This was my eighth time attending the Anime USA convention. My first experience with AUSA was during their final year in their Crystal City location (and was my 2nd convention that I ever went to) before moving to the present location at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, DC. I’ve had a lot of fond memories during the years at AUSA so it really pains me to have to write what I’m about to discuss concerning the state of this convention.
This convention is in decline. It really comes as no surprise to anyone who has attended the con in the past few years. The halls have gotten less and less crowded with each passing year. Even with a minor reprieve in 2015 when they hosted the entire English voice cast of Cowboy Bebop (which was amazing!) which drew in some additional people, Anime USA has certainly hit hard times since then. This year I walked past the video game area during Saturday afternoon and saw almost half of the game console stations and arcade machines unoccupied. That just blew my mind as it’s usually hard to find an open machine during the peak convention hours (unless you’re MAGFest with its offering of hundreds if not thousands of machines).
I think the first hint that I saw of economic trouble was in 2016 when they not only did not include a souvenir program book when you picked up your badge at registration, they tried to make a little money off of it by making you buy the book at the merchandise table instead. The program book came back the following year but this year they only gave out a small pamphlet which had the printed schedule. In addition, AUSA has not been renting out the grand ballroom and its surrounding rooms on the upper floor these past two years and simply made do with having the main events within the smaller rooms.
And then this year was also plagued by controversy which I observed via their social media outlets. From accusations of staff discrimination to more recently with the way they treated their long-time partners in Cosplay Burlesque, it’s a little unsettling if these accusations are true. It certainly doesn’t help AUSA’s case in trying to improve their attendance numbers. In addition, I also know that there are a lot of photographers and cosplayers who just come to AUSA to take photos and to hang out with friends and don’t even bother purchasing a membership badge so that doesn’t help their cause either.
Anime USA is certainly trying to turn this shipwreck around. One of the only positive bright spots that I can think of is the Idol Showcase that they’ve ran these past two years which has allowed idol groups both local and from around the country to get on stage and perform their routines. I have to give credit where credit is due in saying that this has been a wonderful idea and I hope that they continue to do so in the future (although it would be nice if they could post a schedule of the performers so people know what groups have been invited to perform and when).
This year they also branched out to invite legendary American cartoon and animation voice actors like John Ratzenberger and Jim Cummings. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the boon that AUSA may have been hoping for. I went to Mr. Ratzenberger’s Q&A panel on Saturday afternoon and there was maybe a dozen people in total in the audience. I felt really bad for Mr. Ratzenberger who definitely deserved much better than that. I also went to Mr. Cummings’ panel later that afternoon which had a bigger crowd but was still what I would consider to be rather small for someone as well known and prolific as Jim Cummings. I sincerely hope that both of them had a good time this weekend and are not leaving with a sense of discouragement from accepting any future invitations to attend an anime convention (I don’t remember about John Ratzenberger, but I do remember that they did announce that this was Jim Cummings’ first time attending an anime convention).
If my math is correct, this year’s Anime USA was my 48th convention that I’ve attended since I first started going to conventions in 2011. This may be the first time that I’ve ever attended a convention and came out without taking a single cosplay photo. Part of this was my fault as I did see a few cosplays that I wanted to take a picture of (like an awesome Macrophage who even had a wicked sword/cleaver thing) but didn’t ask for a photo since each of the cosplayers at the time seemed like they were busy and so I didn’t want to disturb them. Although, in recent years I’ve focused less on taking photos of cosplayers that I see in the hallways and instead have focused almost exclusively towards taking photos at cosplay photoshoot gatherings. The meetup situation at Anime USA however has not been conducive for photoshoot gatherings as they are simply randomly assigned times (like midnight!) for fandoms to meet up without designating anyone to organize or lead the meetup which basically just resulted in people standing around confused as to what to do.
There are a lot of conventions that I essentially automatically make a yearly pilgrimage to (like Otakon and Katsucon), however I have to accept the reality that AUSA is no longer one of those conventions. I really do no harbor any ill will towards Anime USA or have any desire for them to shut down. I am also not swearing off on ever attending Anime USA again, I could very well go next year, but it will depend heavily on the guests that they end up inviting. I sincerely hope that Anime USA will find a way to turn things around and right the ship, but as they say once you lose someone’s trust it is hard to regain it.