By Zoe Chevat
On a rainy L.A. weekend in mid-November, the Burbank Marriott’s convention center was packed as young talent and seasoned professionals alike descended for the Creative Talent Network’s 3rd annual expo. Hailing from as close as here in town, or as far away as San Francisco, Utah, and Egypt, the mob of students, young professionals, and animation fans were eager have their portfolios reviewed, browse artist’s sketchbooks, and soak up advice from some of animation’s most experienced names. While the packed convention floor played host to many kinds of exhibitors, including independent artists’ wares, studio reviewers, and cable-laded tech booths displaying the latest software, it was clearer than ever that, though the attendees might all consider themselves fans, this is no casual fan convention. An event like this aims to accommodate a broad swath of the animation community, but a large amount of its resources –and its advertising – are aimed at bringing in students. CTNX is for the young and hungry, boasting a crowd of current students and the recently graduated, who are looking at an angle into their beloved, but notoriously tough, contemporary animation industry.
The only local convention for Burbank’s famous animation studio lots, CTN is unique in that it makes a point to bring the up-and-coming crowd face-to-face with some of their heroes. It’s certainly a treat to watch a mob of art students eagerly hang on Don Bluth’s words as he gives a traditional animation demo in the center’s atrium, or see a group of portfolio-laden hopefuls pepper Eric Goldberg with questions as he sketches in a proffered notebook. The experience and advice available to attendees, not to mention the chance to nourish that fan inside all of us, is undoubtedly where CTN’s magic lies.
CTN also appears geared towards a student attendee population in other respects, particularly in school representation, panels, and company recruitment promise. Over 20 schools were in attendance, both accredited universities like CalArts, and training-based educators like The Gnomen Workshop. Additionally, the panels like the one I attended on independent publishing, were largely for those interested in breaking in themselves. But the many students I spoke to on Saturday, one of the three-day event’s busiest times, said that, for them, the main pull of the convention was the opportunity to network with studios and recruiters. While the convention was an exciting event for those I interviewed, full of surprises and sound wisdom. But for some, CTN also held some significant frustrations for its core audience.
A large problem had to do with the way sign-up was handled for the “Recruitment Lounge”, an area for portfolio reviews from big companies. Like the workshops, slots were offered based on a previous online sign-up that several said they found difficult to find on CTN’s confusing website, or that they were unaware of entirely. Additionally, the website necessary to sign up for such important areas at the event was down for long periods in the immediate weeks leading up to the convention weekend. Server problems are a common enough plague, especially for heavily trafficked sites. When exclusive access relies on digital reservations, however, it’s a big problem.
The sense of exclusivity in an event that professes to "focus on the talent" might be the biggest itch I couldn't scratch while walking around. Maybe it’s due to being a student myself, but I couldn't shake my disgruntlement with the price tag for all this supposed insider access. The "student discount" for a single day at CTN is $65 (I was told less for early registering online, which, like the workshop pre-registration, was confusing and often out of commission). That doesn't take into account the price of transport, and, for those coming from other cities, the cost of staying in town, or in the Burbank Marriott itself. That's a not-insignificant chunk of change for any student, especially in this economy. And it's a big chunk for what is essentially a one-room event, even one room that's fit to burst. There are panels and workshops a-plenty to be fair, but not only do some require that problematic advance sign-up, some demanded an additional fee. Such spending is something to expect from the significantly larger conventions in overlapping fields, like San Diego’s ComicCon. CTN is hardly at that level, and what they are providing could use a stronger organizational plan.
"People notice, especially people working for [the event]," says V., a volunteer at this year's CTN. She tells me that volunteers were given virtually no preparation, and were constantly at a loss when asked about such basic information as which timed events corresponded to which rooms in the hotel's main building.
"We didn't know about anything. Some of us didn't know that workshops existed. It wasn't in orientation. A lot of people weren't informed." There were no signs to lead event-goers, and the volunteers, uninformed though they might have been, were, in fact, under-staffed. No credit card swiping at on-site registration meant that volunteers had to engage in the questionable practice of writing down attendee’s sensitive credit card information, chatting for ten minutes at a time to make people feel at ease. Session names were vague and misleading, a complaint echoed by convention-goers I had spoken to during the weekend. Furthermore, V. talked about how entire day's rosters were switched at the last minute, an unfair practice for attendees who had chosen a specific day to buy passes.
To virtually everyone, this switching of events without prior notice seems like an enormous blow. After saving up, and carefully planning to attend the one day they could, it’s easy to understand the feeling of betrayal some felt as a central focus, such as a workshop with director Brenda Chapman, was moved without warning.
Such concerns were relayed again by V., but only because she's passionately engaged in the idea behind CTN, and wants to see the event live up to its potential. " I just feel like CTN is this amazing opportunity for students. Professionals, sure they need a network, but they already know each other. Students, especially, really need this…it's a great way to network. But the cost is too much. The organization needs to be made clearer."
Summarizing her view of CTN, she shared the sentiment I had heard from numerous attendees, speakers, and volunteers. "It's really for students. Students who are really interested in working in animation. It's for people who want to contact those inside…not for spectators. It's great that art's being sold, but it's not what people come here for. That's what [the organizers] need to understand. They need to understand that's their demographic, and how to serve them."
It looks like some of CTN’s problems might be an issue of time and accumulated experience. The event’s 3-year contract with the Marriott has now come to a close, perhaps signaling a move to a bigger venue. Despite several studios and vendors declining to return, the expo continues to expand, due in part to a boom in their web advertising strategy. There’s no doubt the event will keep on drawing in professionals, studios, and students, but it remains to be seen whether it can live up to high expectations. Such a young expo is still finding its feet, and its audience, one that sometimes demands it be every thing to every one. Instead of stretching out in all directions, CTN needs to recognize their strength really is in focusing on talent; the undiscovered talent. Seeing young talent engage with their idols, and feeling their way into a field they are clearly passionate about, is where CTN truly shines. The expo has the potential to be a great, useful, and important landmark for the industry’s entry level. To better serve its student customers, however, it has a ways to go, and grow.