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Cosplay Is a Business and It Is Suffering

By Beth Elderkin

Yaya Han was supposed to be on tour right now. Instead of signing copies of books and posing for pictures with fans, the cosplayer is at home prepping her next shipment of washable masks to help people prevent the spread of covid-19.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has become an international crisis, with over 4.7 million confirmed cases and 315,000 deaths worldwide (as of May 18, 2020). The United States has had 1.5 million cases and almost 90,000 deaths, and those are just the ones we know about. With no national plan to restart the economy, states and local governments have been left to figure things out on their own. In the world of fandom, pop culture conventions are being canceledand special appearances have been called off. Han is one of many cosplayers whose lives have been upended as a result. The business of bringing characters to life is suffering and there seems to be no end in sight. It’s a lot to deal with in such a short amount of time.

During a chat over the phone during the week her first book, Yaya Han’s World of Cosplay, was originally going to be released, Han and I covered everything from her impromptu mask business (she’s selling masks online and donating some to local medical centers) to how poorly her home state of Georgia is handling covid-19. It wasn’t until I asked a pretty innocuous question—what she’s most proud of in her career as a professional cosplayer—that it became clear how much of a toll all of this was taking.

“If you had asked me this before I had written the book, I think I would have had a much more concrete answer for you. But since writing the book, I just feel sort of like it’s a lot of looking back on everything I’ve done and sort of feeling very proud of everything,” Han said. Then she started to cry. “And I do miss it. I miss cosplaying, I miss the community. Oh wow. I’m not upset, I think I’m just tired.” She paused and took a breath before continuing. “I love the community and I miss it, and I miss seeing people and I worry for cosplayers. I worry for how they are handling not being able to express themselves because it’s now more than just a hobby for a lot of people. For a lot of people, this is a career. So seeing how everybody is pivoting and thinking of new ways to survive in this, you know, new situation.” Han’s book is now set to be released in August.

For millions of fans, cosplay is an opportunity to dress up as your favorite character and share your fandom with others. But for some, it is a full-time job—or, at the very least, a side hustle. It’s not an easy career path. Cosplayers can spend 100 hours or more creating specialty costumes that cost upwards of $1,000 for the materials alone (not including the cost of labor, which could easily triple the price). In exchange, some cosplayers who appear at events will negotiate appearance fees—which vary from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars—as well as flights, accommodations, and per diems. High-profile cosplayers sometimes do paid autograph sessions or request sales guarantees, which ensure the convention covers any merchandise shortfalls. But no one anticipated a shortfall like this.

One of the numerous comic conventions that have been canceled or postponed is also, unsurprisingly, the biggest in the U.S.—San Diego Comic-Con—which usually sees over 130,000 attendees. Others scheduled for the remainder of 2020, like Star Wars Celebration and New York Comic Con, are up in the air. For fans, this means missing out on panels, celebrity sightings, social events, and spending time with friends they may not otherwise see. But for professional cosplayers—some of whom make a living or at least a supportive second income from cosplay—this also means losing appearance fees, sponsorship deals, and the opportunity to sell merchandise to fans.

Alabama-based cosplayer Martha Howard, also known as “Little Red Fox Cosplay,” said she had about 20 events scheduled through October. Now, many of them are gone. “[When the pandemic started] I started looking at my calendar and seeing, you know, what exactly I had coming up and what I was likely to lose. I kind of knew pretty much from when we start seeing things out of Seattle that it was going to hit us,” Howard said. “Conventions are large groups of people. There’s no way that those things—if this was something that was as serious as what it was looking like—there was no way they were gonna go on.”

The past two months have felt like an endless parade of cancellations, along with demands from the public to cancel even sooner seemingly ignored until the last minute. But there is a reason. As explained by law firm Akerman, most big contracts (like the ones between cons and convention centers) will include what’s called a Force Majeure clause. This “excuses one or both parties’ performance obligations when circumstances arise which are beyond the parties’ control,” and can include natural disasters, acts of government authority, and pandemics. But invoking it is a lengthy process, and success depends on the language in the contract and how it’s applied. In addition, some states like New York, California, and Florida have special guidelines of their own that can stretch things out further.

With organizers waiting a long time to cancel, either by choice or design, cosplayers are left struggling to figure out how to recoup the sudden income losses. Everyone I talked to said they understand why these conventions are being canceled, but it doesn’t make things any easier. “Those are opportunities for photoshoots, which is new content, which drives our media. It’s like, what do you do now?” Howard posed. “So, there’s a lot kind of going on in my head, figuring out how to [break even] basically for this year.”

The whole situation has left a lot of cosplayers in a bind. Since many of them count as independent contractors, that means they don’t qualify for state unemployment benefits. The CARES Act, which provides federal benefits for people whose jobs have been impacted by covid-19, has been extended to freelancers, but reports have shown it’s hard to access those benefits because the system isn’t designed for the gig economy. In the meantime, sales of merchandise and other fandom goods have tanked. Han said online purchases of her specialty cosplay accessories, like unicorn horn headbands and pegasus wings, have plummeted in recent weeks because people usually buy them to wear at cons. Some cosplayers are working more on Twitch and YouTube, or have turned to Patreon or Ko-fi to solicit support from fans

The effects on cosplay as a hobby and industry itself isn’t the only way the novel coronavirus has impacted their lives. Some have lost their day jobs—like New York-based cosplayer Jay Justice, who works as an independent writing consultant and editor. She told me contracts have dried up in recent weeks and it’s unclear when they’ll bounce back. Others, like French teacher and cosplayer Elise Fourmy, or “Manju Elise,” have found themselves on the front lines. She explained that in France, teachers like herself have been helping supervise the children of healthcare workers. In addition, schools have already been told to start reopening, and teaching unions have accused President Emmanuel Macron of putting them and the kids at risk.

