Singapore recently reached its 5 million population milestone. That’s great in terms of crowd-drawing, because without a decent population density, or total number, it gets hard to organise big events profitably. Our neighbouring nations include Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of SE Asia. Realistically, only Malaysians and crazy Indonesians would be willing to travel to Singapore just for an anime convention. The vast majority of anime fans here are youngsters who obtain their anime via the Internet, illegally. They are also very savvy in the latest anime, news and trends from Nippon. There is little to no anime production facilities or demand here. There is a great transport network that allows everyone across the island to see each other whenever they want to. We basically only have one area in Singapore where anime fans gather for merchandise, and another one area for general collectibles and toys. Singaporeans, culturally, are very dispassionate people who are generally apathetic in nature, due to the education system and a nanny state government.
So, combining all the factors above, it’s a recipe for failure, for any large event held annually that does not include scantily clad hot girls, cheap discounts on purchasables or is targeted at a niche market.
Conveniently, the F1 Singapore leg just ended last night. It was the second time, same as AFA, that it was held here, at huge cost. Last year, tickets were sold out, and people were talking nonstop about it. This year? Lots of tickets left, people stopped caring and were more concerned with the inconveniences due to having road closures. The F1 honestly, is a niche event that only car lovers would attend every year. Last year, lots of the crowd were people who were there for the sake of novelty, as it was the first time they would see and hear an F1 car zoom past. Once they’ve achieved that, and spread the word that "yeah it was nice but not worth the hundreds of dollars for the tickets", people just lost interest. And imagine, this is a hugely funded, government-driven, super-promoted world event. What of AFA?
AFA is even more problematic,
but it has the huge advantage of it being free to enter. This is a very big plus when it comes to attracting crowds, as casual passersby would pad the numbers. * Edit: I was under the impression that it was free to enter! Apparently not and I hear lots of complaints about the tripling of ticket prices from last year. Interesting.* Let’s take a look at the problems first. There are only that many otaku in Singapore. As the recently concluded STCC (Singapore Toys and Comics Convention) showed, niche events catering to a web-savvy demographic have the problems of losing focus, and not being indepth enough, and thus displeasing visitors. Say 1/3 of the visitors to STCC were western comics fans, and 1/3 were toy fans, and 1/3 were anime fans. Each of them would find their area of interest lacking, since they wouldn’t be interested in the other exhibits that do not belong to their sphere of interest. AFA thus seeks to avoid this problem by sticking close to its anime roots and this is laudable of course. BUT we also know this further shrinks the target segment. It’s not a bad thing, even if official statistics point to Singapore having a population of 25% foreigners (most of which are cheap labour, would they like maid cafes?), 8.8% senior citizens above retirement age (would they like anime? The Japanese raped their moms in the war) I’ll say 30% (a generous over estimation) are people who are within the age groups that have a chance of liking anime and thus possibly attending. Out of this 30%, let’s be awesomely optimistic, I would say maybe 1% have watched anime, and most of this is actually streamed Naruto and Bleach. For other countries, 1 percent would be hugely unrealistic, but according to my observations, about 60% of school-going kids are watching some form of anime right now, and 99% of it is illegal of course. Now, i don’t think the size of the target segment is a problem. The real problem lies in sustainability.
AFA has been and will be held in late November or so, which is the school holiday period for primary school, secondary and junior college students. It’s however, the examination period for university students. That strikes off the bulk of the anime fans in university, as most are not hard core enough to skip their exams, or studying for them, to go for conventions. Sure, some are, but these are the exception. I’m not sure about polytechnic and ITE students, but a good guess is that they should be fine with it. Despite Singapore’s small size and only 3 (real) universities, there are about 150 000 undergraduates and graduate students in total, and it is a known fact that a sizeable chunk of these are into anime. Small problem though, it’s not a big enough issue to worry the organisers, since the hardcore otakus would still attend.
The reason why Cosfest and EOY, the previously dominant anime events, which specialised in amateur cosplay, had such longevity, was because they had really low operating costs and were run by otakus who were really free/passionate/egotrippin’. The vast bulk of their costs were in the booking of the venue. I can’t say the same for AFA obviously, since it’s on a scale far above the former two, and to recoup these costs, there are only a few apparent sources of income. The booth rentals, the premium concert tickets and possibly sponsorships in exchange for advertising. AFA also requires much publicity, which doesn’t come free. The staff also do not work for free unlike the fan-run events. The maids have pretty high salaries as well. Bringing the celebs in from Japan, paying for their airfares, hotel fees, entourage, and of course the actual money involved in hiriing them, I’m sure you can imagine all the costs involved. I spoke closely with Kurogane, who was involved in bringing Minorin to Daicon, and she just brought 4 other people, and the bare essentials and it already cost a five figure sum for just one performance. Considering AFA has a lot more than that, the costs are obviously higher by a factor of X.
With such high costs, they need to get money back right? Unless they’re in the hobby of losing money, which is a rather otaku thing. I frankly do not see how they can do so. Suntec can be made a concert venue, but this involves shutting out the rest of the exhibition goers. If they were to go down this route, the organisers would most likely be booking one hall for concerts and then using another hall for the booths and other exhibitions. This might be a problem since that removes part of the draw for casual visitors. They would also require high booth fees from their tenants. The catch is that the market in Singapore is so tiny that officially, there is only one distributor for the bulk of the anime figurines. Ditto for COSPA merchandise (KKnM). As a result, what happens is that these distributors are obliged to attend, pay the booth fees, and ultimately gain little benefit from the whole event, since they practically already have a monopoly in the market here.
