s becoming a theme on this podcast, the first great steps in this brave new world of anime fandom were made by fans. The very first virtual anime convention was a fan run event called Anime Lockdown, a free 3-day convention from May 1st to May 3rd featuring mostly fan-submitted content but which pulled in some special guests, including voice actors Kyle Herbert and Veronica Taylor to hosts Q&As, as well as Discotek and Rightstuf to hold industry panels. DJ Obi-Wan Kenobi held a late night performance on Saturday and the con even featured its own Discord channel and a virtual dealers room and artist alley linking to the sites and social media of private artists. Honestly a pretty complete convention experience, all things considered.
The industry’s been quick to follow but this transition has caused some major discussions among companies that already technically do the things a digital con entails, like releasing hosted video content, watchalong streams, voice actor and staff interviews, online announcement events or, say, putting on an annual livestreamed award show? The question is figuring out how to distinguish a digital con from business as usual.
Sheehan: What’s the difference between an online promotion and a digital event? And it really came down to what we just thought we defined it as, not what everyone in the whole world is definitely decided as seeing, people defining as different things. It’s, if you’re just doing like a one-off, something that just lives in some spot, it’s a promoting one IP, it’s a promotion. If you’re doing a collection of stuff or basically a day of things or it’s a bigger, there’s a lot more tendrils to it, it’s an event. So it really comes down to like, the Anime Awards. That’s a virtual event, because basically it is a wake of multiple, it’s an award show, award shows are considered events. If I’m doing a promotion where I’m doing an interview with Japanese guests about Tower of God, and it’s just that, I would say that’s an online promotion. So it’s really kinda basically the scope, scale, and well quantity we’re putting out there online.
Definitions may vary by company, but they did pivot, with UK-based Anime Limited leading the charge on May 30th with Cloud Matsuri, an online convention with an impressive slate of guests from Studio Orange, Science Saru, and Polygon Pictures. During the convention they also showed off Screen Anime, a hybrid streaming service and film festival with a rotating roster of newly released and premiere anime films and series.
Funimation also announced their first convention of any kind, the digital Funimation Con which happened on 4th of July weekend back to back with Aniplex Online Fest. Each featuring a ton of headline musical guests with Funimation announcing a slate of dub voice actor panels and Aniplex featuring many of their biggest hits from the past few years.
Strangely, these two online events were scheduled during the same weekend that the biggest anime convention in the U.S., Anime Expo, held the free online version of their annual convention, dubbed Anime Expo Lite.
For those hoping this whole thing will blow over later in the year and maybe you can attend some late 2020 conventions in person. Bad news. Otakon will be going digital with Otakon Online and yes even Crunchyroll Expo will also be online this year.
It’s a tough pill to swallow but there are definitely advantages. While we’re missing out on the bustling in-person convention feel and the cosplay you painstakingly constructed will go unseen by all but those who pay for your OnlyFans, digital cons definitely have their advantages… beyond the whole not catching COVID thing.
FOMO is entirely nonexistent in 2020. You don’t have to carefully contemplate your vacation days or budgetary concerns to decide which cons you absolutely must attend, only to discover one of your favorite creators is attending a con that didn’t make the cut after you’ve already paid for your plane tickets. There are no plane tickets or hotel reservations whatsoever. While you’re missing out on the cool hotel room parties you’re definitely regularly invited to, not being around people also means dodging that dreaded con stink. Which is a phrase I invented, that is- people smell bad. At cons.
Basically there are trade-offs, but the most important question is: do these new digital conventions provide the same attractions? It goes without saying that conventions are both important to fans and a huge promotional tool for the industry so you can bet event organizers, publishers, licensors, and distributors are all heavily invested in some big solutions right now.
So things are kinda... hectic.
Franklin: I’m still kinda throwing spaghetti against the wall. I still haven’t gotten out of this spaghetti phase yet. Cause we were going to do, just one of the many things at the live event, like a Yuzu cafe that was really a cat adoption cafe. Like, for real. Yeah, figure out like how we do this virtually? And can we have a karaoke room where friends can get together and sing live, like just with their friends? Can we have this, or can we have- and we want games, and we want live DJs, and we want this and that, and so I’m still throwing spaghetti, I’m not past that yet.
