I had another interview with one of the people running Anime North. This time I spoke to Irwin Tan. Irwin is the executive director of the entire convention; he’s been with the convention since its early days when it started out at the Michener Institute in 1997. I spoke to Irwin about the inner workings of the convention along with its past present and future (There’s a lot of text in this article but trust me its worth reading. The stuff that happens behind the scenes at Anime North is amazing).
How many months go into planning Anime North?
Irwin: Planning for the convention usually starts right after the last one. As soon as one convention is done, the next week we start taking notes about what to change, what to do for next year. If something worked well we’ll look and see how we can add to it. It happens all year round. It starts out with high-level discussion and those ideas being fleshed out in the last 4-6 months.
How do you determine the attendance cap for anime north?
Irwin: The attendance cap was actually driven more by the convention centre and the hotels. We talked to them and they told us that if something were to happen like a rainy day on Saturday and no one is outside how many people can you keep outside the building.
So the cap was determined by the hotels?
Irwin: The hotels and the convention centre yes. Also every year we get more and more space. This year we’re getting the main ballroom in the north building of the convention centre and we haven’t been able to use that space before. So every year we talk to the hotels and convention staff to see if they’re comfortable with the numbers.
How do the event runners and directors all stay communicated during the convention?
Irwin: We do have a communications office inside the international hotel so we actually have an office dedicated to that. We do use radios, its mostly cell phones and radio but having an area where we can contact is very helpful to us.
How long have you been helping at the convention?
Irwin: I was involved the very first year anime north ran 19 years ago. That year we were at the Michener Institute at UFT (University of Toronto). Anime North is an outgrowth of the university of Toronto anime club as well as the Scarborough campus and Mississauga campus, York University’s anime club, all got together to put on the convention
So at first Anime North was a bunch of anime clubs in the Ontario area getting together to celebrate anime?
Irwin: Yeah. So for the first year we looked at the club memberships and to determine how many people would come and that’s what we based our business plan on but instead of 300 people we got 650 people.
When organizing the event what are the most important things the team focuses on?
Irwin: We always focus on the experience for the attendees who come. We have a couple of people who help out for a day or the three days the convention runs. All year round we have 750 -800 people working on the convention. A lot of them are in different departments. The people who do the masquerade and costume contest that’s their focus that’s their event and they work on that. Another team is dedicated to looking at all the different panels. Another team does audio-visual. We have one group book the guests and anther that talks to the hotels.
So basically its groups of people who work together to make to make sure their area is fine.
Irwin: Yeah. Everyone who works on the convention is a volunteer. None of us are paid staff.
Have you ever had trouble with crowd control in the past?
Irwin: Not really. We grow gradually every year by 10-15%. So we Seldom see a massive jump. There are sometimes when problems with technology at registration slowing down registration for example. Whenever that stuff happens there’s always a back up plan. We hand out registration forms that people can fill out in line instead of waiting at the desk. Those are usually the biggest lines. We also find our attendees are really well behaved. If there’s a long line the people will wait patiently and just talk with each other. They don’t really cause a fuss. One year one of the hotels had some broken elevators. They told the people their what was going on and they understood they stopped whining and complaining and calmly waited their turn.
What day tends to be the busiest?
Irwin: Definitely Saturday. Friday is sort of a half-day.
Anime North was the 4th largest anime convention in North America last year by AnimeCons.com. Are you happy with that number or do you want to try and get even higher on that list?
Irwin: We’re not overly concerned about getting too much bigger. One thing we want to focus on is less the size and more the quality
So its quality over quantity?
Irwin: We have enough quantity so we want to focus on our quality. If you look at the webpage and the hotel room block the farthest hotel is 9km away from the airport strip. All the hotels between those have a shuttle bus that runs to the convention centre. So there is a limit to how much we can grow if we run out of convention space or hotel space. That’s why we don’t focus on bringing in huge amounts of people. The growth has been pretty organic, mostly from word of mouth.
How do you determine guests for Anime North?
Irwin: There’s a team that looks at guests sometimes guests are offered to us. Like if there’s a Japanese band going on tour their promoter may send a message to our J-Pop group saying “Hey they’re doing a tour and would you like them to come by. Other times guests actually ask to come and they offer themselves up. Other times well look to see what’s really popular like what anime is popular or manga is popular or say an anniversary or a special event to tie into that.
So like last year when anime north had the original English voice actors for Sailor Moon, was that done because Sailor Moon Crystal was coming out?
Irwin: Part of it was that. We actually had them the previous year as well. They actually did a year on the convention strip and they started and ended with anime north. We actually had the Sailor Moon voice actors as guests for the second anime north because so many of them live in the Toronto area so it was really easy to get a hold of them we just called them and said “Hey do want to come down for an afternoon and meet your fans?” We used to do that for other guests but now that its a larger convention we have it planned out more. On this day you’ll do this event on the next day you’ll this event and signing more contracts.
