Almost to the hour a week after the online convention Anime Lockdown finished its formal programming, Ink sat down with its founder, Director of Operations John-Paul, to talk about how the con came together: aides, influences, intentions, and efforts. The virtual convention drew industry representation from Discotek, Right Stuf, Kyle Hebert, and Veronica Taylor as well as such talented panelists as Mike Toole, Evan Minto, and many others. What follows is a transcript of most of the interview. Audio of the full interview is accessible by Content Respecter members of the Ani-Gamers Patreon.
Ani-Gamers: Hello and welcome to Ani-Gamers’ interview with John Paul, director of operations for the online-only convention Anime Lockdown that took place May 1-3, 2020 via streams on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube. JP, thanks for talking with me.
John-Paul (JP): Whaddup?!
Ani-Gamers: How’s recovery going after basically coordinating panelists and emceeing the con for three days straight?
John-Paul: You know, it’s been pretty good. It took a whiole to adjust to not having a deadline, because leading up to the convention, we took about a month to plan everything. I was spending essentially the same length of a of a con day just doing prep, and so there was like three or four 14-hour days leading up to the convention just working on graphics, working on audio clips, and all that. So not having something to do actually makes me more nervous. So I've been I've been working on music again, which has been keeping me busy.
Ani-Gamers: You said there was a virtual con before this one that helped you out in terms of building this one. Can you walk us through what kind of influence they had and how they helped you and sort of walk us through how you built this con.
John-Paul: Oh, sure. That’s been a common misconception: that a lot of people thought we were the first to do this. It's absolutely not true. I've said it and reiterated it multiple times along the way, especially because other cons helped me out in some of the planning. The two that reached out to me were On-Con and QuaranCon. On-Con, I'm not terribly familiar with the people behind it. It's a YouTuber [GeekArchaeology], and his name escapes me, but he has a YouTube channel, where he does anime news, I assume weekly, and he did this all-day convention thing at the end of March I think? It was a Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Friday was a half day. Saturday and Sunday, I don't think they were quite as long as the days we did, but they were longer days. And they helped me out in terms of like, “You need to give people more things to do than just panels. You need to be aware that technical things could happen. You need to have a variety in your programming” – things that were in the back of my mind but that were being brought to my attention as more of a priority. ‘Cause when I originally thought of this, I was like, “I'm just going to do like a day or two panels. It's going to be fine. It's going to be a bunch of people I know. Is anybody even going to apply? Probably not. It's likely just going to be doing a couple panels and then calling it a day.”
And QuaranCon helped me out with the dealers side. They ran their convention on Discord. They were the weekend before us, and they really helped us out with figuring out how to set up the Dealer's Room, the Artist Alley, different types of things that we did in Discord like different bots and stuff. Some of their staff actually came to join us and help run things. So that was really helpful, ‘cause I don't know a lot about Discord. My partner, Tony, is the one who handled most of the Discord stuff with help from QuaranCon, as well as one of one our vendors, Persephone, I think it was her boyfriend, I'm not totally sure, but he also helped us with a lot of the more advanced Discord things. I handled all the panel stuff. That's my expertise: running tech, running audio. It’s essentially like anybody that went … what you saw is what I had in my head when I first came up with this. It just got bigger in scale. Like, I always wanted to have audio only with graphic showing a PowerPoint. I always wanted to use Discord. I always wanted to have a break in between each panel. So for the most part, that never changed. I don't know, it just it just seems like the easiest way to do it. And I think I was right, because I didn’t have any huge technical problems. Webcams would’ve complicated things, and screen sharing was another thing I wanted to avoid. A few people did use screen sharing – there was maybe five panels that used screen sharing? And my hesitance to use it was vindicated a little bit; we didn’t have any huge meltdowns, but panels that had technical problems were the ones that were screen shared.
Ani-Gamers: What was it that made you take that first step in making this con? I mean, to have in your head, “I'd love to make a con” is something so completely different from, “Okay, it's time to start building this con.”