Sheehan: Yeah, when we record this, probably at the end of May, and this is going to come up a lot later, the world might be sideways, upside down, and purple. But at the time of this, we’re still definitely in that blue sky world where we look at the team and we just go “here’s all the ideas. Let’s just go, let’s expand as wide as we can.” And then we’ll go “okay, what actually can we do?” We know we can’t do it all, but we basically have to at least look at everything and dream as big as possible, and then go to other companies that are doing this and say “hey, help us with this,” and they go “I can’t do exactly that, but I see what your goal is, and I can do this.” And we go that’s either better than what we were maybe thinking, or damn close and we can grow it to be down the road to be better, with some feedback. So blue sky moments are right now mostly what we’re working on and what we want to do and how we want to grow it. But basically the general junky part which is the “what about this, or what about this?” Basically like with the previous spaghetti reference we’re basically in Italy, going mad.
Conventions aren’t just panels, dealer halls, and getting drunk in hotel rooms. They're cafes, gaming areas, meetups, quiet rooms, screening rooms, artist alleys, a pool full of plushies you can dive into… A lot of little things that all make up the convention experience. The smallest details are being looked at for ways they can be made into a virtual experience, even if it’s just navigating a packed convention center or spotting a cosplay of a character that you like in the hotel lobby.
Sheehan: I thought it was awesome. Lot of love for Fanime around here, clearly. I saw like people basically moved to making groups, chats, and sharing different stuff, obviously. Someone I think created Fanime on an Animal Crossing island, so you basically visit the artists alley room. I know someone in Minecraft who created the hotel for Anime Central. So basically, there’s people out there like, they have this energy and they want us to be their friends and it’s either user created or it’s the convention creating the sets. And like, we probably can’t do much now, but please come and just feel a little bit of this, like this weekend. So we’re seeing them trying to say “we’re sorry, we know it’s not our fault, but we’re sorry that you can’t be here this weekend, but let’s try to do something together special to just remember this weekend, and we cannot wait again to see you until next year.”
Franklin: We want to make ours more like, a little more like feeling like your in a physical event space with friends. Like, we really want to have friends be able to choose to chat with each other so like they can go around the convention with their friends to go to a panel, leave the panel, go to the art show, leave the art show, go back to the panel, you know, do different things. So for us, an event is going to have different aspects, like you would find at a show floor. Like exhibitors in the exhibit hall, artists in the artists alley, panels and screenings and premieres in the theater area. Like that. And how it’s exactly going to look, visually, we’re still working on that. We don’t know.
Discord channels to hang out in and chat with your friends, virtual hotel lobbies made of blocks, and even custom Animal Crossing outfits instead of free posters and those branded drawstring bags. Conventions are undergoing a digital renaissance as organizers deconstruct all the individual elements that make live events so attractive and find new ways to deliver them. It’s tumultuous but to a lot of people on the ground floor it’s also very exciting.
Sheehan: But so the day-to-day has really just been switching also gears from “we are an expert in this, we’ve all done this, we have a great team for this, we’ve been doing this for a long, long time. We know how to do this.” Now we’re getting thrown a huge wrench of things we don’t know that’s changing every day. So as Mary mentioned on research, we’re looking into a lot of stuff where we know how to project manage, which is basically events where project managers would’ve gone to a lot. We could’ve woken up and just been like “the show’s happening, whether we like it or not. Just get it done, one way or another.” We’re basically cool with that, and we have the wonderful teams and people at Crunchyroll as wonderful assets for content for all the things like that. So we’re used to leaning on them to get promotions and pieces. Instead of setting up a photo op in a booth, how do I do something like that on digital is where we’re learning stuff. So a lot of our day-to-day’s been a mix of talking to companies to basically get what we need onboarded properly; research, research, research, which is- harkens back to when we first did CRX, I know I spent at least a year looking at other conventions and saying “what are they doing differently? What do we want to do?” I remember when I first walked into Blizzcon going “AHHH! This has got some cool things here that no one else is doing.” And basically taking some of those ideas of what we wanted to build down to CRX down the road kind of moment. So the data has changed in those areas, at least.
