I’m high risk. That means covering conventions or festivals is always going to come with an element of fear in a world where COVID is becoming more the norm than an abnormality. But at this past weekend’s Crunchyroll, I felt unbelievably comfortable and safer than I thought imaginable while at a convention. And that’s due in no small part to a crew that cared about safety. I was lucky enough to speak with Crunchyroll’s Head of Events, Mary Franklin, and dive deep into the Crunchyroll Expo, its return, staying virtual, and prioritizing the safety of fans, guests, and staff.
On COVID safety protocols, Franklin explained the choices behind keeping a vaccination and masking policy while other conventions removed all restrictions. Franklin said “I’m not kidding when I say that our fans’ safety is our priority. We want to do what we can to make people as safe as possible but we also want people to feel comfortable – not that they’re crammed into a space with a bunch of people without masks. That was a priority going into the show. We saw early in the year that some conventions either removed the policies or didn’t enforce them. We actually pulled out of Anime Central. We were going to exhibit there, but it was not a good time. What I tell all of the teams globally with all of our events is that, if we don’t feel safe having our staff there, we should not be encouraging fans to go there.”
While the packed feeling was felt on day one entrance and of course the concert series, when compared to last month’s Anime Expo which left no room to move and didn’t enforce masks, Crunchyroll Expo was a significantly different experience. Outside queuing for panels and exiting some of the larger panels, I didn’t experience the overwhelming sense of being “crammed in” that seemed to be happening. And that was by design, even with a sold-out show. Franklin elaborated, “We also reduced the capacity. We reduced the number of tickets we sold so that hopefully it doesn’t feel overcrowded. We even gated that outside space so that people can be in the outside courtyard and still in the convention without needing to go through the metal detectors again, letting them go in and out and get air.”
“We knew going into this that this year we were going to have to be flexible. Maybe the ticket sales would not be good, or maybe they’d be great. That maybe the Japanese guest wouldn’t feel comfortable coming so we thought about what other kinds of great things we could do for fans. Or if there are travel restrictions, which happens, we thought about everything flexibly…There is nothing we can do about the hills and valleys of COVID so we just have to be as prepared as we can be.”
Additionally, Crunchyroll Expo managed to also keep elements of its virtual component, again, while other festivals and conventions have begun to focus only on in-person. Franklin explained, “We saw the global audience we had for the virtual show. We had 222 countries on the virtual show in 2021 and it was like, yeah, we want to keep that global audience as a part of CRX. With the Cosplay Cup, for example, we still have contestants competing from all over the world and I just love that. I love being able to include more fans.” This understanding of community is something that should be replicated across convention spaces not just to encompass large international audiences, but also to allow options for those who can’t travel, whether because of costs, disability, or worries because of high-risk status.
Franklin added, to my joy that this is just the beginning for the virtual component as well, “Eventually I want the Crunchyroll virtual experience to feel like it’s breathing in and out. Pulling people in virtually and then breathing out all of this great content and community. We have ways we can grow that and make it bigger and better.” Additionally, recognizing the international scope of the Crunchyroll fanbase is a feat in and of itself, and creating one community across many cultures is important.
Franklin said, “There are a number of different things we do. One thing is that in all the countries that we have event teams, there are a lot of anime fans on those teams. And that really helps us understand what will resonate. Also our social presence is big, always pulling in and listening to fans. We get fans involved in the programming for CRX. We get them to submit fan panel ideas, we do big surveys after the show and lucky for us, fans respond. We have thousands from Crunchyroll Expo who tell us the kind of things they want to see. And the other things is that while you’re here, you can see what everyone is responding to, you can observe. Everyone is tasked with watching and taking notes because we want to feel authentic.”
If anything, Crunchyroll Expo 2022 has easily become a standard for me on how to grow without sacrificing precautions. Something captured with the New Crunchy City Concert series which featured bands like Burnout Syndromes, Atarashii Gakko!, and SiM. On the concert series, Franklin said, “We had the New Crunchy City theme from the virtual shows and we just wanted to expand the New Crunchy City and the natural place to go seemed to be Music Fest. Music is really big in this world and we’re so pleased with how it turned out. When we first started inviting guests, Japan still had travel restrictions. We wondered if we could even get guest to come in from Japan, so we said, let’s really focus on music.”
And with Sony as Crunchyroll’s parent company now, CRX 2022 featured more video game content than ever before. I asked about the convention’s increased games presence, both from Sony titles, but also from Crunchyroll’s current roster of mobile games, “Part of it is being a part of Sony, because of PlayStation. But this is something that we have wanted to add. So many anime fans game. It’s a big part of who they are and what they do.”
But perhaps the most interesting and surprising inclusion at CRX 2022 was the large presence of Vtubers through a partnership with Hololive. I asked Franklin about the importance of including Hololive in the expo this year. She responded, “Hololive is extremely popular, but we were also fortunate that [they] were interested in working with us and very collaborative. They wanted to share never before seen things with the fans at CRX. It actually evolved because it started as a smaller idea. But with the collaboration and the ideas, their wanting to share more and our want to create something unique and special, it evolved together over the last couple of months.”
And while the bulk of my interview was focused on growth through safety, given my particular high-risk status as a disabled woman, I did want to take time to highlight what Franklin was the most excited about for fans to experience. And her answer is the reason conventions are a special space. Franklin’s response: “I really hope every fan comes in here and finds something they feel is uniquely them. Whether it’s the manga library or a fan panel, the music festival or the Hololive portraits, I want someone to feel like, ‘this is for me.'”
With that, I think they succeeded.
Crunchyroll Expo 2022 was held at the San Jose Convention Center from August 5 – 7, 2022.