John-Paul: The first time I had the idea to do an online con was mid-March. It was like two days after I lost my job. I work in the film industry. All of the movie sets shut down on, like, March tenth-ish, and so I needed something to do. And all the cons were closing, and I posted some tweet like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there was like an online con?” One of my local cons from back in Minnesota had just announced that they weren't going to do their event, Anime Detour, and a few people reached out like, “Yeah, that's kind of cool” or “I've been to things like this” or “What if we did this type of thing” and I just kind of forgot about it for a couple weeks. And then it was the weekend that Anime Detour would have happened, which I think is the last weekend of March, and Tony and several other friends were online lamenting like, “Aw, man, we would’ve been at Detour this weekend. This is a bummer.” For some of us, that’s the only time we get to see each other – anime conventions. Like I’ve known Tony, Tony was the Director of Vendor Relations by the way, for over a decade, but only ever see each other at anime conventions, be it Anime Detour or Otakon. And that’s ‘cause even when I lived in Minnesota, he lived like two hours away. So it just didn’t make sense for us to go get a beer after work. So this was a bummer, ‘cause for some of us, that’s like the one time we get to see our friends. And I said like, “You know? I was talkin’ about it a couple weeks ago. Why don’t we just do our own con? Gimme a couple weeks. I’m gonna put something together. Let’s see where this goes.” And then I started brainstorming names. And that’s when it became real, was when I gave it a name and made a twitter account. And I think the first tweet was April 2; I just said, “Hey, I’m gonna try doing a con. Would that be cool with everybody?” And it just kind of snowballed from there.
Ani-Gamers: You said QuaranCon and On-Con took place beforehand, and like you said people tend to overlook the fact that they existed, maybe because they were just so local, but what do you think made Anime lockdown so novel?
John-Paul: I don't want to downplay what they did, because I think what they did is really important, and they definitely set the groundwork for what I did. I think the difference was just that I'm louder. I think that's honestly the only difference; I'm louder, and I posted a lot on social media. I went to QuaranCon, and it look to be very successful. I think they did a really cool thing. They did it differently. They did it in a way I wouldn't… Well I mean obviously I didn't run my event in the same way, but they were catering to a different , and I think they did so fairly successfully. But they also they advertised in different places. Their Twitter account was fairly quiet leading up to their event. I think they did most of their talking on Instagram, because QuaranConcon, from an outsider looking in, seemed to be very artist-heavy, and so I think it was a bunch of people that would normally go to an Artist Alley that wanted to set up a place where they could share their work with everyone. And if you look at the types of panels that they had, it seems to confirm that fact. They had a lot of like “How to Draw” or like “How to Style a Wig” types of panels like that. On-Con, I don't have as much familiarity with. I don't know what his Twitter presence is. I don't know what his YouTube reach is. I know that they did fairly well. They've done a second con. I don't know what the numbers were like for that, but their first con they had 150-200 people and they raised like $500 for charity, which is really awesome. We didn't align herself with a specific charity, because I wanted to encourage people to donate locally and also to shop with our vendors and tip our DJ, which in that sense I think we were very successful. Our DJ was able to pay off some of his gear. I saw him talking about that on Facebook, which makes me really happy. I don't know how much money our dealers made, but I know that some made a sizable amount
AG: I actually made it a point to at least buy one or two things from a dealer per day – just to sort of simulate that, “Hey I'm at a con. This is the time I would just be wandering through the Dealers Room. Yeah, why not?”
John-Paul: When I when I set out to do this, that was what I wanted to do. Now we didn’t have dealers in the beginning, but it was never about me emceeing a con and telling people to check out my SoundCloud. It was me providing a platform for people to share their cosplay that they now don't get to wear in public because of the shutdown, to do their panel that maybe they only get to do once a year, and to help people find more followers. ‘Cause I know for some people conventions are a great place to find an audience for, you know, maybe you've never done a panel before, and you’ve got a really cool anime blog. Well what better way to get the word out than a group of thirty people that are coming to your robot panel or whatever. But the short answer to your question is I just happen to be connected to the twittersphere. I know a lot of people. I know you. I know Mike Toole. I know Evan. So like a lot of it was, “Oh yeah, I know that guy. He's doing a thing. I want to participate.” Whereas these other people may not have had those connections. But certainly I want to make it clear that I didn't abuse those connections; I didn't reach out to anybody. They came to me of their own accord. So they just happened to see me being loud on Twitter.
Ani-Gamers: How did the voice actors get involved, ‘cause that's fairly high-profile for, no offense, someone on Twitter putting together a con. Did people reach out to the vocal talent and some of the companies like Right Stuf and Discotek?
John-Paul: I don’t take any offense to that. We’re an indie show, and and I take a lot of pride in that we’re an indie show. I think we set a fairly high bar for what the pro shows have to do now. There’s a lot of pro cons coming out, and what we pulled off, with essentially two people and a few moderators, I think is kind of outrageous.