So for example one of the guests this year is Chie Nakumura the voice of Sakura from Naruto Shippuden. Was that done in response to the fact that Naruto Shippuden recently ended?
Irwin: I’ll have to check. A lot of it has to do with the relationship we have with the companies that produce anime in Japan. They’ll have suggestions and there’s a bit of back and forth. We’ll say we’d love to have this person but they’ll say, “they’re busy working on a series” Often a voice actor will be working on multiple series at the same time. So it’s more of who’s free in this time period? So there are a lot of factors. Who wants to see them, are they available and are they willing to come. We’ve built up relationships with some companies and they’re more willing to send people. With companies we’re not familiar with they’ll send a lower level voice actor to test it out.
I’d like to go into that topic more. Which anime companies do you have a good relationship with?
Irwin: Sometimes the relationship is with the company, sometimes the relationship is with the agent who does the booking and gets them business. Sometimes it’s through the North American branch of the company who distribute the anime in North America.
So for example sometimes you’ll get a guess through Funimation?
Irwin: Yeah through Funimation. One thing you might not know Have you ever heard of the Comiket in Japan?
Irwin: It’s a big comic market. You know how in anime north we have artist allies where people sell artwork and Manga they’ve made? Comiket is a giant event in Japan specifically for Manga artists to sell their own manga that they’ve created and published themselves. Some of them are professionals some of them are amateurs. It’s the Doujin market. The Comiket happens twice a year in Japan, it lasts three days and they have over twelve thousand tables and thirty-five thousand artists rotating through. Their attendance is around half a million people. Every five years they have a smaller special Comiket where they focus on something different. This year they focused on Basketball Manga and sports manga
Was that because of the new anime Kurokoro’s Basketball?
Irwin: Yeah they actually called it the Kuroket. At the same time they had something called the otaku expo. They’ve actually established a network of anime conventions around the world. We actually went there we had a booth and we got to meet a bunch of Japanese artists. We also got to meet anime fans from other countries like Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, France, U.K. Germany, Italy, Peru, a couple from the U.S. Brazil, a bunch from Russia, some from Switzerland. Literally people from all over the world were forming this organization. It’s a new audience. The international Otaku Expo association. For us it was a great way to meet people from other conventions and tell them about ours and ask them if they want to come. So you know how we were talking about Japanese companies, that’s why we went, to build new relationships. We told them we’ve got a great convention we’d love to have you come. So we actually got to meet new people. The organizer would say “‘I’d like to introduce you to this person he did a character design for this anime that you happen to love, they’d like to start doing foreign conventions. We’re really hoping to bring in some really big guests for our 20th anniversary next year.
Anime and manga are really starting to grow in the West. Entertainment weekly was talking about how Dragon Ball is coming back. Kanye West is a fan of Akira. How do you feel being a part of a medium that seems to be growing by the day?
Irwin: It feels like vindication. In Japan there is actually a parliamentary committee for manga and anime. It’s big enough for this committee to focus on fostering it and watching it grow internationally. For us it’s gratifying and vindicating. For year’s anime was seen as that weird tentacle porn you watched in your mom’s basement. Its really amazing to see it become mainstream. It’s a genre. There’s an anime for almost everyone. We’ve got soap operas, comedies, fantasy, westerns, every genre of storytelling has an anime form, so its like black or white film or colour or film itself. It’s a very wide medium not just something narrow. That’s also great for us as fans because as more people watch it more anime is produced and so it will only grow and we get more great shows.
The Avengers 2 was recently released in theatres this weekend topping the box office. Comics at one point were also a small medium. Do you think we’ll ever see the day when a live action anime movie, like say a live action version of Akira or Cowboy Bebop tops the summer weekend box office like Avengers 2 did?
Irwin: It’s definitely possible. There are great stories and great characters. It really comes down to timing and who’s making it. We’ve had some live action anime based movies and those haven’t turned out very well. Remember the Avatar the Last airbender movie?
We do not speak of that… Or the Dragon ball Evolution we don’t speak of those.
Irwin: (Laughs). It’s entirely possible. For it to top the box office it really would have to come at the right time to capture audiences imaginations. For live action you’d need the right director, the right actors all coming together to work on it, but if we could get that it would be huge and I see no reason why it couldn’t be.
Finally what is your favourite part of the convention?
Irwin: I spend most of my time at the convention just walking around the area talking to people because when the convention starts I’m more of a supervisor seeing how things are going and just walking around. I really just enjoy watching the attendees have a good time. That’s the part I really enjoy watching people attending enjoying themselves.