Franklin: Yeah, and we have such a good team. The Events team has been so flexible, they’ve been willing to jump in and research ideas that at first some of them just seemed completely nuts, and now actually, they’re making them happen.
Sheehan: They’re still completely nuts, but doable.
Franklin: Yeah. They’re making them happen.
Obviously the most important aspect of any convention, however, is the Japanese guests. Creators and voice actors that worked on our favorite shows coming in to share their thoughts, conduct interviews, and obviously sign a lot of shit. Or even taking a step back from that, how are you gonna stream a celebrity into an event? Ask them to set up a webcam in their living room with their home internet connection? Well, this has struck up some intense back and forth over the Pacific and turns out other countries actually have very good broadband.
Sheehan: From the ones we have been talking so far about this, because you know it’s still early on with talking about this, and we’re going to be talking to a good chunk of them about switching from being physical guests to virtual guests. A lot of them are feeling, because of the situation going on, better. They were worried about travelling over to the States for a multitude of different reasons. And when we said “hey, no, you can stay right there, we’ll bring it to you,” and not only was it the guests, but it was like “oh, wow, that’s great. I feel much safer.” It was also the agencies, the licensors, and everyone else said “I still want a way to promote your brand, can we bring some awesome content to the fans? But basically you can stay right there in the States.” And they were like “oh, cool.” So they care a lot more about getting a lot more details about what you’re thinking about, because they also- luckily enough we’ve worked with a lot of these companies before. They know when we do something it’s like, I don’t know what to expect from Company A, but Crunchyroll’s going to try something that’s really cool or different, I better get some more details. So because of that, basically they’re asking a lot of questions about it. But once we normally answer generally about like “here’s what we’re thinking about like what we should do, here’s how we’re going to pull it off, here’s the tech side of it,” they normally start going “oh, that’s really cool. Okay, cool, let’s keep doing it, let’s keep going.” So overall it’s been relief, then excited.
Franklin: Yeah, and I think we might end up being able to get a bigger variety of guests because, like you know say we’re talking to a studio about a new show. And maybe all we can afford to bring over like with all the travel and everything is maybe like two voice actors and an artist, which I mean is great, but now like we have the option of you know maybe we can talk to more voice actors, director, more artists! We have actually the ability to maybe get more people involved from each studio, which I think could really add to the programming. Maybe in the future, too, like you think about when we go back to live events and we bring over two or three of the cast and crew from a show, and they can be joined virtually by some other people for a panel. That’s something that maybe could work well.
Sheehan: Yeah, yeah, I think this is basically in a good way, I think that technology is going to- high tides raise all ships kind of thing where basically it’s going to be a certain we get used to and then they’re going to start demanding some aspect of virtual like that, too. I’m not sure if they’re quite going to be like “and here’s a hologram of Hayao Miyazaki, basically hi-fiving Tim” before that, quite yet, but I mean there might be some kind of element basically ties Tim in, too. And it’s funny how fast this has come along. I can’t- I think it was only two years ago, or maybe three, max, basically ComicCon they were like, they had to bring in Steven Spielberg, who was on set somewhere in the desert. So Hall H at San Diego ComicCon, live video between the two. And it was like the biggest news, like they got Speilberg, but he’s not really in the building. And I’m like, and that’s not 2005, I’m talking like 2017 or 2018, and it’s like, now they’re like “yeah, of course you did, that’s just what you do.” I’m doing that right now, just- it’s not that hard. But it’s amazing with how fast we’re growing the tech and what expectations of it are now. So I expect and I think we can expect this is that this is just going to be a part of the- the good part of the new normal.
