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The Problem with "Manga Fairs" in Spain

by Manu G.,

Conventions celebrating anime and manga in Spain have become something quite messy. Going by the name of ‘manga fairs’, many conventions over the last decade have tried to emulate the Barcelona Manga Fair, the biggest Japanese culture convention in the country. The problem with ‘manga fair’ lies in its own definition. It's not so much about the guests or the program anymore, but about keeping the name of ‘manga fair’ a term inherent to low-quality conventions that were lucky enough to arise in a time when the otaku community didn't have spaces to meet other people with their same interests. Now the situation is untenable, and the bubble around these conventions has grown to its limit. These ‘manga fairs’ are not interested in Japanese pop culture itself. They're more a hideous conglomerate of merchandising and recycled programs under a superficial climate of cosplay.

This is not news, though. It's been a while since Spanish public opinion, influenced by the media, has used manga fairs to mock attendees purely as a bunch of geeks dressing up as their favorite fictional characters. Even in those terms, manga fairs were profitable. Fast-food conventions emerged, and soon every city had its own manga fair. The otaku public demanded them, and they would attend every new manga fair as long as the ticket price was low, so the bubble kept growing. Travel agencies became event organizers, and associations all around Spain competed with each other to prove their worth with their own manga fairs. Public money to subsidize straight-up scams went unnoticed, because every city council wanted to have their own manga fair, whether or not they knew what these events were supposed to feature.

Right now, the Spanish otaku community is in an awkward situation, because they're partly responsible for the proliferation of these counterfeit conventions. The real problem comes when these cut-rate manga fairs want to evolve; they must first raise the ticket price. Just taking a look at some Spanish anime and manga conventions with more expensive prices—around 10€—you can find a good number of people confronting the organization and calling them hustlers. But just how much does organizing a convention cost? Depending on the city and how many days it runs, renting a venue can cost between 10.000 and 50.000 euros. If we're talking about bigger fairs that need huge spaces, the rent can even reach 100.000€, then there's every derived expense like electricity or hiring staff. Do you want to feature an exhibition or screening for a new anime movie? Reproduction rights can run hundreds of euros. Do you want to have Japanese guests? Bringing a Japanese personality to Spain costs 2.000€ on average, a number that may double or triple if the guest is accompanied by his manager or publisher staff.

Besides the tickets, the only way conventions can recover this investment is by selling spaces to exhibitors. Because of the manga fair reputation as a frivolous activity for young people who just want to hang out with their friends, disregarding the scope of artistic presentation that aspiring conventions must devote hours and hours of programming to fulfill— they've been forced into a negative connotation that only allows for great numbers of cheap conventions. As a result, getting enough money from sponsorships to grow turns out to be quite difficult.

Let's get back to the Barcelona Manga Fair, a manga convention that has not stopped growing in size and attendance for years. We speak to Carles Santamaría, a journalist and cultural manager who runs the convention from FICOMIC, organizer of the Barcelona Manga Fair and the Barcelona Comic Fair. Carles assured us that the convention has prevailed thanks to its low prices, given that the organization is “a non-profit federation, whose purpose is the promotion of comics and manga, with no benefits to distribute amongst owners.” “This does not mean that we're taking a monetary deficit approach, since our annual budget has to break even, and subsidies only account for 6.6% of revenue, while 93.4% of revenue comes from selling exhibitors, tickets, sponsorships, and advertising”, he explained.

The last Barcelona Manga Fair—which took place between the end of October and the beginning of November 2016—reached 142,000 attendees. "For us, it's not about the numbers, but the attendee's level of satisfaction. The Manga Fair must allow manga and anime fans to enjoy their passion, as well as exposing the general public to Japanese culture”, Carles said. The volume of attendees has grown so much that the organization is already proposing a change of location for 2018. “We are working very intensely so that we can celebrate in the Fira Barcelona Gran Via in 2018”, he said. For 2017, they will maintain their location, just “using more space and redistributing activities to favor greater mobility.”

