Project Anime asks the right questions

More than 90,000 attended the 24th annual Anime Expo (AX), North America’s largest Japanese pop culture convention, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center from July 2 to 5. The four-day event featured a concert by idol group Momoiro Clover Z, who were joined onstage by two members of veteran American rockers, Kiss — a result of their unlikely collaboration earlier this year on the song and music video, “Yume no Ukiyo ni Saitemina.” (In March, the two groups also performed together at Kiss’ Tokyo Dome show.)

American producer and DJ Porter Robinson, cable channel mtvU’s artist of the year and an avowed fan of Japanese pop, delivered a surprise set following a gig by Japan-influenced electronic music act, Anamanaguchi.

Sanrio hosted a fashion show to celebrate the 40th year of “Hello Kitty.” The 20th anniversary of Hideaki Anno’s seminal film and series “Evangelion” was marked with a performance by its theme-song singer-songwriter, Yoko Takahashi. Other guest producers and directors who attended included Studio 4°C President and former Studio Ghibli Producer Eiko Tanaka, and Takahiro Miura, director of the popular series “Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works.”

One day prior to the event, AEG Facilities, operators of the L.A. Convention Center, announced the signing of a new five-year agreement with AX’s sponsors, the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA), to host AX through 2019. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti noted that AX generates $55 million annually for the region’s economy.

Like most anime cons, AX is primarily focused on pleasing fans. For many who work in the entertainment industry on both sides of the Pacific, a more productive meeting took place just before AX opened. On June 30 and July 1, the SPJA hosted its fourth Project Anime Los Angeles (PA), a conference designed to bring together global convention organizers with Japanese content producers, publishers, artists and licensors. Launched in 2012 to coincide with both AX and AnimeJapan in Tokyo, PA aims to bridge East and West through the business of Japanese pop culture.

Jointly conceived by SPJA CEO Marc Perez and Nobuyuki Takahashi, president of Japanese publisher and designer Studio Hard Deluxe, PA has grown dramatically over the past four years. This month’s installment united 62 organizers from five of the 10 largest conventions in North America and others from conventions in Belgium, Mexico and Canada, with 40 industry representatives from companies including Sony Music Entertainment, Aniplex of America, Bandai Visual, Viz Media, Funimation and Crunchyroll.

“We’ve gone from doing two events a year in L.A. and Tokyo, to doing five this year,” said PA Conference Director, Marlan Moore. “We added Atlanta, Belgium and Singapore. Each region has its own challenges when it comes to running a convention, or even finding Japanese content, so each event will focus on that specific area’s needs.”

I was first introduced to and wrote about PA in the spring of 2014, when I was invited to attend panel presentations and a networking reception in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. For several years I’d been writing about the need to address two seemingly incongruous trends: declining anime DVD and manga sales overseas and skyrocketing attendance numbers at global Japanese pop culture conventions.

Panels this month covered subjects such as the management of international guest relations, garnering media coverage, juggling legal matters, musical performers and the pricing and security of venues. Many of the most invigorating exchanges occurred between panel presentations or at after-hours gatherings, where Japanese content producers and global convention organizers shared business cards and anecdotes, and discussed possibilities for collaboration.

Of particular relevance was the inaugural participation of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), the independent government agency overseeing the promotion of Japanese exports. JETRO hosted what Moore calls a “buyer’s market,” a licensing forum for companies from Japan and Hollywood.

“The goal here was to create a space where Japanese production companies could meet with content distributors and Hollywood producers,” he explained, “to hopefully build relationships that could lead to more content being brought abroad.”

I moderated JETRO’s panel, a discussion between Jason Hoffs, producer of “Edge of Tomorrow,” the Tom Cruise film based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel, “All You Need Is Kill,” and Daisuke Okeda, an intellectual property lawyer. Both admitted that transactional and licensing negotiations between the American and Japanese entertainment industries amount to a Gordian knot: Nothing is clear, none of it is easy, and the track record of ill-fated Hollywood projects such as 2009’s live-action “Dragonball: Evolution” doesn’t help.

Still, for me at least, the fact that issues were being aired at all by seasoned industry professionals in a room packed full of producers, convention staffers and potential licensors and licensees from several countries, signaled a major step forward. And with 90,000 visitors pouring into the Convention Center just blocks away, a potentially meaningful one.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.

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