Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Brief History of Hobby and Fandom Conventions in the Philippines

I'm fresh from the New Worlds Alliance 5 Convention where various local fandom groups converged. In the days prior to the event, one email I got from the mailing list I was part of is that someone was baffled at how a convention could be held in a mall of all places, as he was used to US events were most conventions were hosted in a hotel or some similar location. Now that fact I take for granted but it made me realize how different--and unique--the Philippine hobby and fandom culture has become. In this essay, I'll attempt to tackle the evolution of the local convention industry, at least as far as fandoms and hobbies are concerned.

The first question I think we have to ask is why hold a convention? Of course each sub-culture has reason to congregate in large numbers and meet with like-minded people. In the case of the hobby and fandom convention, there were clearly precedents abroad (with science fiction conventions and all) but what would entice local fans to hold such an event? One of my longest passions has been anime and as much as I want to attribute the origins of the local fandom conventions to it, I can't. If there's anyone to blame, it's my retired hobby of Collectible Card Games (CCGs), Magic: The Gathering.

As early as 1995, the CCG Magic: The Gathering was a big hit in the country. For those unaware, Magic: The Gathering is a game played by two people, competing in a chess-like environment except instead of chess pieces, one uses cards. Of course like chess, there are professional tournaments where cash prizes can be won (and the champions are even sent abroad to compete). In the late 90's, the game was slowly becoming more and more popular with official and non-official tournaments held on a regular (at least monthly) basis. Novelty Entertainment, the company that was distributing the CCG (and would later import other CCGs as well), was heavily marketing these tournaments and there was a point when turn-outs at such tournaments numbered in the hundreds (either as participants, friends keen on watching the games, or independent vendors looking to sell/trade cards at the last minute). At the time, there were no hobby stores that could accommodate such numbers so the organizers usually held the event at malls, renting the space where mall events usually occur (anywhere from masses [yes, Filipinos hold mass at malls] to bingo games).

I forgot the exact year, whether it was 1998 or 1999, but Novelty Entertainment would later push for a bigger event: a Collectibles Convention where various retailers could peddle their wares all in one place. Unlike the conventions of the current decade, the highlight of such conventions back then wasn't cosplaying but rather the CCG tournaments they would host. Of course the question again was where would such a convention be held? Unlike the previous tournaments where all you needed were some tables and chairs, running a convention was an entirely different matter. Aside from a huge space, larger than what was taken up by tournaments, running a convention would need sound systems, electrical outlets, and booths that could be managed by individual retailers. One of the largest and most popular malls at the time, SM Mega Mall, had a venue for such an event. In fact, it was a hall rented out to various non-hobby related conventions and for quite some time, was the venue of the Philippine Book Fair. It was the Mega Trade Hall, 3 modular halls that could accommodate a huge number of people. All 3 halls were usually rented (depending on the budget) and the place was divided among the retailers. It was a bazaar of sorts as not only CCGs were sold but any shop that was closely related to the hobby such as comics, anime, and toys.

The convention enjoyed some success, at least enough to perpetuate it several times. I remember working for one of the retailers during the 3rd such convention and it was easily the place I satiated my desire to meet fellow anime fans. Unfortunately, Novelty Entertainment would later fold as a business and with it this massive, multi-hobby convention. That's not to say there weren't events that attempted such a convention. I faintly remember a Star Wars mini-convention at the smaller Shangri-La atrium although I never really got to attend the event. And then there was this Otaku Rave anime party hosted by Sterling Animation but it lacked a certain excitement for me and was more of a rave party for anime fans.

Of course in 1999, it was at that time that pockets of anime culture was being cultivated. Not only was anime hitting it mainstream thanks to Yu Yu Hakusho ("Ghost Fighter" is the local dub of the show) and Gundam Wing, but smaller events such as an anime film showing was behind held by various groups (I cleary remember the Anime@Arki shows in UP as well as the OraCafe screenings by Anima Anime). And then in 2000, the wish of every anime fan came true: we had a convention that was solely devoted to anime. The name of the event was entitled Anime Explosion 2000 and was held at the SM Mega Trade Hall over the span of three days (it was a weekend and semester break for the students to boot). What made it different from the previous Collectibles Convention is that this garnered much publicity, supposedly over 11,000 people in attendance, in spite of the entrance fee (P100.00 or around $3.00 at the time).