It's important to return to the subject of Spain's convention ticket prices, not only the cheapest in Europe but also quite cheap in comparison with United States' anime conventions. Japan Expo Paris' four-day ticket costs 56€. The four-day admission to the Barcelona Manga Fair just costs 27€, which is less than half of Japan Expo's ticket price. If we compare the prices per day, Japan Expo reaches 22€ for Saturday, with price varying by day, while entry to Barcelona's event remains at 9€ for every day—7€ for children and seniors. In London, Hyper Japan Festival cost £43 in 2016 for three days, around 50€. ANImagic, celebrated in Mannheim, Germany, already has its 3-day ticket on sale starting at 67€.

There are signs of change for Spain's convention economy, but conventions have set a limit on ticket pricing for years at 5€ per day. Considering that only Madrid and Barcelona—along with other smaller cities like Valencia or Seville—have a population large enough to cover expenses for a large convention, it's absurd to force ticket prices so low, which has led to these scam-heavy minor cons with major limitations for improvement. When you have been accustoming the public to this quality at this price for years, changing the trend becomes an undertaking. Opportunistic conventions that favor the bubble and those who want to develop their entertainment spaces for the better exist on the same plane, so is there any way for an audience to discern between the two of them?

Japan Weekend is one such convention facing an audience unwilling to pay higher prices. Despite this, they have managed to focus all their efforts on becoming the second highest attended Japanese culture convention in Spain—just after the Barcelona Manga Fair—with more than 65,000 attendees last February. Iñaki Pueyo is the director of Japan Weekend, a touring convention that also takes place in cities like Valencia, Barcelona, Bilbao, and Granada. Between all these events, Japan Weekend claims to have more than 200,000 attendees per year.

The project began in 2005, seeking to professionalize their convention by establishing itself as a company. (The majority of Spanish events depend on non-profit associations.) At one point, Japan Weekend's organization decided to raise the ticket price. “Compared to the rest of Europe, we had very low prices, partly because the events had been publicly subsidized in the past. Our project, being completely private, needed extra contributions to be able to expand into more interesting content. So the only way to raise the quality of the convention was to raise the price of tickets too”, said Iñaki. Last Japan Weekend Madrid's ticket price was 13€ for Saturday and 10€ for Sunday, with somewhat more expensive options that included anime movies or series on DVD.

For Iñaki, the situation in Spain is very particular, since the country is still recovering from the economic crisis, lacking big companies “with interest in promotion like in France, for example”. “The term 'manga fair' is exclusive to Spain. Most conventions have been attempted clones the original Barcelona event”, he explained. About the attendance issue, although it's complicated, Iñaki commented that "the costs from hosting a convention are both surprisingly high and unknown to the public, yet the majority of funding comes from ticket sales”. “The problem with conventions in Spain is their amateur level. The market has much potential but does not generate the economic impact that it should. There's also a problem with Japanese companies. They are very reserved and do not accept these projects to support their market as we think they should”, he concluded.

Recently, the Jerez Manga Fair organization, promoters of Comic Con Spain, have been involved in a national controversy, after trying to sell to Valencia a supposed "Spanish edition" of San Diego Comic-Con. After meeting with the city council and bragging about ties with the largest international comic event on the planet, it was discovered that this was a trick by organizers who had already tried to repeat the scam years ago with Gijon's Metropoli, a multidisciplinary fair that devotes only part of its programming to comics. This incident further highlights the rot that surrounds the convention economy in Spain.

At this point, the question to ask is whether it's worth keeping this lowest-price model that has permitted manga fairs to maintain their attendance numbers at the expense of quality. If someone who is not willing to pay more is considered more valuable than the attendee who craves better conventions, manga fairs will be doomed to an eventual death sentence. There will come a time when attendees will tire of the samey quality of their home city's manga fair, and then it will be too late to summon the resources for something more worthwhile to give those interested in the promotion of Japanese culture.

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