Highlights of AnimeNEXT 2009

If I had to cite the biggest turning point in my anime blogging career, I would have to say that it was the AnimeNEXT convention last year. AnimeNEXT was the first convention to ever grant me a press badge, which opened myself and my writing to far more information and opportunities than I had ever had up until that point. On top of all of that, that convention allowed me to sit down with American voice actor Greg Ayers to write my most popular blog post ever.

Because of that, the AnimeNEXT convention will always hold a special place in my heart, and I very eagerly anticipated returning to it for my second year. But so much has changed this time around since the convention packed up from Secaucus NJ and moved to a new location half-way across the state to Somerset. Did the convention continue to improve in this new venue, or did it miss its mark in this unfamiliar territory?

Here are a couple of highlights that defined my AnimeNEXT experience this year.

Volunteer Con Staff – You Get What You Paid For

I’ll start off with the negative aspects of the convention this year, and it started months before I even set foot in Somerset.

After I had gotten my first taste of the press badge and its magical powers at the convention last year, I knew that I would never go back to the old way of convention going ever again. It granted me all the access I wanted to get up close and personal with the industry and fan culture I loved so dearly. I am not going to be restricted from that again. So when Anime Boston denied me (and every other blogger) a press badge to their con this year, I said, “well screw them!” and didn’t go.

A few months ago, Narutaki of Reverse Thieves had mentioned that they had just gotten their press badge approval from AnimeNEXT the previous day. I figured that this meant that they had someone working PR, so I immediately sent an email to the convention’s publicity department. After weeks of no response from anyone at the convention, DJ Ranma S of Anime Jam Session Podcast had forwarded me an official looking press form he was told fill out. So I did and submitted to the email he suggested.

“Thank you,” the AnimeNEXT press rep had finally responded, “please wait for our response.”

And I did wait. I waited for a damn long time.

In the weeks that followed, I had also contacted Otakon and the New York Anime Fest and submitted them my application. Both conventions had responded to me within a week and both conventions had given my application their approval. But AnimeNEXT, the first convention of the con-season, remained dead silent this whole time.

I started getting anxious when there was only a month left until the con and I did not have my badge approval. I was going downright insane when there was only a week left before the con and I still did not have my badge approval. Was this going to be like Anime Boston again? Was I going to have to skip out on my hometown convention because for some unknown reason, they wouldn’t give me a press badge?

But a week before the convention, I had finally gotten my email confirmation and badge approval. Yes, I had finally gotten that coveted press badge, but they sure did take their sweet time doing it. This was a clear indication that the crew behind this convention did not have their act together. But as many of my fellow colleagues have told me when I gripe about it, “It’s a volunteer convention – you get what you pay for.”

“Is this where the FUNimation panel is going to be?” asked a Bleach cosplayer the morning of the Reverse Thieves panel. Along with giving my blogging buddies this horrible 9:00 AM Saturday morning time slot, the convention had also forgotten to include a description of the panel in the program. So the turn out for their panel was much lower than it should have been, I was a bit disappointed that even this cosplayer wasn’t there to see them.

But I still answered his question anyway. “I’m sure it has to be, this is the biggest panel room in the con and FUNimation is pretty popular… holy shit, you’ve got to be kidding me!” I turned to the con schedule to find that FUNimation was not going to be in the big panel room. In fact, Erica Friedman and her small independent publishing company ALC Publishers was going to be in the large panel room while the largest anime company in America was going to be in the smallest panel room.

Really, AnimeNEXT? Really?! Did no one take crowd size into consideration when they were planning out this schedule?

But I think the biggest casualty in this poor planning were the anime bloggers running the “Blogging Basics” panel on Sunday. On the day of their panel, the AnimeNEXT staff had moved them to a different panel room with an earlier time slot.

That meant that if you were actually interested in seeing the bloggers’ panel, you would have gone to the scheduled location only to see a sign that said that not only was the panel in a new location, but it had actually started 30 minutes ago. So sure enough, no one attended the panel besides other bloggers until 30 minutes later when a couple of new people walked in.

Volunteer staff or not, the folks running this convention need to seriously get organized and get their act together. I have never seen a con this poorly planned before.

The Power of Twitter

But to be fair among all my bitching, when I did check in for my press badge on Friday morning, their PR rep did apologize for the frustrating process.

“Well now that you’re here, would you like to interview any of the guests this year?” Well, Greg Ayres had canceled his appearance this year, so I wouldn’t be able to do my follow-up to that popular post from last year. So I declined any interviews for this convention.  “Then what the heck are you are going to do at the con?” he jokingly asks.

“I’m going to Twitter!”

And boy, did I Twitter!