So what I said in the previous answer is slightly misleading; I reached out to one person. I reached out to Kyle. Kyle Hebert has been a favorite voice actor of mine for a long time. He has a background in podcasting and radio. And so I thought it would be a perfect fit for doing a convention where he doesn't actually see the people that are at his panel. But other than that, everybody reached out to me on their own. Veronica reached out to me on Twitter, Discotek reached out to me through Mike Toole on Twitter, and Right Stuf submitted a panel in the same way that you did. So that was really what blew my mind every step of the way. I shared this dumb meme on Twitter: 20 days ago: “Hey, does anyone want to do an anime con? And then me when I find out who the guests are, and it’s the Pikachu surprised face.” I woke up one day to Right Stuf asking if they could do a panel and I was like, “Whoa.” And I don’t wanna play favorites, but Right Stuf and Discotek are two of my favorite anime companies, and so I was really honored that they wanted to be a part of this event.
Ani-Gamers: Make sense. They're kind of more the indie group amongst the sellers the distributors.
John-Paul: Oh yeah. One of my favorite anime of all time was a Right Stuf release: Boogiepop Phantom. And, you know, I wouldn't be here, I would presume, if I hadn't seen that show.
Ani-Gamers: I know you said Tony handled most of the Discord stuff. Was there any discussion between you and Tony about how that Discord evolved? Because it was kind of awesome. It evolved in real-time, where not only did you have like The Hall for cosplay but then you had The Showcase for more like glamour shots and professional photography-based stuff. You had a call-out to the vendors as mentioned previously but then you had that In Search Of tool, which was a fantastic way of matching vendor to need, especially in a virtual space where you can't browse tables and going through everybody's virtual Etsy store would take hours.
John-Paul: A lot of it was a collaborative effort. There were a few things that he did on his own without running it by me, which is fine, because, you know, you have to trust your team sometimes. The check-in area was very much a collaborative effort. The having the con not show up until you agree to the rules and having the vendors not show up until you agree to the waiver, that was an idea that me and him had had for a while that we just didn't know how to implement for a long time. The panel notification was something the Tony figured out how to do on his own. That was, if you emoji the panel, you would get an alert when it when it was time for that panel to come on. The hotel lobby was kind of us a few days before the con realizing that we didn't have a general area for people to talk, and so we made the Introduction the general chat. And me and him were just like, “Wouldn’t it be funny way if we had a channel you can't post in called, ‘Elevator,’ and it's just a picture that says, ‘This elevator is out of service’”? And that was just a dumb idea that we… Like there were people in the Discord as we were adding silly things like that. And then that, of course, evolved into the Johnson Wedding on Floor 34. I think I may have come up with that the day of the convention.
Ani-Gamers: It was a beautiful addition. I’m a huge fan of running gags, so all of the in-jokes with the broken elevator and the Johnson Wedding just really kinda made this home.
John-Paul: Con-Ops is fairly standard stuff. We had a Help Desk, we got that idea from QuaranCon. The Anime Lockdown Live, that was Tony’s idea to just have the Twitter re-post, which I don’t know if a lot of people used that, but I thought it was cool. Showoff cosplay and party rooms were things that I added, and then Tony had ideas on other stuff we could do in them. And I think that’s everything.
Ani-Gamers: Yeah, I saw, because I was hanging out in the Discord quite a bit, I really liked the fact that, because there were so many rooms, it was kinda emulative of a college con, where you had just enough space where people had to be separated but just kinda stayed in one place for a little while and then maybe went o a different room for a little while.
But I saw a lot of positive feedback in the Discord regarding first-time attendees, specifically those referring to physical disabilities or social anxiety or finance-related concerns. They said, “Oh, well I’ve never attended a con before. So this is my first con.” And, surprisingly, there was just this wealth of love, like “Great! Check out this!” and “What do you think about this?” And it was people being inclusive in conversations.
Ani-Gamers: How do you see events such as these as well as Anime Lockdown specifically continuing past Covid-19 pandemic? And what changes do you see, after running a convention, that might need to be made?
