Anime Texas: The Birth of an Anime Convention
Peek behind the curtain of convention management
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Have you ever wondered how an anime convention starts? Many of the conventions you attend have probably been around for ten, twenty, maybe even thirty years. Dragon Con, Katsucon, Otakon, Sakura-Con, and so on. They all started somewhere, obviously, but how?
Josh Wilson is the owner of Fandom Events and a veteran of the anime-slash-fan convention scene. He’s the show-runner of no less than nine events, including one called “Anime Texas” in Houston. Even though some of his events are having their first year in 2022, Josh knows a thing or two about conventions.
“I started running events over 10 years ago,'' Josh begins. “I hosted a one day convention while I was ending my tenure as the Youth Services Director of a public library. I wanted to showcase all the cool things we were doing for the young adult department, particularly with our anime club. It grew to over one hundred kids a month, which is unheard of for a public library, so I knew I had a good thing going. Since then I’ve helped run dozens of conventions and a few years ago I decided that for the amount of time I was putting into shows as a show director, the financial return really wasn’t equitable. My wife and I started Fandom Events and fast forward, we now have nine events in four states.”
If you’ve ever been involved with running a convention you know how challenging it can be. A convention is like a big machine with a lot of moving parts. It takes the combined efforts of many people to make it all work. Imagine running nine conventions. One of the first challenges is figuring out where to hold the event.
Anime Texas is based near Houston which already has a number of anime conventions. With such a crowded market, how do you decide where to start?
“A lot of it comes from fan feedback,” Josh explains. “We really try to listen to people in different communities and different parts of our neck of the woods who say, ‘Hey! I traveled here from X city to attend a show. I really would like it if you would think about hosting an event in my hometown.’ Of course we take those requests into consideration when we hear them repeatedly. Another thing we like to do is look in those markets where there’s not already a vibrant, healthy community or event that would support it. One of the reasons I held off for so many years on hosting any type of convention in Dallas Fort Worth is because you could throw a rock in any direction on a weekend and you would probably hit an anime con or comic con. They’re everywhere - all over the metroplex.”
Josh may be joking about how many anime conventions are in the Dallas area, but he's not far from the truth. A quick Google search for “Dallas anime conventions” reveals no less than ten in that area alone. It’s not just Dallas, though. There’s an almost ridiculous number of anime conventions in Texas - at least 54 according to this list! Why does it have so many conventions? Without pause, Josh answers, “Texas is the number one anime market in the United States, followed by California and New York. There are more anime fans per capita in Texas than in any other state in the nation. We’re very fortunate to have both Funimation and Sentai Filmworks based in Texas - two of the largest recording studios.” It all starts to make sense. Placing your convention in a large metropolitan area is kind of a no-brainer. It gives you access to a large potential attendee base. Placing it in an area where the population is more likely to watch anime is also a no-brainer. Interestingly, even though there are more anime conventions in Texas than any other state, the top ten largest anime conventions are held mostly outside of Texas. Still, if the market is there you might as well start another. That doesn’t answer all of the questions, though. Anyone can start an event, but how do you know what people want?
“If we have three to four thousand attendees, there might be as many reasons why people come to our show,” says Josh. “Of course there are some overarching genres or categories of interest. There’s a little bit of the Ben Kenobi meme at play. Well of course I know what fans want. He’s me. I’m the fan. I know what I would want to go see at a convention and what I would not want to go see. One of our primary motivators is ‘Are we having fun?’ as the show-runners and as staff. If you’re not having fun, something went wrong.’” Perhaps the most dreaded experience you can have as a show-runner is to hold an event and not have anyone show up. How do you know if anyone will turn out, especially if it’s not held in a major metropolitan area?
“You don’t,” Josh says, laughing. “You don’t know. If it’s a new market, virgin territory, and you’re the first conquistador to pop out and plant the flag in the name of weeb culture and your favorite waifu, you just don’t know. There’s a lot of inherent risk in that. If you’re going to Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Sacramento, or other large areas, you can usually guess about 1% of the population to be safe. That would actually be an amazing turnout. So if there’s 100,000 people in a smaller town and 1,000 people show up, you’re doing good.”