Ever since the New York Comic Con of 2008, I had been “liveblogging” every convention I’ve gone to via my iPhone and the micro-blogging service Twitter. In order to make the experience more interesting, I created my Anime Almanac the Live website to better display the liveblogging tweets in a colorful way and to show the many pictures I upload.

The problem with this blogging method is that Twitter feeds tend to fade away after some time. It is very hard to read tweets that have happened in the past. So every time a convention requests a link to my convention coverage, I’ve got to tell them, “Well, you’re gonna have to take my word on this, but I totally Twittered the whole thing as it was happening.” But it was pretty hard to show them that in fact, I had been very busy reporting live from the con floor all weekend.

So starting with the NYCC last February, I came up with a new liveblogging idea. I would take my cache of tweets that I had left over from Anime Almanac the Live and generate a daily con report filled with my tweets, pictures, and the tweets of other people also attending the con. For NYCC, I just dumped out all the Tweets in chronological order and posted that online. For AnimeNEXT, I rearranged the tweets into sections and little story lines so that they would be much easier to read, just like a regular liveblog report.

The result of this Twitter coverage lead me to meet two people I probably would not have met otherwise. After snapping a photo of anime producer and director Toshifumi Yoshida, he saw the photo and caption, and then replied back, “You misquoted me!” A few hours later, I met him for the first time in person at the bar. He instantly recognized my catgirl mascot image, and the quick online exchange lead to a great conversation starter between me the two of us.

But the biggest development that came from this Twitter coverage was with a college student from Long Island named Kim. Kim had been following my twitter feed for several months before the convention, and she would always give me very possible feedback whenever I liveblogged from an anime event that she was not able to attend. AnimeNEXT was her first con in a while, so she took that chance to join me and my live blogging by Twittering from her own phone and uploading her own photos.

Kim and I barely hung out while we were at the convention. We just quickly said, “Hi” to each other on Friday and then spent some time talking right before we all left on Sunday. However, if you read my daily reports, you will see a number of conversations and gags take place between the both of us through out the weekend. In fact, she ended up writing much more of my Saturday con report than I did.

I had the best live blogging experience ever at this convention, and luckily for me, Kim and everyone else who Twittered from AnimeNEXT will be joining me again to cover Otakon next month. I’m also hoping to get plenty more people on board with my Twitter coverage so that I will have even more different perspectives from the convention floor in Baltimore.

Getting Deep in Jersey

This was my second time going to Somerset for a convention, as AnimeNEXT’s sister convention MangaNEXT was held there last fall. The running theme I had noticed at MangaNEXT was people complaining about the new location. Everyone, from the guests to the attendees, just hated it. And as I had mentioned in my convention report, I believed that this was probably going to be a much bigger problem when the much larger AnimeNEXT convention rolled into town.

Yet much to my surprise, I did not hear a lot of complaints about the new location this time around. Sure, there were a number of gripes being tossed around, but the move was not nearly as prominent of a problem as it had been for MangaNEXT. So what exactly changed between now and last fall?

For one, I think that AnimeNEXT handled the public transportation issue quite well. When the con was in Secaucus last year, there was an easy public transportation option available for the people coming in from New York City. But with the location in Somerset, there was no bus or train near enough to be able to get the convention. You had to get there by either car or taxicab.

I knew this was going to be a major sticking point, so in my MangaNEXT convention report, I had made the suggestion that the con should run a shuttle bus from the nearest train station to help the NYC kids with that final mile to the con. And lo and behold, they did just that. The con ran a shuttle bus to-and-from the con during the peak travel hours every day all weekend long.

But since the new location was not that far away from my own apartment, I had no issue with the transportation. In fact, I loved the commute to get to the con every day. When I was talking about this observation to someone else at the convention, she had said, “Well, yeah, I’m sure that the people coming in from New York City are going to complain about the new location, but for the people already living in New Jersey, this must be a great move.”

And that’s when it hit me…

Up until this point, AnimeNEXT had always been a New York City convention. Even when it took place just over the Hudson in Secaucus, New Jersey, it was still pretty much a New York City convention. But with both the New York Anime Festival and the New York Comic Con becoming massively huge with in the past few years, AnimeNEXT had become overshadowed by everything else going on in the city. By moving just 30 minutes away from the city, the con had shed its image of being a New York City convention.

In fact, AnimeNEXT had become the first ever New Jersey convention. And when you put it into the context of it being a New Jersey convention, being placed smack dab in the middle of the state is an absolutely brilliant move. Sure, it might have been a pain in the ass for the city folk trying to get in. But for those of us Jersey otaku over here, this was finally our time to shine.

So despite many hiccups due to the poor planning from the volunteer con staff, I did have a good time at AnimeNEXT 2009. In fact, you can read about the entire thing in my four days of Twitter coverage. And just as long as the organizers can get their act together for next year, I look forward to seeing the only anime con in Jersey grow in the future.

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