John-Paul: Ooh, that’s a good question. The cynical side of me thinks that a lot of these online conventions aren’t going to continue once they’re no longer a necessary thing that we’re being forced to do. That being said, I want to keep doing it because of how many people I saw say that this was their first, because live cons have never been an option for them. I think for a lot of the big cons, they're not going to have the resources to do two things. But I think the indie shows for sure. I don't know; I had a lot of fun, and I want to do it again. I can't speak for the other shows. But like there is a… I'm trying to think of all the names. I think like Comic-Con might be doing one, and there was one this past day, called like Pop Culture Expo, that had a bunch of like actors, and obviously FUNimationCon. I don't know if those are going to continue; I think that that is people doing that because they don't have a choice, which is a shame, because I do think that there is … I don't want to say a market, because we didn't charge, but I definitely think that there's a place for events like this, because all these people that can't go to Cons – why shouldn't they be allowed to get to watch panels and share their cosplay? You know? I may be not wording this the best way, but I want there to be more. Here's my prediction though with, if there is an Anime Lockdown 2021, I don't think there's going to be industry panels. I think that we got those, because industry needed a place to announce their products; that's not going to be a problem next year. Actors, I think it's still possible, but it might be a little harder because actual cons are going to be asking for them and paying for their fees and whatnot. Getting panelists I think… I think people always want to share their panels. But I do think that moving forward online cons will be different. I don't think they're going to be less fun, but I'm not expecting a, “Hey let's announce six 6 anime at, you know, Anime Lockdown 2021.” I’m fairly realistic that that was very much a lightning in a bottle situation.
Ani-Gamers: Do you think something like GoFundMe or Kickstarter might help reign in some talent in the future or some of the “higher-end programming”?
John-Paul: I think it could, but it’s very much against my core values with the convention. I made a point very early on that I didn't want to involve outside money, don't want to ask people to pay a cover, I don't want to ask people to donate so we can get a guest, I don't want to tell people to go to my Patreon. These are things that, they go against my core beliefs with creating … I don’t want to say content, because that word is now kind of being turned into a gross word, but that's just how I prefer to present my art. And that doesn't mean that other people are wrong, but I don't feel right charging people for things. So if we do get another guest, that's something that I would be handling. But I want to remain self-funded.
Ani-Gamers: That’s really cool. That’s a lot of heart right there.
John-Paul: It’s not that expensive. [laughs]
Ani-Gamers: Well, it's your time and your effort. And even though you put this whole tthing together in just about a month, the result was fantastic.
So in that entire time, or during the con itself, what was one of your most treasured moments as either staff or attendee (providing you actually had a moment to appreciate the con as an attendee at the time)?
John-Paul: I didn’t really get to go to my own convention. So there were a few highlights for me. The interview/Q&A I did with Kyle is is one of the most proudest moments of my journalistic career. I would say I'm not a professional journalist, but I've done amateur journalism, I’ve done radio. That is one of the highlights; it's one of the best things I've ever done in terms of execution I think. I think it was the best sounding panel. I think it had the most natural flow of anything I've done in terms of an interview setting. I'm very happy with how that turned out. But then from a fan side, when Veronica Taylor said she chooses me in Ash’s voice, I almost broke down in tears during the convention. That was something that I didn't expect her to do, and hearing a voice that I grew up with thank me for something was … it's not something you ever expect to encounter, so it was very, very weird. It was a very special moment. And I have a recording of that, which is kind of dope. [laughs]. Eight-hundred plus people at the Discotec panel was really awesome. That's the highest number of people that were at the entire event throughout the weekend. I think it might have been 850 total? I’m not sure on the exact numbers. [Ink’s] panel, actually, when I saw how hype the chat was getting – that was a big moment for me, when they kept copy-pasting, “BUT I HATE SPORTS ANIME!!!!!!!!.” Getting to do panels with Mark again was a great moment. Me and Mark did panels together for a decade in Minnesota, and then when I moved, that was no longer an option for me.
Ani-Gamers: That was the Criticism of Film Criticism panel?
John-Paul: Yes, and then he also did a panel on Americanization that he asked me to join him in, so that was a lot of fun. But also, as you mentioned and I've mentioned, being able to help so many people was really special – all these people saying that they've never been to a con and this is their first time and they're having fun. Watching people enjoy the rave! I didn't think that was going to work and people loved it.
Ani-Gamers: What kind of reactions did you see from that? I used it as background music myself.
John-Paul: Sure, I mean the chat was posting a lot of dance-type emojis, which I assume means that they were dancing. Some people were saying that they turned on like a strobe light in their apartment and they were dancing. A ton of people were tipping Obi-Wan [Shinobi], which was not something I expected. Because, again, “We’re not about money, let’s not blah, blah, blah…” but I was like, “Oh, yeah, he’s kinda like a vendor. So I should be saying, “Hey, just like the vendors, this is his job. This is how he makes a living, and now he's out of work. So like, if you enjoy what he does, he has donation links available.” I don't know how many people donated. He didn't tell me. But I know that he made a decent amount of money, which is great, ‘cause like, you know, when was the last time he got to play in a club? Probably two months ago? That's rough! And especially for freelancers and like performance artists, it's really hard ‘cause you don't always qualify for unemployment
Ani-Gamers: So the last question I have for you, well it’s a two-parter: a) have you ever staffed a con before?