It’s refreshing to hear such casual responses. Getting show-runners to talk about their events is kinda like getting a criminal to confess to their crimes. There’s a kind of secrecy around the convention industry that’s hard to break into. I asked Josh about this topic.
“I was pretty shocked to try to work my way into the convention owner circle,” Josh confesses. “The amount of suspicion and distrust was surprising. In my naïveté I couldn’t fathom why these people who shared the same interest and passions as I did would be so hesitant to allow people into their circle.” I joked that show-runners are like the Wizard of Oz, running things from behind a curtain. “Yeah, con illuminati.” Josh laughs. “Hand them a white lotus poker chip to get into the industry mixer.”
If you peruse my convention articles you’ll find evidence of this. I’ve been able to interview just one other person for an article, and it only happened through my persistence. Initially they were hesitant to do the interview, but by the end of it they were happy with the experience. Josh elaborates on his experience. “The entertainment industry in general is full of unsavory characters. I’ve had the displeasure of having interacted with a number of them, so I do see some of their points in retrospect on being hesitant to talk to people. Another part might be a fear of spilling trade secrets. It’s like asking someone, ‘How did you become successful?’ Maybe their first response is, ‘I’m not going to tell you because then I might tell you how to be successful and now you’re a competitor.’ If a new burger shop pops up and they tell people their amazing recipe and now all of a sudden five other burger shops pop up in the same neighborhood, that was their mistake for spilling the beans.”
Josh has some good points here. The entertainment industry can be cut-throat and you don’t always know who to trust. Someone might act friendly, but maybe they’re trying to take advantage of you or lead you astray. Even though many conventions are nonprofits, they are still businesses and there is competition among conventions. Sharing too many secrets can benefit one at the expense of the other. It makes sense that they might be hesitant to give anyone else a leg-up in the industry. Let’s say you plant that flag of weebdom in an area already occupied by other conventions. Is there any concern that you’ll saturate the market?. There must be a point where there are too many conventions and they start to compete with each other.
“I don’t believe there’s really a market saturation point for anime conventions anymore than there’s a market saturation point for Starbucks.” Josh says with confidence. “It really depends on the individuals who are running those conventions to ensure that they’re providing a service that there’s a need for, at a price point that is equal to the service they’re providing. That’s just general business 101. We’ve seen a lot of cons pop up in year one and you just never see them again.“
Perhaps you’ve been to a convention like that. Someone puts on a mediocre show one year and it flops. They don’t come back the next year. Have you ever heard of Dashcon, aka “ball pit con”?
"About 50% of conventions that are planned or scheduled don’t even make it to fruition." - Josh Wilson, owner of Fandom Events
“About 50% of conventions that are planned or scheduled don’t even make it to fruition,” Josh explains. “It’s a little harder than people think. It’s not rocket science. I’m not landing robots on an asteroid, but it’s also a little more than putting together your ten year old son’s birthday party. There’s no one reason for, ‘Hey, why did such and such con flop?’ COVID put an end to a lot of smaller conventions. If you rely on your year-to-year income to pay the bills and staff, and then you don’t host any events, your event for the year could quite easily tank your company. If it’s a nonprofit, even more so. I imagine a lot of conventions operate on a budget where they just can’t afford to go months and months without revenue.”
This is the exact reason why Otakon once warned its members that it might go under unless it received immediate financial support. I wrote about this in my Otakon 2021 article. In a statement released by then Otakorp president Brooke Zerrlaut, "We use the proceeds from each year to plan the next Otakon and make sure we survive until then. So without the income from Otakon 2020, and the early pre-registrations we would normally see at this time of year, we are in a very precarious position. 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."
