Pros and Oni-Cons
It's been two days since the inaugural edition of Oni-Con Hawaii went into the history books, enough time spent here at my unofficial Otaku Ohana anime convention bureau at the Ala Moana Hotel for me to digest what happened, read assorted blog entries, friends' Facebook posts, and comments left on Oni-Con's Facebook page for their takes on the event, and skim through about a bazillion cosplay and event photos taken by a bunch of talented photographers.
And now, it's my turn. I'll have some of my own photo highlights in an future post, but I'm sure many of you are curious about what I thought of the event first, so here goes.
It's difficult to talk about Oni-Con without first acknowledging an elephant and a ghost of an elephant in the room: Kawaii Kon and HEXXP, the Hawaii Entertainment Expo. The former has managed to grow in its nine-year existence into being the dominant local anime con experience; the latter was a pop-culture convention that had a few bright spots but ultimately struggled with finding a clear identity before folding after a three-year run.
As I mentioned in my post introducing Oni-Con Hawaii in February, this venture was supposed to be a collaboration between the original Oni-Con in Texas and Babel Entertainment, part of the brain trust behind HEXXP. On paper, that arrangement looked promising enough to produce a viable Kawaii Kon alternative -- Babel had connections for good Japanese guests; Oni-Con had roots in the U.S. anime industry hotbed of Texas (home of Sentai Filmworks and Funimation) and about a decade's worth of con-presenting experience.
In practice? Not so much. For reasons known only to the innermost of inner circles, it seems things went south on that alliance. One sign was the Ayres brothers situation, which I alluded to in an earlier post (and expanded upon in comments). Another sign came with the Marketplace, which started off as a separate Artist Alley (promoted in con documentation as "The Alley") and dealers room but ended up as a combination of the two, with no evidence of any mainland vendors in attendance. (All the better for local vendors, though.) In fact, the only mainland industry representation would end up being voice actor J. Michael Tatum ... and a Funimation logo, seen here on a banner at the closing raffle for people who preregistered for 2014 that went on foreeeeeverrrrrr ceremony.
So the burden fell on the local staff to make things good. They certainly made the most of what they were given, to the point where I heard several comments about how the show ended up better than they expected. To its credit, Oni-Con had more to hold my attention than three years of HEXXP ever did, and if you were a fan of:
- The work of J. Michael Tatum, Hiroki Takahashi, SANA, Nobuo Uematsu and/or the Earthbound Papas
- The fashions of Atelier Pierrot
- Local filmmaking
- Video games, particularly of the fighting/shooting/dance-flailing variety
- Anime/manga-inspired artsy things
- Tabletop gaming
... then you probably felt the same way. If not, well ... there wasn't much of anything going on outside of the two panel rooms, the main events room, a video game room, the Marketplace, the Yu x Me Maid Cafe & Host Club and, for two days, the rather sprawling setup of Other Realms. It also seemed odd for them not to be screening any actual anime at what's supposed to be an anime convention, but anime screenings at conventions take much more than "set up DVD player and projector, pop in disc, welcome people in," so I can understand how that might fall by the wayside. I was content with going back to my hotel room for a spell; others, of course, may not have had the same luxury.
For me, the fact that there actually was an option for something interesting happening around the corner was a major improvement over something like HEXXP, where there would be one event and then an hours-long gap until the next event. To be sure, Friday and Sunday had their share of programming gaps, but they didn't seem quite as pronounced. Saturday was probably the closest any Kawaii Kon alternative has come to replicating that convention's experience to date. After Friday, I was ready to peg attendance around Kawaii Kon year 1 levels; after seeing how busy the main concourse and main events room were on Saturday, it felt more comparable to Kawaii Kon year 3, the first year that con moved to the convention center. Saturday was when I could feel that certain, indescribable energy that I've felt at other anime cons, and it was great.
But when things went wrong ... oh boy. One of the main reasons why the show exceeded some people's expectations was because the lead-up to it was rather chaotic, raising concerns about whether it could be pulled off without a hitch. Marketplace vendors didn't hear about room maps and set-up times until Wednesday of con week, despite several requests. Early pre-registration on Thursday was set up only from noon to 5 p.m., and even those who wanted to do so found themselves faced with locked doors at street-level and convention center staffers who weren't informed of what was going on. Those same vendors would end up being confused over a discrepancy between the official program and their contracts -- the program listed closing time for the Marketplace at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; their contracts, 9 p.m. After some back and forth, the time was finally set at 9 p.m. (quite possibly ruining a fair share of evening plans in the process).
