I have a lot of various feelings about Otakon generally, and it is facing an existential crisis due to COVID-19 shutting down the con and impacting its finances. No surprise–many expected the pandemic rolling into the second year to put some cons six feet under, given the way many cons are run. Naturally my feelings are, uh, mixed.
Let’s mostly put aside the execution of the Otakon fundraiser, but I need to rant a bit about it. A 401c3 US Educational Non-Profit based in Maryland is once again asking for your donations. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it at all–except that it complicates their business model as Otakon never really had to play the fundraiser game. It ran more like a normal con (for profit or otherwise) but it also did not really keep a lot of money on hand. More over, the burn rate for Otakon, as we now know through direct communication, is something like $250,000 USD per year, even during the pandemic. Those are all key details that were eventually revealed–they could disclose this important data point from the start, and that they half-ass the ask is just a reflection of a bigger problem. Those keeping tabs on Otakon’s historical financial disclosures already have a good ballpark estimate. Knowing how that con is run somewhat, it does not come as a surprise how things are coming to ahead and they need to make the savings withdraw on public sympathy.
Aforementioned bigger problem is the main problem I have with Otakon: It does not feel that the leadership has a clear focus on what to do with the con besides treading water. Maybe that is the result of the rotating committee structure, and every year feels a bit like its own thing. Maybe it’s bending over backwards a bit too much to play that straight and narrow Educational Foundation stuff.
That’s the thing. Anime conventions, from my point of view, are better compared to country clubs. A bunch of people come together, pool their money and resources (time, energy, connections, knowledge, and more) to hold a party so everyone else not running it can participate at whatever level they are comfortable with. Maybe this is walking 18 holes and not playing it. Maybe this is doing a panel on drivers, or selling golf carts, whatever. But the economics of it only works if there is critical mass, and the larger such mass the more expensive event you can put on. If you want big name guests, they are expensive and can only really happen at large cons. There are only so few of these in North America, and so few with enough credentials and networks, and can put that budget into that kind of thing. That’s my point of view anyways. I realize for many others, this is not as big of a deal, but this does roll/trickle down in that Stone Soup allegory that makes any con worth going to–the networking effect of enough draws relevant to your interests and your friends’ interests make the party happen.
As someone who’s actually been to every Otakon (East Coast ones at least) since 1998 I am kind of done with it, in that while over the years I enjoyed this con and many of the things it did, I also see that it isn’t going to really level up its game. Things also have changed a lot since 20+ years ago and it is not like there is a lack of anime cons around here. Actually, there kind of is? But only ones like Otakon’s size and overall organizational quality. It isn’t because we don’t have a scene for it, it’s more because, well, it’s not easy to run a con like that. There are many smaller cons around that do many of the things just as well as Otakon, but Otakon occupies its spot–both in the calendar and in my con spending budget (time and money).
Which is just to say, I already made my donation and I hope the best for them, but as an attendee who is somewhat invested and someone concerned about anime cons, I think replacing Otakon with whatever that will happen in the vacuum of its possible demise is likely not a net negative in the long run. It’s not just me being the usual silver-lining optimist, but I do think this con really can be renovated or something, like the BCC. Too bad COVID is either going to make that even less possible, or kill it outright. Neither is great…