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NYAF2008: Harmony Gold's Kevin McKeever Gets Bowled Over by "Anime in China"

Kevin McKeever on Anime in ChinaOn Saturday afternoon at the 2008 New York Anime Festival, Harmony Gold’s Marketing Coordinator Kevin McKeever hosted a panel titled “Anime in China.” This turned out to be a slightly deceptive title, since the panel really focused on McKeever’s trip in May 2007 to the 3rd Annual China International Cartoon and Animation Festival (CICAF) in Hangzhou, China. McKeever said that on his trip, one of the people he was working with asked how they could make the convention more like North American conventions, to which McKeever repied, “You don’t want to be like the North American conventions. The North American conventions are going to want to be like you.”

McKeever was invited to the festival by GQDH, the distributor of Robotech in China, and came in time for the Chinese debut of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. He described Hangzhou as the animation capital of China, as well as one of the artistic centers of China as well. His guides for the trip were GDQH’s Chen Lu and his translator Bella, who experienced a bit of confusion trying to figure out how to translate “perky” and “schmooze.”

McKeever said that the show was unlike any other he had ever seen, starting with the billboards, advertising, and giant 15-foot statues promoting the festival sprinkled all over the city of Hangzhou. He said he lost count after 100 of the giant statues, and that there were thousands of billboards plastered on any surface they would fit on. He was also bowled over by the sheer scale of the festival. He estimated that one of the Hangzhou Convention Center’s halls was three times bigger than the entire Javits Center, and that the Center had five halls.

CICAF fills the entire Hangzhou Convention Center.

His GDQH representative felt the need to apologize because there were only 15,000 attendees at the festival one day, and promised that there would be more the next day. For comparison, he cited rough attendance figures from American conventions in 2006, ranging from about 9,000 at Anime Boston, 30,000 at Anime Expo, and 114,000 at San Diego Comic Con. In 2007, CICAF drew 439,000 people over 8 days, with 87,000 attending on the day that McKeever hosted the Robotech panel. The crowds are so huge that the People’s Liberation Army provides security for the event, which would be the equivalent of the 101st Airborne doing crowd control at San Diego Comic Con. McKeever also noted that despite the crushing number of people, it was easily the best-behaved crowd he had ever seen.

CICAF is quite a big deal in Hangzhou, with hot air balloons flying overhead to announce the convention’s opening, China Mobile (the equivalent of AT&T in China) bringing in a truck-mounted mobile cell phone tower just to handle the volume of cell traffic, and a parade to kick off the festival on its first day that was often more extravagant than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The festival is both a convention and an industry trade show, with international art and animation firms joined by firms hawking licensed toys and clothing companies (and, in one odd case that McKeever photographed, a camping equipment company that had no visible animation or cartooning connection). Booths at CICAF are often oriented around giant 2-story structures with offices on the second floor to conduct business, and many of the booths are big enough to hold mini-panels and events on their own, along with the occasional (very loud) rock concert. The festival is also a magnet for animation companies from all over the world, with the International Pavilion showcasing representatives from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, Europe, Singapore, and more. McKeever noted with half-pride, half-astonishment that a quarter of an entire hall was dedicated to Robotech.

Kevin McKeeverThere were a few major differences between the Chinese convention and the average North American one, though. The convention center is essentially an empty shell with no heating, air-conditioning, or artifical lighting. The 85º temperatures outdoors would go even higher in the convention center, which made life quite hard for the booth workers dressed in big furry suits. The giant windows in the building provide light, but the show shuts down at around 6:00 because the setting sun makes the hall too dark to continue doing business. And the less said about Chinese bathrooms, the better. On the other hand, when McKeever forgot his badge and bought his own ticket to get into the festival, it took him all of five minutes to get his ticket. Amusingly, his hosts thought even that took way too long to do. He did point out that many conventions in the United States are 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, which require more paperwork for each attendee, while CICAF is not.

McKeever said that animation is much more accepted by mainstream Chinese society than it is in North America. CICAF was headline news in the city, with McKeever himself being the top story on the evening news when he was interviewed at the convention about Robotech. As another example of the higher regard China holds animation, McKeever mentioned that GDQH is also handling the live-action Transformers movie, and that he felt that they treated the $150 million Transformers with the same care and attention as for the $5 million Robotech animated movie. He also amusingly pointed out an incident where he had to meet a mysterious man in a black suit described as being “above the mayor” and who ran the city. The man turned out to be the provicinal head of the Communist Party, which would be the equivalent of the New York state governor attending New York Anime Festival. The meeting ended up landing him an invitation to a gala event at the Chairman’s Mansion — one of Chairman Mao’s former residences that had been turned into a luxury hotel.

During the audience Q&A, McKeever said that he did talk with a lot of Chinese animation studios, which are spending billions in an effort to copy the Japanese and build up their domestic animation industry. Still, he didn’t think they were quite up to being a major cultural power in animation just yet, noting the recent news stories about how many Chinese were upset at the success of Kung Fu Panda because they felt it should have been a movie made in China instead of America (see our coverage here, here, and here). There are other instances where American pop culture is very popular in China. McKeever said that He-Man and She-Ra were very popular, as were the animated Transformers and G.I. Joe, and that the first thing he was asked about was the latest news about Jack Bauer and 24.

McKeever said that not much was localized in Robotech to bring it to the Chinese market, other than the name and the soundtrack. He said that what was censored were the romantic episodes because it was thought that they would be too much for the kids watching. Some episodes never aired on TV and are only available on DVD as a result.

In response to a question about the rampant piracy in China, McKeever said that a lot of Chinese companies want to do legitimate business, but that many American firms just ask for too much money. For Robotech, McKeever said that Harmony Gold opted to price the legitimate DVD release to compete with the prices of pirated DVDs, and that led to more families buying the official releases instead. He was told that the central government doesn’t condone piracy, but that the real problems are in the regional governments, where corruption means many of the authorities turn a blind eye to pirated videos being sold openly.

Even so, most American fans would be shocked at prices for DVDs in China. McKeever said that a deluxe boxed set of Robotech would be sold for about $10 in China.

The one major challenge facing CICAF is growth. The 2008 show had more than 500,000 attendees, meaning the show is hitting its physical limit of their space. There is also no more room to grow the convention, which may pose a problem if the show continues to increase in popularity the way that it has.

At the end of his presentation, McKeever related an amusing anecdote at the Hangzhou Airport. After an emotional goodbye to his hosts (who were all crying that McKeever was leaving), he sat down at a coffee shop before his flight took off. The waitress asked him what he did for a living, and he mentioned that he worked on an animated show, and said the name in Chinese. It turned out that the waitress was a major Robotech fangirl who knew the series inside and out, and derived great pleasure out of looking over some of the materials McKeever had on his laptop.

Return to Toon Zone News’ Coverage of the 2008 New York Anime Festival.

(CORRECTION: An earlier edition of this article referred to Harmony Gold’s Kevin McKeever by his older title of “Operations Coordinator.”)

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