Ani-Gamers: So now having run an entire con, when you next are able to go to a con, what will you be paying a little bit of closer attention to?
John-Paul: Ooh, so the way that I attend cons is kinda weird. I don't really go to the con, and that's kind of insane considering that I spend all this money on hotel rooms and the badges and all that. But a con for me is a time to hang out with like-minded friends that I don't live near. And so Otakon is really special to me, because, like, I don't see these people ever. I've got friends that live in Arizona. I have friends that live in D.C. I have friends that live in Minnesota. But we all go to Otakon. And so, I like to go to the dealers room a lot. That's kind of my main thing that I'll do; I'll just bum around the dealers room. Occasionally I'll go to panels, but my problem with larger conventions (and this isn't the fault of the conventions, so I don't want to paint it in that light): I don't want to wait in line to get into the panel I want to go to, and I usually want to go to the ones that you have to wait in line to go to. Which is something that I was really happy with [Anime] Lockdown is that for the very first time anybody that wanted to go to the Discotek panel got to go to the Discotek panel. Every single person that wanted to go to the Kyle Hebert panel got to go to the Kyle Hebert panel. You didn't have to wait in line for an hour and like not get to go to lunch with your friend because you're waiting to maybe get allowed in. One of the, I don’t want to say one of the worst moments, but one of the bummer moments of conventions for me was last Otakon; I showed up early to meet Studio Trigger. Me and my friend Adam, I think it was Adam, we were some of the first people there. We got in the line as soon as we could. It was still a very long line, and we were still here fairly far behind. But we showed up like 40 minutes early to wait to wait in line and then waited in line for, I don't know, it must have been an hour or two hours. I was cut off like four people before I would have gotten to go, and that is SO, so devastating. But then it's like I forget that also there's all the people behind me that also din’t get to go, and there's the person that would have been next – they didn't get to go either. And that's something that it's an unfortunate thing that happens at conventions. There's no way around that; Trigger can't meet every single fan … it's just not possible. But I really like that I was able to give an opportunity to people to go to these events and not have to worry about not getting in. So that’s kind of a long version of why I don't tend to go to panels. I like them. I want to go to the fun and exciting ones like everybody else, and so I spend more time looking at merch, hanging out with people, go to a lot of party rooms.
Ani-Gamers: Thank you very much for coming on and talking about the con, and thank you even more so for putting on the con and all the efforts. It meant a lot to a lot of people, including myself.
John-Paul: I’m happy to do it. It was a good time. It's already been a week! Which is WILD. Like right now, the con would have, I think, been over or would have been wrapping up. The week went by really fast, but I'm glad that everybody enjoyed it. I would happily do it again … just not [laughs] not for a year … not for at least six months. We have some ideas for stuff that we want to do. I haven't made anything official yet. We talked about it at closing ceremonies: maybe doing some kind of like audio zine, which could be interesting but it would rely very heavily on participation, because it's not going to be me doing features; it's going to be other people doing stuff. It’s kinda like mini-panels, and then I'd introduce each one and then put them together maybe like an hour and a half. Podcast? But I’m calling it a magazine, ‘cause that’s cooler?
Ani-Gamers: Speaking of the con being over, I keep checking in on the Discord, because I always get the notifications that there are new messages in there. When are you actually going to shut that down, or are you going to shut that down?
Jon-Paul: Well, we wanted to see how things faded away organically, which it's been … it has. I think like 300 people left on their own, which is understandable or expected. But me and Tony didn't want to cut things off, because people were still talking, and we also wanted to make sure that people had access to the vendors in case there were any issues that needed to be taken care of or things that need to be finalized. I don't know. We’ll revisit in another week. If nobody's talking, then we’ll probably shut it down. I don't know a lot about Discord. I imagine there's a way to kick people out without deleting it because I want to… Obviously for research, we want to keep it so we can see what worked and see what didn't work. You know, if we need to copy paste any features or whatever, we're going to need the archive for that. But we're letting it happen organically, because we didn’t know if all these new friends have shared contact information yet. We don’t want to cut people off.