Over on the registration front, some preregistration names somehow didn't make it to the check-in desks, making it that much more important for those attendees to bring their receipts proving that they did pay for certain passes. Plastic holders for con passes ran out on Saturday, followed in short order by lanyards and clips; at one point, registration staff simply punched a hole in the pass and handed it to the waiting attendee. That is, of course, if registration staff was willing to help them; I learned of several stories of grouchy, unhelpful and/or indifferent staffers over the weekend and into Monday. One person checking in was even assisted by a staffer who refused to let go of a partially eaten donut throughout the check-in process. (I take it that was a delicious donut.)
And then there was the case of the skewed Sunday schedule ... one that tag-team partner Wilma J. and I got tangled up in. Here's that schedule as seen in the official program.
A little background: As you know if you're a regular reader, Wilma got married this year. Most of her vacation days this year have been taken up by Kawaii Kon, wedding planning, post-wedding planning and other domestic duties and social obligations. She waited until the schedule was released to decide that she would attend on Sunday only, because (a) she had seen the Earthbound Papas perform at HEXXP last year and sorely wanted some time for herself on Saturday; (b) she had never heard Nobuo Uematsu speak at a panel, so she was looking forward to his Q&A session; and (c) she could get something else signed by him in the autograph session to follow. I, on the other hand, had some prior commitments at church to tend to, so I arrived at the convention center around 1 p.m., tweeted something, and met up with her. We did a circuit around the Marketplace, then headed to what was developing into a long line outside Panel Room 1 around 2:45 p.m. While we waited, I checked my Twitter feed ... at which point the following exchange ensued:
Note that when we sent our tweets at 3:15 p.m. we were still going by that schedule above, thinking we were still in line for the Uematsu panel. We never got any word through official channels -- just a staff member going up and down the line asking if anyone was interested in ordering "Dancing Dad," the Earthbound Papas' new CD that had sold out on Friday.
Upon entering the room, we also learned that the Uematsu signing had been converted into a signing by all of the Earthbound Papas. Thinking fast, I took apart my program, handing her one page, keeping another so that we didn't look too awkward up there. The band, of course, was quite polite, and we did get the items we wanted signed by Uematsu signed by him, but still, it wasn't quite the experience we were expecting. Several comments on the Oni-Con Facebook page share our sentiments; Geoff, our original tipster above, mentioned on Facebook that he drove in from Kaneohe exclusively for the music industry and Uematsu panels and was disappointed when he learned they were canceled.
So what happened? As of this writing, I've yet to hear any official explanation. Over at the "Tea and Thoughts" blog, though, blogger Kelly offered this observation: Three panels -- "Ramblings About Something, Close to Nothing" at 10 a.m., "Japanese Music Industry" at 2 p.m. and the Uematsu panel -- were all canceled without any official word posted anywhere on the property. I've since been told via Facebook that the "Ramblings" panel was moved to another room, with someone stationed at the door to bring in people. I'm not sure where the discrepancy lies, but the fact that she couldn't find what was going on is a concern nonetheless.
As I've been writing this part of the post, I've noticed there's a theme developing, one that may be the biggest key in determining where this show goes from here: communication, communication, communication. It's nice to promote the #OniConHI hashtag all over the place and have a Facebook presence, but what good is it if there aren't enough people monitoring either one to respond to attendee concerns in a timely manner? How can official con accounts have enough time to promote another media outlet's exclusive Uematsu interview, yet not have enough time to fix a schedule grid that was posted once to the Facebook page? There's a time to promote and a time for damage control, and it seemed that in the days leading up to and including Oni-Con, there was too much of the former, not enough of the latter. If the people feel you aren't listening to them, it's a fair bet that they eventually won't listen to you.
All things considered, though? There was much to enjoy from the weekend. The 500+ pictures that I'm going to have to sort through eventually to come up with a "Best of Oni-Con" gallery certainly attest to that. It should also be noted that Oni-Con had 8.5 months between when it was first announced and opening day. Kawaii Kon? Announced March 31, 2004; opening day April 22, 2005; time to prepare was a little over a year. There's certainly quite a bit of room for improvement, but for there to be a show comparable to Kawaii Kon with less time to prepare is a rather laudable feat.
I do hope convention staff take these compliments and criticisms to heart. There's already quite a bit riding on there being a show next year, considering this was up throughout the weekend:
And if the closing raffle for people who preregistered for 2014 that went on foreeeeeverrrrrr ceremony was any indication, quite a few people are already signed up and looking forward to next year. I have to admit I'm not one of those who preregistered -- I really have to know when events are held far in advance to accommodate a tight vacation schedule at work -- but I'm just as curious to see what happens next.