Film | Wide Angle

Giving anime strength overseas

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

On Aug. 30, a small contingent of Japanese animation producers, animators, licensors and voice actors descended on San Jose, California, to attend the weekend’s Crunchyroll Expo, a convention run by anime streaming service Crunchyroll that’s now in its third year.

American anime conventions took root in the 1990s, growing from small gatherings to major events, the largest of which now attract tens of thousands of visitors. They take place in local convention centers and airport hotels across the country, and allow fans to come together and cosplay, game, dance, meet their favorite anime creators and otherwise bask in a heightened state of Japanese pop culture bliss.

These conventions have traditionally been organized on the grassroots level by fans. But for Crunchyroll, which was rolled into AT&T’s WarnerMedia conglomerate this year, it made sense to get in on the convention game. The company keeps a close eye on the online movements of its 50 million registered users — but for instant feedback, there’s nothing quite like assembling a few thousand fans in the same place at the same time.

“It gives us a real-life touchpoint,” says Mary Franklin, Crunchyroll’s head of events. “We get feedback from fans, get to see what they like.”

As international sales become an ever-larger slice of the anime market, conventions outside Japan are becoming an important touchpoint for Japanese creators, too.

“A lot of anime creators still think American fans are into properties that were popular in the U.S. in the ’90s,” says George Wada, CEO of anime house Wit Studio. “Because they have that impression, they’re making the ‘wrong’ anime for an international audience. Actually coming to events like this and talking to fans is incredibly important.”

Japanese guests on-hand to give talks and sign autographs included “Dragon Ball Z” voice actor Ryo Horikawa, “The Rising of the Shield Hero” producer Junichiro Tamura and horror manga luminary Junji Ito — all of whom are involved in projects streaming on Crunchyroll.

“Crunchyroll Expo has access to producers and creators at a level most other conventions don’t,” says Dallas Middaugh, an anime and manga consultant who ran the event during its first two years. “They’re talking to them literally every day.”

This access allowed the convention to feature more Japanese guests than similar conventions of its size — and to sprinkle the hall with officially-approved “experiences,” like a faux campground based on anime series “Laid-Back Camp.”

Fan Pramodh Ramnath, who has been attending San Jose’s fan-run convention FanimeCon since 2001, appreciated the attention to detail.

“They made great use of the space,” he says. “It felt more corporate (than FanimeCon), but that means they can bring in premium artists.”

Ramnath was impressed by the event and said he would definitely be attending next year. That’s good news for Crunchyroll, which, as competing streaming services continue to bite into the market, will constantly be looking to strengthen the association between its brand and Japanese animation.