The first time I met Stuart Levy, Founder, CEO and CCO of 12-year-old distributor, producer and proselytizer of Japanese comics and animation, TokyoPop, he was dauntingly sanguine. At the time I was conducting research and interviews for my book, Japanamerica, and Levy garrulously held forth in TokyoPop’s Tokyo headquarters about new movies, new TV outlets, Internet options and America’s mania for manga.
That was then, as they say. TokyoPop slashed its workforce two years ago, shrewdly trimming overhead before the industry crash hit hardest in ’09 and ’10, seeing peers like Viz Media hemorrhage profits and jobs, and others, like ADV and Central Park Media, disappear entirely.
Despite the setbacks, Levy remains as madcap passionate as humanly possible about his struggling business. Instead of griping behind corporate walls, he has hit the road this summer to meet and greet the audience, whose numbers continue to swell at conventions and expos across the US, and try to rescue his industry.
Levy’s self-branded “TokyoPop Tour” launched in early July at Los Angeles’s Anime Expo. When it finally winds down in Chicago at the end of August, he and his crew will have hit 28 cities in 54 days — all to get face time with fans.
For me, the move is rich with irony: the heavily Internet-invested manga/anime producer and retailer I first encountered five years ago is now using online social networking to turn back into old-fashioned traveling salespeople.
“I decided we should take the plunge this year and make it happen,” Levy tells me from his tour bus. “The goals are simple: To reach out to fans nationwide to meet them and see how ‘otaku culture’ in America has evolved.”
TokyoPop's magic bus at Anime Expo
Levy has plenty of gimmicks to help sell the jaunt. Six college students selected via audition are accompanying him, and an ongoing quest and contest to find “America’s Greatest Otaku” (the nation’s most obsessive fan of Japanese pop culture) sustains suspense. The entire tour is being filmed for a later video incarnation, and clips, pics and updates are posted constantly on the tour’s web site and via social networking outlets like Facebook and Twitter. There are freebies and promotional giveaways, too.
“I typically think up ideas on my own,” says Levy, “letting concepts gestate until they become a very clear vision. Sometimes I start to plan while that vision is still coming together in my head. A lot of this has to do with branding, design and aesthetic.
“The TOKYOPOP Tour has combined all those elements – and the vision crystallized for me as the planning stage progressed. My decision to attempt production on a show while on tour was the critical one – along with my decision to personally join the entire tour hands-on.”
Levy’s approach is not merely admirable, but necessary. [here]