It’s a shame that events as large as Otakon are seemingly on such a weak footing. With revenues of nearly $2.5 million, you’d think they would have some kind of a plan for the unfortunate scenario of not being able to hold their event. Josh continues, “We’ve seen plenty of mismanaged, corrupt dumpster fires. Either through accidental ignorance or failure to plan accordingly or sometimes people just doing cash grab-and-gos.” It’s important to note that Josh wasn’t referring specifically to Otakon here. Mismanagement is so common that there are numerous examples. “They’re just gonna try to get as much money out of the populace as they can. It’s like an anime circus where the games are all rigged and nobody knows who’s in charge or what's going on. The bearded lady dressed as Sailor Moon isn’t going to help you. We try to avoid that.”
Even if an anime convention is large and looks successful, that doesn’t mean that it’s managed well. It’s all too easy to disguise financial mismanagement and embezzlement is more common than you’d think. The motivation to run an anime convention doesn’t automatically come with a lifetime supply of fiduciary responsibility.
“A lot of events arise out of a club or a community and they’re interested in sharing their passions with other people who share the same interests. A lot of them will start off at a library or a high school. Sometimes they'll do it as a nonprofit to get a break on a venue. So you’ve got those community events and then you go all the way up to the multi million dollar corporate enterprises such as Anime Expo, New York, San Diego comic con, Dragon Con etc. Fandom Events is somewhere in between.”
If you thought anime conventions were all fun and games, guess again. There are some serious responsibilities involved and some people’s livelihoods depend on the success of an event. A quick way to get a sobering perspective on things is to consider how much money is involved in running a convention. Everything revolves around the almighty dollar, whether you like it or not. To really make this lesson stick let’s look at an extreme example like Anime Expo. As the largest anime convention in North America it easily attracts more than 125,000 attendees. Basic math reveals that 125K times roughly $125 per ticket is nearly 16 million dollars! That’s a relatively conservative estimation of the total revenue that con has in its hands. It doesn’t include fees paid by vendors and artists, donations, corporate sponsors, and all of the advertising revenue from those massive banners plastered all over the venue. It’s a big business with big responsibilities and legal ramifications. The average anime convention is much smaller, of course, but there’s still a considerable amount of money flowing through them. This makes the planning and operation of a convention all the more important.
“You don’t need to have watched five hundred episodes of Bleach to run an anime convention.” - Josh Wilson, owner of Fandom Events
“For a lot of the things we do on the convention side, you don’t need to have watched five hundred episodes of Bleach to run an anime convention,” Josh says. “What you do need is a business sense. You need to know how to look at contracts. You need to know how to say no. You need to know how you might be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous agent. Just like in Hollywood, there are some very unsavory folks in the convention industry. Celebrities’ agents are lumped in with as much distaste as attorneys. I don’t negotiate directly with individual actors. I deal with agents and I can guarantee that agencies do not have my company’s best interest at heart. They’re trying to get a first class flight for themselves and the celebrity, a five star resort with a limousine escort, a personal security guard and a t-bone steak every night. In addition to $100 per diem they want transportation from their house to the airport and they want to be reimbursed for all of that. Who knows what else they’re going to put in what we would call their appearance agreement or rider, or what they expect to have catered to them at the event.”
Josh’s response here is a bit alarming and perhaps not what you would expect. Anime conventions are happy events where weebs run around in cosplay. Why so serious Josh?
“I’m being a tad hyperbolic,” Josh continues, “but not as much as you think if you’ve never dealt with that end of the show. That’s part of my job. I’m very much the person who says, ‘Nope, that’s not good. Nope, I can’t do that. Nope, that’s not in the best interest of my company.’ I’m also the one who signs the checks and inks the agreements. The financial burden falls upon me to make sure that I can not only pay for the venue, but that I can pay my staff. My staff have families and kids and bills and mortgages. They’re counting on my events to be successful so that they can live their lives and I don’t take that lightly.”
If you’re involved with a convention I hope you’re taking notes. Josh’s show-runner experience really shows and there’s a lot of good information here. Looking at the numbers, understanding what makes cons successful or unsuccessful, and having a firm understanding of contracts and personalities shows the kind of business sense required to run a convention. Perhaps this is why so many conventions fail. They don’t want to do the boring or difficult stuff, or maybe they don’t know how to. “My shows are intentionally small,” says Josh. “We designed them that way on purpose. I used to run large five-figure plus comic cons and I disliked having to treat my attendees, who were fans of the same things I loved, as cattle. To put it bluntly, people were forced to stand in lines for sixty seconds with someone who really, for the most part, couldn’t care less about the interaction.”
