Anime Conventions Changed Culture Forever. COVID Could End Them

After more than25 years of bringing together anime fans in the DC area and beyond, the future of seminal anime and comic book convention Otakon is in jeopardy because of COVID-19.

Today, anime is as mainstream as it gets. We live in a world where acclaimed and extremely popular rapper Megan Thee Stallion raps about watching anime while getting eaten out, and even collaborated with Crunchyroll, a streaming service dedicated to anime, on a clothing collection. Crunchyroll was acquired by Sony for $1.175 billion in December. Any anime you want to watch is likely only a few clicks away, with subs or dubs, if it’s not already on Netflix.

But this was not the case a short time ago. Before it was socially accepted and easily accessible, anime in the U.S. was a specialized hobby that thrived only because of the fans who loved it so much, and those fans relied on anime conventions like Otakon to trade VHS tapes, create their own subtitles, and spread the good word of anime. Now, because of the pandemic, the cultural force of anime cons is at risk.

Otakon, a portmanteau of “otaku” and “convention,” originally took place in Pennsylvania, starting in 1994. Over the years, the convention grew in size and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and then Washington, DC from 2017 onward. According to its website, more than 28,000 people attended 2019’s Otakon.

Last week, Brooke Zerrlaut, the president of Otakorp, the non-profit volunteer run organization that runs Otakon, wrote an internal newsletter for members of Otakon that said that the future of the convention is in danger. “Put simply, in the next few months we will have to make a decision to continue planning for Otakon 2021, or potentially close our doors forever,” Zerrlaut said. Zerrlaut said that not being able to have a convention in 2020 has left them without the funds they need to schedule for 2021.

“As a volunteer organization, every dollar that we make from our memberships goes towards realizing that mission to promote and celebrate Asian culture, and our largest event is our annual meeting—Otakon,” Zerrlaut wrote. “We use the proceeds from each year to plan the next Otakon and make sure we survive until then.”

Zerrlaut, who got involved in Otakon through her husband and said they raised their children on Ghibli films, told Motherboard that COVID-19 was a challenge unlike any other the convention has faced. Being unable to have a convention in 2020 has put the convention in a dire financial situation.

“2020 was the only time we have ever had to cancel in our 25+ year history,” she told Motherboard.

When Otakon started, local and regional cons were some of the few ways to see the new anime coming out of Japan. In the mid-90s, we were a long way from the days where your favorite show would be running concurrently with it’s schedule in Japan. Anime fans in the States would either download episodes subtitled by other fans, if their internet speeds were able to, or they would visit conventions like Otakon to pick up physical VHS copies of those episodes while they socialized with other anime lovers.

“Otakon was one of many regional and local U.S. cons that emerged in the 1990s after anime and sci-fi fandom split at the beginning of that decade (before that, anime had generally been treated as a subset of science fiction),” Andrea Horbinski, a scholar with a doctorate in new media studies and history told Motherboard. “Before the Web 2.0 era made it much easier to obtain fan-subbed anime through torrenting and to interact with other fans online, conventions were a key place for fans to buy anime merch, learn about upcoming anime licensed by U.S. companies, and connect with each other for cosplay and other community activities as well as watch and purchase licensed and pirated anime.”

“I grew up in South Jersey and started watching anime in high school. For a while there was one shop on South Street in Philadelphia that sold bootleg anime VHS tapes, but when it closed Suncoast Video became essentially my only source of licensed anime—if there was an anime club in my area, I never heard about it,” Horbinski added. “Otakon, which I first attended in 2002, was also a source for books and merchandise from Japan that I couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Otakon’s influence on anime fandom is a lot more than having a character in Metal Gear Solid named after them. They were also the site of Japanese rock band L’arc-en-Ciel’s American debut in 2004; the place where renown composer Yoko Kanno made her first appearance in the states in 1999; they’ve also worked with the Embassy of Japan as part of their mission to celebrate Japanese popular culture. Zerrlaut told Motherboard that Otakon, “has always been a place where [anime fans and industry professionals] come together to simply be family and friends.”

Otakon has been run by volunteers since it started in 1994, and its website still touts that it is run by the “all volunteer non-profit organization” Otakorp. In cities like Seattle and Chicago, the regional anime and comic book conventions have not remained independent. Chicago’s C2E2 was created by ReedPop, the parent company that also runs New York Comic Con, and Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con was acquired by them in 2015.

In general, anime conventions are struggling to schedule for 2021. According to anime convention news website Anime Cons, of the sixty three conventions scheduled between now and the end of April, over twenty have either been postponed or outright cancelled. A few have pivoted to an online-only model. While Otakon is still scheduled for early August for now, there’s no way of knowing whether Otakon and other conventions can weather COVID-19. Zerrlaut told Motherboard that most conventions are run similarly to Otakon—by volunteers who need the revenue of the previous year in order to hold a convention in the next one.

“Regional and independent conventions will face similar challenges in that loss of revenue may mean that they simply cannot continue. … The potential for the loss of the safe spaces that conventions provide, of the inclusivity, the diversity, the educational experiences, and the cultural expansion is devastating.” Zerrlaut said. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m terribly afraid that many of them will simply cease to be.”

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