Now before I continue, I'd like to tackle the economics of such a convention. One reason why such conventions were held at the Mega Trade Hall wasn't simply because it was the only place such a convention could be held, the organizers (I assume) also want to garner a lot of foot traffic and make it affordable. In the US, conventions are usually held at hotels and there's lots of pre-registration. In conventions here, there's less pre-registration and more of impromptu walk-ins. I don't remember if the Collectibles Convention charged for its entrance but if there was, the cost was minimal. For the most part, the attendees of the Collectibles Convention were by people aware of the event or simply people interested in buying toys (be it kids or adults). Anime Explosion 2000, on the other hand, seemed to attract a wider demographic despite its narrower focus. I'm sure some of the attendees heard of the event prior to that day but it's also not uncommon for anime conventions both present and future to attract the attention of people who didn't even know there was such an event going on by its sheer location (usually malls). I've attended conventions that weren't held in malls but the result of such events is that it tends to be inclusive--that is the only participants are the die-hard fans themselves who have heard of the event previously. Such events are minimal in attendance (hundreds at most) but I think that is the target market of the organizers. Rather than simply attracting numbers, they're more focused on the quality of the participants.

Anyway, moving back to the topic, the 11,000 attendance was a strong indicator that organizing such an event was feasible, and made it look like a worthwhile endeavor to sponsors. In many ways, Anime Explosion 2000 was the first event of its kind and in my opinion was perhaps one of the best conventions ever held. However, not all of its elements would be retained in future conventions: First and foremost, Anime Explosion 2000 introduced cosplay to the Philippines. That's not to say there weren't any cosplay events here in the Philippines prior to that event (we held one at Anime@Arki even before Anime Explosion 2000), but that was the time when it hit mainstream consciousness. I'd like to think the cosplay event was the main attraction of the convention and in retrospect, is one of the legacies of the con that's still being put into practice today, irregardless of whether you're an anime convention or not. The second was the special guest: Anime Explosion 2000 featured Yuu Watase, creator of the manga/anime Fushigi Yuugi. Now in US cons, I'm sure they usually have a special guest, whether it's an actor, the dubber, or the seiyuu or a particular fandom. In the Philippines, honestly, that doesn't happen often. Most conventions are more of an event by fans for fellow fans, and so special guests aren't always possible. That's not to say there haven't been special guests in conventions such as artists and designers from Japan but that seldom happens. Anime Explosion 2000 was marketed as the first appearance of Yuu Watase in the Philippines but the special guest feature isn't replicated in subsequent cons. The third factor which was important for me was that for the most part, a lot of related industries were united. The event was backed up by cable channel AXN for example. There was also the participation of the various animation groups in the Philippines (ArtFarm Asia and Toei comes to mind). For the most part, I think everyone wanted this to succeed. Later conventions, in my opinion, seemed to have splintered groups participating in the event. Instead of a united front, the various institutions held their own convention, such as the AXN holding its own AXN Convention (I'm not saying that this is a bad thing or that it could have been averted, merely that it's different). The last legacy is the specialization. While The Collectibles Convention was a hodgepodge of various interests, Anime Explosion 2000 was focused on one medium. This is perhaps the other element that is retained in present conventions: focus.

As successful as the Anime Explosion was, it wouldn't be replicated until a year later. Since then, there seems to be an anime convention being held every year under one organizer or another. Of course it wouldn't only be anime that would cash in on this market. Over the years, several "specialized" conventions would pop up: video games, comics, toys, jpop/rock, etc. Instead of this melting pot of various groups and fandoms, local conventions these days seem to be drifting towards a specific agenda. The one exception I think is the New Worlds Alliance. They first popped up in 2003 and what's peculiar is that they're not quite specialized. Instead of merely focusing on one fandom, the New Worlds Alliance is a combination of sorts, drawing in various related fields such as anime or a particular cult title. Perhaps its one concession is that on some years, each event is "hosted" by one fandom group, such as Star Wars when the Episode III movie was debuting in that particular year. Another highlight of such conventions, as I said before, was the cosplay aspect. Whether as a formal event (a catwalk on stage) or an informal one (where fans merely pop up in costume), cosplaying seems to be prevalent in conventions (no doubt due to the cosplayers who have developed into a fandom of their own and desire to appear in costume, accommodating the themes of the various events). In the formal cosplay competition, this can be observed by the fact that the catwalk is usually the "prime time" slot of most conventions, anywhere from mid-afternoon to early in the evening, capping off the event. Of course cosplaying is also audience friendly as many people will ask people in costume if they could take their photo with them. And a couple of fandoms such as Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Star Wars don their costumes like uniforms, identifying their particular allegiances.

Currently, there's almost like a convention-like event occurring almost every month, with various hobbies and interests being promoted as well as cosplay competitions being a vital part of the program. As for Magic: The Gathering and other CCGs, tournaments are still being held at the mall regularly although the local distributor stopped adopting the convention model for such events. That's not to say they didn't attempt one before and it seemed an enjoyable event in itself. But as far as conventions are concerned, a variety of events are popping up, so much so that they even surprise me. Which is probably a good thing.

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