You can really feel Josh’s passion as a fan and not just as a show-runner. “I didn’t feel good about hosting events like that,” Josh says reluctantly. “It left a bad taste in my mouth and made me feel icky, so we said ‘We want to host conventions that we ourselves would want to attend.’ That’s been our company motto since day one. We’re putting on shows that we would pay to go see. We’re trying to provide excellent value - bang for your buck. I’m paying $55 or $60 to spend three days at an event. Thirty-something hours of programming, dozens of panels, a handful, sometimes up to a dozen voice actors. Concerts, raves, after parties. Anime themed drinks, cosplay contests, an authentic Japanese maid cafe. We have medieval reenactors who bring in foam swords and they have a storyline that weaves throughout the weekend. It culminates on the last day with a big, epic battle with the big, bad evil guy. All kinds of fun things that we would love to do, far and above just going to a con and shaking a voice actor’s hand and saying, ‘Well, I guess we can go home now.’”
“My wife and I really enjoyed anime conventions hosted at hotels. When we both got into the scene around 2006 to 2008 you could go to a hotel and spend the weekend with fans in cosplay. You would see the same faces over the three days. There was programming and things to do. You could meet a voice actor or two, or all of them if you felt like it, but you didn’t have to because they weren’t the only cool thing happening at the show. Today there’s hardly any comics at a comic con. You actually used to be able to meet comic guests - comic artists and illustrators. It’s no fault of their own but when the Marvel cinematic universe launched, people would much rather meet the actor who played Venom more than Sam DeLaRosa who inked Venom comics. Sam is a friend of mine, so it was disheartening to see that happen in real time. With our shows we pivoted away from creating events where really the only thing to do was to go in for about an hour, hour and a half, meet a celebrity, walk around the vendor floor and then leave.”
Josh really nails the difference between fan-run events and the large corporate events. It’s the reality that I experience at comic conventions like C2E2 and San Diego Comic Con, and it’s part of the reason why I enjoy anime conventions more. There’s more context to anime conventions, more to enjoy. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy a large convention. DragonCon is a great example of a very large convention that’s run very well and is tons of fun. The devil is in the details and it’s a delicate balance that conventions teeter on: the serious and often mysterious business side of making money and signing contracts, and the visible fun side which involves the community. Both are absolutely necessary.
“I’m getting older and I’ve seen so many dumpster fires over the years,” Josh says with authority. “I’m gonna go to a company and spend my hard earned money somewhere where I know panels are going to be on time. Celebrities are gonna be there when they’re supposed to be there. The air conditioning works. My hotel room is good. The cosplay contest is gonna be on time. I can go up to staff or a volunteer and say, ‘Hey, where can I find X?’ and I won’t ever hear, ‘I don’t know. That’s not my department.’”
It seems like conventions that are too focused on having fun may not put enough effort into the important parts and are often disorganized and in a financial mess. Their ideas are good, but the management is poor. On the flip side is a convention that’s too wrapped up in managing the business or just turning a profit. It doesn’t know how to be fun and the event is boring or it feels greedy. Either could last just a few years before completely falling apart.