But finances (BORING) aside, the main problem lies with the content. This year, they have 2 artistes returning from last year, May’n and he who is commonly known as Aniki. Besides them, there’s Shouko-tan and this one other guy artiste. There are also competitions for cosplayers, gunpla makers. A new thing is the maid cafe too (which I have an inside scoop of lol, soon to come). There’s also an appearance and talk by Danny Choo, who just got a free Lumix GF1 micro 4-3rds SLR, wtf. The content this year is fine and it appears that the organisers have considered the rapidly wilting interest levels of a typical Singaporean and thus upped the ante by bringing in 4 artistes and a bunch of new things. F1 didn’t have any new thing. Herein lies a key sustainability problem though – if one has to practically double the investment and scale, just to possibly bring in the same crowd or slightly more, and then repeat this exercise the next year, would this be a sustainable business model? The booths are static and will soon lose any semblance of appeal, since there’s an upper limit determined by the number of anime-interested people after all.
The biggest and most interesting problem however, is how Singaporeans obtain their anime. See, the Japanese are not aware in general, that we watch the same anime they do, at the same time. They think just because something hasn’t been officially brought in, we foreigners wouldn’t know of it. This was very evident in the surprise that Minorin felt, when the WHOLE crowd has seen Ga-rei Zero and she was like, "Oh I have this new show that has yet to be brought in to Malaysia." LOL. Now, the AFA organisers know this, but they have their hands tied because they cannot overtly bypass Odex and other distributors, and be super up to date with the latest series. Sure they could premiere stuff, but they cannot totally be openly promoting unlicensed shows, even if these are what the crowd wants. As such, there is a disjunction between what the crowd wants and what AFA can provide.
Almost all of the successful long-running conventions have been goods-peddling ones, namely the 3 electronics fairs we have that are fucking crowded, to the extent you can body surf all the way through, and the travel fair, where people buy tour packages at big discounts. There’s also a notable newcomer, the Super Import Nights, which feature flashy cars and more importantly, uber skimpily clad busty women imported from the US, Taiwan, Thailand and other countries. This new event is crazy crowded with pervs and regular horny men. I don’t see a future for AFA, and it’s already pretty good compared to the STCC.
That said, I’m quite impressed with the way the AFA people have organised it, in spite of the limitations. They understand that neither the grassroots approach of Comikket, nor the official Tokyo Anime Fair-styled industry booths, will work here in Singapore so they have fashioned a rather unique convention. The US system of conventions totally does not apply here as well, as Americans have to travel far and wide to meet up, and they have a strong creator base as well. Singaporeans are really only interested in official goods, official artistes and cute girls (in costume or not) and as such, the whole AFA revolves around these. The non-official portions contribute the hot girls either in cosplay or maid cafe form, and the other events provide visitors with their fix of official souvenirs and sightings of real Japanese stars. I don’t think this year would be a failure, just that it will get more and more difficult to maintain success and beyond a threshold, such conventions would always fail.
To avoid being labeled a bitter bastard, I’m offering a few possibly crappy solutions that might ameliorate the problems somewhat. The first is to inject money into the cosplay scene to improve its quality. Everyone loves a hot cosplayer, but real cosplayers are generally not hot. Some might have good costumes but I don’t see how a professional costumer can do worse than an amateur. Instead of only maid cares, we should hire more hot girls with great figures (or lolis, depending on tastes) and tailor-make costumes for them. You can think of it as a race-queen type attraction. Nobody’s interested in bad cosplayers, but we don’t want people to not have fun, so the bad cosplayers can show up and be ignored but still have fun among themselves, while the regular people ogle the hot hired ones.
Another variant of this solution is to hire some of the famous cosplayers in Japan over as guests. Considering the number of people going gaga over this year’s guest the Cloud cosplayer from Japan, I’m pretty sure this would work and it wouldn’t be that expensive, especially if you collect money for people to take photos with them like zoo animals.
See, my ideas revolve around attracting visitors with beautiful people, because I see that as the most cost-effective way for conventions to get visitors. My final suggestion is to subsidise or provide anime goods at discounts, but this would be a problem and undercut the retailers’ already tiny market. So the best would be to produce limited edition goods that are of decent quality, possibly figures or mecha kits, and sell them during the convention itself. I think this has been done already though, but it needs to be grander and more awesome for people to come just for that. I don’t think cheap figures are effective for this. A limited 100 figure quota super sized Ayanami Rei or whatever female in vogue would be good.
This has been a rambling post, I would’ve cut it down to more concise points to save time for me and you, but too bad it’s done. I think one of the best parts about AFA though, is that it is a great outlet for otakus to do real work, albeit as cheap labour, for the organisers. It’s a win-win situation, people like Sentinel011 and gang get to learn about the industry they love, travel to Japan for negotiations and girl group concerts, and work on stuff they like, possibly leading onto a real job in the industry, while the actual organisers get dedicated manpower who don’t have distractions like girlfriends to slowdown work. However, as much as I like the concept, I doubt AFA will succeed in the long run (or not so long run).