Franklin: We did a live Q&A with Hayden Christensen for Star Wars Episode II or III, I can’t remember, he wasn’t there. I think it was Episode II. And- cause that was a long time ago, that was 2002. And so we had people in the audience asking questions and had him remote on set somewhere, and I just remember the tremendous amount of work we had to do for that at that time. I mean, that was just, that was such a major undertaking to make that work live. And I think that he was in Australia, actually, shooting. And it was just huge, and now it’s just all ready, it’s just, still evolving, but it’s already so much simpler.
Some growing pains are inevitable, but in the present we might be able to look forward to an even greater diversity of guests without the cost and effort of putting everyone on two 12-hour flights. Plus, I dunno about you, but a lot of them are probably looking at more free time than they’re used to having, leaving them with some room to jump on a Zoom call for a couple of hours.
One day it may be safe to stand less than six feet away from another human being. Who knows? But the work that’s being done right now could revolutionize the way we do conventions in the long term. Cause If we’ve learned anything in the past few months, it’s that we are all way more accessible than we thought we were, so the thought of having a guest call in from 5,300 miles away and then streaming that panel to viewers in space or wherever the fuck doesn’t seem so farfetched. I am recording this podcast on Zoom.
Franklin: Another good part of this is that when we go back to physical events, which I believe we will, because people like to get together, when we go back we’re going to have new tools that we didn’t have before. And we’re going to be able to combine them with live events and reach more people around the world, which that’s a good thing. And I’ve said it to the team, we should probably have been looking into these things before this [Chuckling], but it’s making us- it’s making us do it now, so we’ve ramped the game up.
Sheehan: Yeah, looking at the upside of all this and seeing the situation that’s going on in the world is that basically we are all, events and beyond, being forced to do things and think of things that we’re like “I’ll put that off ‘til later.” There is no “later,” there is only now. And because of that, basically I think that I think that when events come back, are going to be stronger because of the virtual ones. But the hunger for the virtual ones will not go away, because I remember seeing many surveys over the years asking people, not at conventions, just asking people through surveys out there like “how would you love to be at a convention?” And like 80, 90% of them were. “How many people basically have ever been to a convention, or had access to a convention?” It’s like 20%. So there’s a gap. So basically with the excitement, we’re going to figure out making a virtual Crunchyroll Expo and virtual events in other areas, because you really sell folks on the point of this is to add to the physical events in the future, because not all will be able to say “hey, we actually have some things you can interact with, maybe like AR-style,” or whatever it’s going to be in the future. Basically actually going to a physical event. But also if you can’t be here, you can still be here. And that’s what it really comes down to is we love connecting the fans definitely face-to-face, but if you can’t be here and just want to connect somehow, I think everything’s going to ramp up now to be more [so] virtual feels less like a screen, and more like actual conversation or a connection. Because we’re going to be training ourselves to be doing that over this coming times.
Conventions going digital means that not only can corporations like Viz continue selling their products, but attendees also don’t have to make a huge financial investment just to get into a physical space where, for lack of a better phrase, they get to shop. Conventions are shopping. Technology helps level the playing field both financially and physically so, especially in a time when people are more acutely aware of the pitfalls of capitalism as an economic system, the move to digital means that within this dual economic structure, everybody can benefit. So it’s positive. I did it! It’s done.
So sit tight with a slightly more relaxed convention season in 2020 and look forward to what new things 2021 will have to show us. In the meantime, stay safe and wear your goddamn mask… I don’t know what else to tell you.
Thanks for Listening to Anime in America presented by Crunchyroll. If you enjoyed this, please rate us and share this podcast with a friend. Also check out CrunchyrollExpo.com to learn more about Virtual CRX happening September 4-6.
Special thanks to Mary Franklin and Adam Sheehan for giving us their insights.
This episode is hosted by me, Yedoye Travis and you can find me on Instagram at ProfessorDoye, and Twitter @YedoyeOT, if you want. Researched and written by me and Peter Fobian, edited by Chris Lightbody, and produced by me, Braith Miller, Peter Fobian, and Jesse Gouldsbury.