There’s also the general toll that social distancing is taking on all of us. It’s hard to feel motivated, especially when it comes to taking on creative projects, when so much is happening in the world. And when it’s your job to create beautiful things, or be around people and entertain them with your cosplay, adjusting to life without that can be draining for both your mental health and your wallet. 

“In reality, there’s no way to avoid depression and anxiety. In stressful situations, it’s very difficult to create content. And when you are the product; when the product is you, smiling, being happy. Presenting something. Talking to the audience about their lives. I have not been able to get into the mindset to do that in weeks,” Justice said.

There are some unexpected impacts, too. Nashville-based nonprofit Cosplay Collective is a group of volunteers who dress up to visit people in hospitals, like children with terminal diseases. Considering just how many people are stuck in hospitals right now—as well as the front line staffers working overtime to keep them safe—it feels like the group’s work is more important than ever. But, of course, at a time when these cosplayers could be of help the most, they can’t be there. Cosplay Collective member “Corazon Rizal,” who asked that we only use her first name, Carolina, shared how hard it’s been to watch from the outside at such a vulnerable time.

“It’s really sad. Especially when, you know, you think about the kids—which is, at the heart of it all, why Cosplay Collective does what we do,” she said. “These kids, depending on what their age is, don’t understand the full gravity of the situation and how serious it is. It’s just pretty heartbreaking to not be able to bring the usual joy that we try to bring to others.”

Cosplay Collective co-founder Dee Volpe said the nonprofit group has been experimenting with new ideas to help children and others in hospitals during this time. This includes holding virtual princess and superhero parties for kids, like one they recently did with Dreams and Wishes of Tennessee, as well as neighborhood drive-bys and walk-arounds in costumes. The group is also working on a YouTube channel to provide generic birthday messages for parents to show their kids and members who sew have been making masks for front-line workers and others in need. It’s something many cosplayers in the community have been doing—at least in the U.S., where there’s been a notable mask shortage.

Han first started making masks so she could donate them to hospitals and has released a tutorial on YouTube, but she ended up getting a lot of requests from fans, so she started selling masks on her website. She personally makes the ones that are sold online (with the help of her fiancé), while her staffers prep the shipments and, in their spare time, make additional masks to donate to hospitals. Right now, Han said she’s producing about 100 a week, in spite of her carpal tunnel, and it’s helping keep her business afloat. She has three employees and is trying her best to keep them on the payroll.

But it’s just a stop-gap because no one knows what’s waiting on the other side. In the meantime, there are attempts to recreate normalcy. Some conventions like San Diego Comic-Con have announced they’ll do events online. This could mean more opportunities for cosplayers to recoup some of the audience and revenue that was lost when this all started. However, as Justice pointed out, online cons aren’t remotely the same thing and they present new challenges. Cosplayers may have to deal with new rights issues—for example, if a con tries to claim ownership of a cosplayer’s images because they were shared on their streaming channel. There’s also the issue of compensation. Some cons could try to undercut cosplayers simply because they won’t be there in person.

“There are companies that would be willing to compensate you for work that you would do at conventions, that will ghost you if you talk about compensation for doing the same content online,” Justice said. “People who read this may think that it’s easy and cosplayers just get money thrown at them. I’m like, no, you have to constantly negotiate your own value, 100 percent.”

It’s a challenging time for everyone, and cosplayers are just one of the many communities that have been impacted by the con scene cancellations. For-profit convention organizers employ hundreds of con staffers and volunteers at their events, pump money into their local economies, and give vendors and creators a chance to showcase their goods. San Diego Comic-Con, which is categorized as a nonprofit, has almost 1,000 employees and brings over $150 million worth of economic impact into the city. Almost all of that will be lost now. 

But the unique challenge with cosplayers is that they make a living by being seen. It’s one thing to glance at an image of a costume online. It’s another to see it in person or get a close-up look at the craftsmanship and detail that went into making that fictional character come to life. Every cosplayer I talked to said they were hopeful that conventions and cosplay can survive this ordeal, though none of them knew how or how long it would take. To be fair, most officials don’t either. But many of them seem willing to wait because it’s what they love.

“The reason we cosplay is because we want to express ourselves creatively and as fans. I think we will find ways to continue doing that. That I am sure of,” Han said. “Fandom is very resilient and has persevered because that’s part of the human psyche. We all have to have something we’re passionate about, and fandom provides so much of that stimulation for us. 

“We don’t know how long this situation will go on or how it will change,” Han added. “But I think that, as a fan, as a cosplayer, this doesn’t mean that cosplay is done.”

Originally posted on Gizmodo on May 18, 2020

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