“We’re still a fan-based community and we rely heavily upon our local communities for turn out and volunteers and programming,” says Josh. “We have staff members and regulars who live in all of the markets that we have chosen to do grassroots outreach. On the flip side we’re still obviously a business trying to make sure that every event we do is profitable so that we can keep doing it. You don’t want to spend four or five months or more planning an event and then not have enough of a return to do it the next year." Josh continues, "When people see Fandom Events on the logo they know it’s gonna be a good event. They know it’s gonna be a solid guest lineup. They know panels are gonna start on time and they’ll be well thought out. They know the cosplay contest will be professionally run and judged by actual professional cosplayers. The vendor hall will be well stocked and not full of 15 Funko Pop vendors. We definitely jury our floor to make sure that we don’t have five sword vendors in a row. The cosplay contests are always judged by professional cosplayers. We don’t typically bring in what you would call influencers who may have tremendous followings, but on the flip side they may not know which end of the hot glue gun to hold because they’ve never made a costume in their life. That’s not an attempt to disparage them. It is what it is. I don’t want a social media mogul with 2 million TikTok followers, who has never built a costume in their life or doesn’t even know what a bobbin is, judging the builds of my attendees who have spent dozens or hundreds of hours working on them. That just comes from our experience of being cosplayers and having won multiple masters categories and awards and blah blah blah.”
I’m glad Josh brought this up. Social media has brought so many changes in just the past few years, it can be hard to remain grounded. It’s too easy for a convention to just look at numbers and make decisions around that. While there’s definitely something to those numbers, they don’t tell the whole story.
“I don’t want a social media mogul with 2 million TikTok followers who’s never built a costume in their life judging my attendees’ builds." - Josh Wilson, owner of Fandom Events
“We know what it’s like trying to explain your build to someone and you look in their eyes and it’s very obvious that that judge doesn’t know what you're talking about. They have no experience in that medium. All of our panels are fan submitted. If there’s not enough fan submissions we have a wonderful staff who’ve been doing this for years and we will sometimes supplement in our own panels. It’s a nice break for us in our job duties just to sit down in a room with a couple dozen people and share our particular niche. I’m a coach and athletic trainer for my day job and so I enjoy doing cosplay fitness panels. I get to take off my owner's hat for a while and just talk about fitness. There’s the funko collectors, the autograph collectors and people who love artist alley. We’re definitely casting a wide net and trying to bring as much attraction to the event as we can so that people say, ‘This is a good value for what I’m having to pay.’”
Anime Texas is new, so no one knows if it will be big or small, good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. With Josh at the helm and with what I’ve learned about his experience, I’m betting it will have a good first year. Although Josh has pointed out all of the reasons why a Fandom Event convention has so much going for it, this convention caught my eye largely because of the location. As someone who primarily attends conventions to make cosplay music videos, the location is very important to me. Not only does it look good on camera, it can attract cosplayers who are likewise looking for a good location.
“My wife and I are both cosplayers,” explains Josh, “so we definitely have a strong support system in place to give our cosplayers, photographers, and videographers excellent shoots. We’ll point out the on-site locations ahead of time to allow the media to get a good scope prior to the doors opening and to see where they can set up.” A convention like Katsucon didn’t become popular just because it’s such a well-run convention. Don’t get me wrong - it is a well-run convention. Let’s give credit where credit is due. However, the Gaylord National resort where Katsucon is held is definitely part of the attraction. It’s a beautiful and striking location in person and on camera, and Katsucon is known for this venue as much as anything. This point isn’t lost on Josh. “Anime Texas is held at an actual bougie resort. The Woodlands Resort is probably one of the top premiere resort hotel properties in Texas. It’s typically anywhere between four and five hundred dollars per night. They reached out to us and wanted to host Anime Texas and they lowered the room rate to $129 per night.”
That the venue reached out to Fandom Events really says something. The venue is the major cost for every convention, so when they reach out to you and offer you good rates, you know you’re doing something right.
“It’s a fun place to be,” Josh admits. “I don’t have to scramble for talent or locations at this point. In our company’s track we now have to turn people away just because we can’t facilitate as many events as there are properties that would like to host us, which is good. I’ll take that over trying to throw a one day convention at a Holiday Inn. I’m not value-judging. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, but I don’t miss those days.”
The reputation of Fandom Events precedes them and that’s a good indicator of how well their events are run. The low hotel rate is also a very good thing and is among the lowest I’ve seen anywhere. Combined with a nice location, I’d say Anime Texas has great potential. If you’re looking to attend a new convention that‘s affordable, is operated by experienced staff, and is located at a beautiful location, consider attending Anime Texas. Maybe I’ll see you there.