Supanova Melbourne 2008

by Mark Sombillo, Jun 22nd 2008

A week later and one could say that only now have I finally recovered enough energy to put down my thoughts on Supanova Melbourne 2008. This is the very first time that this nationwide phenomenon has touched Victorian turf. The question is, then: how does this new item in Melbourne's already cramped convention calendar measure up?

For those that came in late, a little bit of background information is probably in order: Supanova is one of the largest pop culture conventions in Australia, spanning a host of different fandoms, including anime, comic books and sci-fi series and movies. The past year has seen Supanova's success explode out from Sydney and Brisbane to other states. Supanova Melbourne was the first venture out of these two cities in the con's six year history. It was held in two of the buildings of the massive Melbourne Showgrounds, four kilometres north-west of the Melbourne CBD.

Saturday

I came to the event with trendy photographer in tow and zero expectations as to what Supanova would actually be like. Sure, I've been to Armageddon Expo before, Supanova's equivalent from across the Tasman, but this was the first time I attended a convention in a totally new capacity, namely being a representative of Anime News Network Australia. I was slightly confused upon entering the expo; having been a convention organiser myself for the past 3 years, I wasn't sure if I should take a look at the busy-little-bee like ruckus coming from the volunteer's backroom or head for the expo floor. Ultimately, I opted for the latter.

The event that immediately caught my attention was, of course, the AMV screening. It was turned out to be a casual showing of some classic videos, with some entertaining new ones thrown in for variety. I was rather relieved that it was just a simple screening and not a more serious event as the theatre setup was not in the least bit ideal. Both the traders and exhibitions were housed in the Boulevard Hocker building, and, stuffed in at the back of this was the Madman Anime Theatre, cordoned off from the rest of the building only by tall partitions.

Unfortunately, this setup did not provide nearly enough protection from all noise of a busy convention, including the frequent PA announcements. These inevitably became a major distraction from all the events in the theatre, including the cosplay and aforementioned anime screenings. The worst part of it all, however, was the fact that the Boulevard Hocker had a slightly transparent roofing to allow for minimal usage of electrical lighting during the day. This proved disastrous for the projector system. At times, all you were able to discern were clumps of white patches where anime character faces should have been emoting.

After a hurried lunch, we attended Spike Spencer's How To Be A Frickin' Genius Voice Actor panel. Most people will probably remember him for his work as the voice of Shinji Ikari, the protagonist from the series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Up until now, I – like many others - had never even seen a picture of this man. I've only ever known him as an animated character here and there, and to see him in the flesh certainly was an experience. Genuinely funny and a man fond of theatrics, he delighted the audience with his antics. He also had plenty of tales about what really goes on in the actor's booth, and spoke about where voice acting has led him in life. The panel was over all too soon and, after a few photo ops, we moved on to the next item in our itinerary: cosplay.

It was back to the Madman Anime Theatre for this, though, thankfully, its live nature meant it could be enjoyed despite the theatre's shortcomings. Cosplayers were not entirely a plentiful commodity throughout most the convention, and the number actually entering the competition was more limited still. Turnout was such that the competition, slated to run for two hours, couldn't have lasted more than an hour and a half.

Numbers weren't the only thing to blame for that, however. The interview process wasn't particularly extensive, much of the time limited to whether or not the contestant(s) wanted to pose for the cameras. Skits, too, were few and far between. These issues, I believe are probably to be expected with a brand new event like this. It remains to be seen if such a modest start can be built upon.

We walked around for an hour or so after the cosplay competition, looking at all the traders and exhibitors and calculating how much money I'd need to bring on Sunday. Interestingly, being an expo, there were quite a few spots where the fans were afforded a chance to partake of free samples. There were video games from EB Games and a Singstar booth run by Sony, there were wrestling matches and book launches, strangely enough, on the centre ring. I must say that, the hall didn't feel as packed as trader's halls I've visited before, and I'm not convinced that this could be attributed solely for the fairly large size of Boulevard Hocker. Much like the cosplay, we may come back to numbers.

Last agenda item for the day was the Anime Trivia, hosted by Manifest. It didn't have the greatest of turnouts, but it proved a lot of fun for those that attended. Better still, as an unexpected bonus, James Kyson Lee (star of the sci-fi series Heroes) made an unscheduled appearance, resulting in a torrent of squees from the back of the room. All in all, it was an interesting day, but I didn't exactly leave as the most impressed of attendees. Would the next day be better?

