The anime convention season, usually in full swing from March through the end of summer, has been decimated by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Hundreds of events held annually across the globe, from Paris and Seattle to Toronto and Tokyo, most of which attract thousands of guests, are now canceled or postponed. Some of them won’t come back.
The cascade of announcements started in Tokyo at the end of February. AnimeJapan, usually held in March and the industry’s only major yearly trade fair, was abruptly called off on Feb. 27, one day after the government’s request to avoid large-scale gatherings.
At the time, the decision felt rushed and a bit rash. A list of performers and their stage schedules had been released, booths and flights were booked, press passes delivered. Infection numbers were not yet rising in Japan at an alarming rate, and the United States and Europe had yet to see them explode.
The speed with which all of that changed has been dizzying and terrifying.
Nearly everything else has been canceled, too, of course. But in the events world, anime conventions, unlike boat or car shows, or academic conferences, take place somewhere nearly every weekend, sometimes with two in separate cities on the same weekend. To see an entire season of weekly anime gatherings suddenly crossed off the calendar is like watching a forest get leveled: the landscape laid bare in an instant.
Some U.S. cons date back 30 years or more and have never before been scratched. Fans spend an entire year preparing for them, designing costumes, budgeting for travel, lodging, get-togethers and reunions. Hotels, halls, guests and vendor booths are booked months or even years in advance.
On We Run Anime Cons, a private Facebook group for con organizers across the globe, the postings switched from cheerful exuberance over big-name guests and cosplay contests to anxiety and dread over refunds and insurance policies.
Group founder A. Jinnie McManus says that while canceling is clearly the right call in a public health crisis, it’s still not an easy one to make. Most cons are staffed by an army of volunteers who work the floor for free admission, and they have to be screened and well managed. Security, parking and travel arrangements are among the many that need to be made professionally and legally.
“It’s a very heartbreaking choice, a difficult and emotional decision,” she says, “foregoing a year’s worth of planning and affecting thousands of people. Conventions are made up of a lot of moving pieces. Often they can’t just simply cancel or shift dates, due to contractual agreements with their venues, as well as the fact that insurance doesn’t cover pandemics.”
There are also those whose finances are dependent upon the cons. Special guests, such as professional voice actors, musicians and cosplay models, often rely on event appearances as a key source of income. Anime-related businesses large and small rent booths and sell merchandise, some of it produced exclusively for the convention site. A separate area is usually dedicated to independent fan artists, who lease and decorate stalls to market their wares.
For the smaller industry players, an entire season’s worth of con cancellations may be impossible to survive.
“It is sobering to think of the domino effect this pandemic will have,” says McManus. “Vendors, especially small businesses and fan artists, are among the hardest hit. Some events are making the decision to call off their 2020 convention knowing they’ll likely never return as a result.”
Tom Croom, CEO of the Orlando, Florida-based Green Mustard Entertainment, a producer of pop culture events that started as an anime club 20 years ago, describes the scenario in harsh Darwinistic terms. He keeps an updated list on his blog of the over 200 worldwide event cancellations and postponements to date.
“Conventions will either be strong enough to survive or smart enough to evolve, or they’re just going to die out,” he says. Of those that have scrapped this year’s plans, “I’d be surprised if more than two-thirds of them return in 2021.”
Some cons are now trying to help promote their fan artists’ work online. Cosplayers have been enlisted to sew medical masks. Virtual events are being proposed. As of this writing, two major U.S. cons, Anime Expo in Los Angeles and Otakon in Washington, D.C., are rolling forward with their July schedules.
But here in Japan, the biannual Comic Market (Comiket), the largest gathering of fan artists in the world, has just canceled its 98th installment, a four-day event at Odaiba’s Tokyo Big Sight set for May 2 to 5. It’s Comiket’s first cancellation in 45 years.
“After this year,” says McManus, “this industry will never be the same.”
Roland Kelts is author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.
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