Need proof that the nerds have had their revenge? Just look at your Facebook feed. Between last week's The Force Awakens trailer release at Anaheim's Star Wars Celebration and Orlando's convention center-stuffing MegaCon the week before, it's clear that pop culture cons have become an Internet-breaking cash cow. The time to gawk at geeks is long gone, says the co-founder of this weekend's fifth annual Florida Anime Experience (April 24-26 at Park Inn by Radisson; floridaanime.com). After a quarter-century of watching Florida's con culture blossom from behind the scenes, he should know.
Our story starts circa 1989, when 15-year-old Tom Croom hopped into a Trans Am with two older friends and drove down to South Florida for his first Trek Fest. "We had spent all night after playing Dungeons & Dragons putting together costumes as security officers from Star Trek made of sweatpants and sweatshirts," Croom recalls. "We won first place in the costume contest [and] got to go onstage and meet none other than George Takei."
Croom continued attending sci-fi conventions across Florida throughout high school and college, but mostly quit by the late 1990s, when I met him while we were both working at Universal Orlando. He began dating a girl (now his wife) who was into Japanese animation, and while accompanying her to a Mills 50 Asian import store they spotted a flier advertising an upcoming anime convention. "I explained to her that if you're hot and you put on a costume and go to one of these things, you'll probably win free stuff," Croom explained. "So she dressed up as Sailor Jupiter from Sailor Moon, and went to the very first Anime Festival Orlando in the year 2000. She won awards there, and we subsequently went to a second anime convention the same year called JACON."
As his interest in the genre grew, Croom discovered that "Orlando and San Diego were two of the biggest hotbeds for the original fan-sub revolution, getting anime to the masses before it was retail-available in the United States." The art form's current popularity is thanks in part to pioneering translation efforts by some early-'90s University of Central Florida students, whom Croom calls the "true hipsters of anime." It's oddly appropriate that America's anime obsession was sparked in Orlando, since according to Croom, "The style and history of anime is based on the animation art of classic Walt Disney."
After attending a couple of cons, Croom was asked to assist with the second Anime Festival Orlando. "I agreed to, with the explicit caveat that I'm not looking to try to run somebody's show," he remembers. "Before I knew it, it was the day of the show, and I'm walking around the convention with an earpiece on. The convention chair is curled up in a ball wearing ragged tennis shorts and a ratty T-shirt, basically not knowing what to do or how to handle everything that was happening."
By the late 2000s, Croom saw that "geek was becoming so mainstream that [Florida was] becoming super-saturated with pop-culture events. ... Everybody and their mother [was] saying, 'Oh, I can create a convention, this is easy.' People would try to start up a convention and suddenly lose a ton of money." After helping with the final JACON in 2009 and assisting with the enormous Anime Expo and GenCon events, Croom and company launched Florida Anime Experience in 2011.
"There are over 60 pop culture conventions that will happen in 2015 [in Florida]," says Croom, "and at least 10 to 20 percent claim to be anime conventions," but also cover Marvel superheroes and Nickelodeon cartoons. "They're really multi-genre shows, waving the flag of anime to draw people. Florida Anime Experience wanted to go against the grain. We are actually the only 100 percent pure anime convention in Florida. There's no My Little Pony."
Furthermore, Croom says FAE is "trying to put the culture back into pop culture," with kendo demonstrations, Japanese language classes and even origami arts, as well as the increasingly popular hobby of cosplay, which Croom has seen evolve "from 'Look what I made' into 'Hey, I can buy this.'" While promoting handcrafted creativity over store-bought self-involvement, FAE has no place for prejudice. "We wholeheartedly embrace gender equality," Croom says. "Friday night we host a cross-play contest which celebrates gender bending in cosplay, [and we] have non-harassment policies now written into our rules."
"Is the convention industry becoming commercialized?" Croom asks rhetorically when I raise Informa Canada's recent purchase of MegaCon. "Yes, it's just like any other Darwinian business model: You're going to have niche-market shows that succeed really well, and you're going to have chains that succeed really well." This year's FAE centers around Neon Genesis Evangelion, a giant-robot action series with heavy Christian symbolism that's still somewhat obscure in the states, despite being iconic in Japan. While the area's supersized cons feature stars from mainstream hits like Walking Dead, Croom is content with FAE's focus: "You go to MegaCon, it's kind of like going to Walmart, you'll find everything there. Supercon in Miami is more like Target, a little more hipster because you're in South Beach," Croom says.
"But if you go to our [convention], we're the Apple Store. We're about one thing, and we're doing our damnedest to make that one thing the best product you could have."