Sunday

Sunday's first order of business was supposed to be the Madman Q&A Panel, however, due to some confusion regarding daylight savings time, we made it to day two of the convention with lots of time to spare. We passed the time listening to Michael Winslow, most famous as the man with the magical voice box from the Police Academy movies. Michael was standing in front of the traders' hall reading notices, and we were treated to various announcements about the convention, done with sound effects and all manner of voices. A quick duck into the hall itself netted me autographs from two of my favourite actors, John Rhys-Davies and Teryl Rothery.

As we entered the Madman panel we found Sly, Madman's representative, squinting at the very glary screen, trying to figure out what it was they were premiering next. It turned out to be some very big news indeed: Madman will be releasing titles soon in Blu-Ray, and that they will also begin streaming anime online for free. Their Otaku Wear division also unveiled some good merchandise, largely capitalising on the popularity of the Bleach anime franchise. The panel also highlighted many of the new anime that will be premiering on DVD over the next three months or so. More information on this can be found in the latest issue of Anime Update publication.

Monica Rial, known most recently for her role as Sakura in Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles was judge for the next event, the DBZ Kamehameha Blast-Off! Much laughter was had by all as about two dozen seemingly sugared up anime fans screamed their lungs off, the winner being no less than the man cosplaying Vegeta from the series.

A quick trip to satisfy my sci-fi needs by seeing the last portion of Teryl Rothery's Stargate panel, and it was time again for the second cosplay competition of the weekend.

There seemed to be even fewer entries this time around. On the up side, the organisers seem to have learned their lesson the previous day because they actually did proper interviews of the cosplayers, ascertaining just how much of a fan they were and how much effort had gone into the costume. Despite even the extended interview process, however, and several interruptions from the PA, the competition was, again, over too quickly.

Here was when I noticed most keenly that the lack of entries was due to an overall lack of attendees. Seeing autograph lines devoid of people at the latter half of Sunday only hammered the point home.

After several rounds of the floor collecting photos and a circuit or two of the traders' hall, we finally reached the end of the day. I had hoped to catch the closing ceremony, but the final announcements for everyone to clear out were made before I was able to witness any such event. Ultimately, I wasn't sure if I missed it or if it just hadn't happened at all, but I took some consolation in finally being able to get Danny, the head organiser of Supanova, for a quick word. When asked about the number of attendees over the course of the con, he gave a fairly positive response and said that the weekend went well. I would have asked more, but we found ourselves being ushered out the door so the cleanup could begin, though not without a couple of boxes of free Dominoes pizza.

Summary

To put it simply, Supanova Melbourne had teething problems. The location and likely the low volume of advertising put out before the convention proved detrimental to attendee numbers. Four kilometres out from the heart of the city seemed to be four kilometres too many, as I don't believe the convention reached full capacity at all. And, while the equipment used for presentations and events was fairly top notch, the buildings themselves were not as suitable for such a convention as one would like. The problems with the Madman Anime Theatre were particularly disappointing given that there is a fairly well established theatre setup in the next building over. Then again, hiring another building for such a new event would probably not prove cost effective.

Volunteer problems seem to have plagued parts of the expo as well, though, mind you, this isn't entirely unheard in the Australian convention circuit. As part of the inter-convention exchanges, Manifest brought in such a sizable contingent of volunteers that I sometimes found myself wondering if Supanova wasn't just another event they ran. I think that this is actually a positive thing in the end, as conventions working together to help each other out can only mean good things for all the fans.

The aforementioned teething problems might have been both aplenty and glaring throughout the weekend, but I think they are fixable, especially now that the organisers have a completed convention under their belts. And they certainly did a number of things right. Registration and autograph lines were speedy and very well managed. The guests were entertaining and there was definitely something worth going to almost every point over the two days.

I tend to think that a sign of a good convention is that you're always on the move, always up for the next event, always having to make choices about what to see or do next, always a little frantic and buzzing. Given that it took me until the middle of the week after Supanova to settle down enough to concentrate on writing this report, I think can give it my tentative seal of approval. I had fun, and I hope Supanova learns from its mistakes, builds on its strengths and gives us an even better one next year.

Lots of thanks to Biccy for being my awesome photographer and to Drew for letting us in in the first place.


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