As I’ve gotten older, the number of opportunities to witness historical events has increased. Some monumental, like the Berlin Wall coming down, or 9/11. Others are maybe not so world shaking, but personally important. Marriage, the birth of children, finishing up a military enlistment, changing jobs, and building an addition to the house all stand out.
Each milestone, whether global, local, or personal, serves to be reference point on the road of our life. Future discussions are anchored by “that was about the time of…” and then some past marker is mentioned.
For a few years, I’d been involved in my local IPMS (International Plastic Modelers Society) in various ways, not only as a member, but on occasion serving in a leadership capacity. I’d even had the opportunity to assist in planning and executing several model shows with the club.
Of course, I’ve also traveled to more than a few shows over the years, ranging from very small local events, all the way up to the IPMS National show. While certainly the size varies, some things remain constant. Vendors sell their wares, models are displayed on tables, awards are handed out, friendships renewed, and FS colors are argued.
But as I spent more and more time observing the culture of IPMS-US… at least in the Southeast where I live, one thing really stood out.
We Ain’t Getting Any Younger
Back In 2015, I’d done a survey of modelers. Surprisingly, 575 people responded. One of the facts that jumped out as I reviewed the results was that 93% of the respondents were 41 or older. Only 1 was under 18. Certainly some of that could be passed off on the survey method itself, which relied heavily on the members of a few scale model forums which tend to skew towards those age groups anyway.
However, every IPMS model show I went to reinforced the data. While there were occasional visitors and participants under forty, the vast majority were beyond that age. In fact, reflecting the survey’s findings, most of the people walking (shuffling?) the aisles of built models and stacks of kits for sale were over 50.
It got to the point that when I’d call my wife to tell her I’d arrived safely at whatever show I was attending, I’d joke that “this must be the place, because I see old guys like me carrying plastic toys and headed to the bathroom on arrival.”
Pointing A Finger… Somewhat
And I have to admit, it was not surprising. While I have many, many cherished friends among the ranks of IPMS-USA, and have enjoyed the various shows and functions for the most part, the overall tone of the organization seems to reflect what I’d best describe as “grumpiness”.
The focus is on competition, the conversations revolve around esoteric issues of color, and to the outside visitor, it appears as a rather closed and isolated group. Certainly not every club, or every show, is this way. Yet in general, and in many of the places I have been to, I think the characterization fits.
What seems to be ignored is the fact that if things don’t change, IPMS-US will be essentially dead within 30 years. The failure to create an attractive, welcoming environment for younger builders is virtually a guarantee of obsolescence.
Seeing It First Hand
Two years ago, I attended a show in my local area. It would be classified as a smaller effort, but all the elements were there. Some good vendors, plenty of models to peruse and admire, and of course many friends to greet and talk with. I’d just recently gotten into building Gundam, so I eagerly headed to find if any had been entered.
A few had been entered, all by two young men I met. Both were in their 20’s, and I immediately engaged them in a fun and lively discussion about Gundam, IPMS, traditional model building, techniques, and all of the other things modelers discuss.
The thought occurred to me that they had brought something in the room that I typically did not see.
They were obviously passionate about their craft. Their entries were very nice, and showed a good level of attention to detail. Yet as I talked with them, and observed their work, I was also struck by a thought.
Here were two people who loved the hobby, and wanted to grow. They were surrounded by literally centuries of experience in every aspect of the hobby.
Yet for the most part, it was though each world was operating in its own little bubble.
No one was rude to them, of course. People did engage them… but it often seemed to my eye more as a curiosity. To the young men’s credit, they seemed quite happy to talk with anyone and everyone, eager to take in all they were seeing – to absorb and learn from it.
A Gray Cloud
I came away from that show a bit discouraged. Though I was no longer participating to any great deal in the IPMS structure, I did know that a strong IPMS helped strengthen the hobby.
Yet as I pondered that days events, the results of my survey from a few years prior kept coming to mind. The traditional modeling hobby was dying out.
Sure, there are new folks buying tanks, and planes, and so forth. Yet when I applied my business brain to it, I knew that there was a threshold which manufacturers simply won’t find it feasible to produce kits. To be blunt, as the buying audience for those genres dies off, the sales opportunities decrease.
Of course, right now there is money to be had. The audience that built models as kids in the 50s, 60s, and 70s are now at a perfect point where time and budget allow for large purchases and investments in the hobby. The amount of unbuilt kits we hang on to as a group is astonishing. My survey showed that the average respondent probably had about 180 kits sitting unbuilt! So manufacturers are enjoying excellent cash flow.
Yet that won’t continue, I believe.
Where The Money Is
Since Bandai began selling Gunpla kits 30 odd years ago, they have averaged 12 million units sold per year. While I’ve never been able to get firm numbers from traditional kit makers, the extrapolations I have been able to come up with indicate that all other makers combined can’t even approach that number.
So there is a market for model kits.
But the trouble is, those kits aren’t the kind that the typical IPMS chapter is going to give one bit of attention to. Yet when the audience building those kits – and similar types based on franchises particular to that age group – when that audience is examined, there is an obvious vibrancy to the outlook. Kits are being purchased. Skills are being learned. Communities are organizing. And while they wrestle with many of the challenges that us “old guy clubs” face, one thing makes them distinct.
Long term sales potential.
So companies like Bandai market to them in a huge way. it moves the product.
But the traditional folks seem intent on squeezing the last bit of revenue out of the dying audience. And frankly, what I’ve observed of IPMS-US seems content to ride along as the tide tolls out.
The Perfect Storm?
All of these things went through my mind as I started planning what shows I’d attend in 2019. While there are some good local ones, by far the best in my region was also a good drive away – IPMS Richmond’s Old Dominion Open.
I’d been to this show once before, and was shocked at how large, how well-organized, and how very thorough it was. Everything from the parking to check in to the vendor area seemed well thought out and executed.
More importantly, the interaction I’d had with club leadership had been decidedly positive. Enthusiastic, helpful, and friendly all come to mind when trying to describe them. I was gladdened by the level of energy and enthusiasm I saw.
Still, it was not lost on me that the general age level fit right in with the survey findings from a few years ago. Despite all that was right, much of the audience was within 25 years of – to put it in modeling vernacular – being relegated to the “shelf of doom”.
Happy to find out that the 2019 Old Dominion Open had added categories for Gundam, I was looking forward to the possibility of seeing what that brought.
The Right Person At The Right Time
One of the Gunpla builders I’d mentioned above was a fellow named Joel Stone. As with so many folks in his generation, he brings a passion and enthusiasm that has not been blunted from age quite yet. Additionally, he’s someone willing to try to make a change. Already active in the Gunpla community, he has no trouble energizing people.
When he found out that the ODO had Gunpla categories, he and his friends went into action. They began to publicize the event, gathering folks together to travel to the show. Gunpla were built, in large quantities. The goal was not to “show up the old guys”, but rather to carry the flag for the hobby they loved. And though the genre was different from traditional IPMS fodder, the same goal was there – putting plastic on tables.
When I arrived at the show, vendors were setting up, and modelers were bringing in their work. As with many shows, the number of kits built slowly at first, as people worked their way through the registration line. A time-lapse image of it would likely be quite fun to watch – motion everywhere, people scurrying about, and more and more kits being placed on the tables.
As I wandered around the hall, I was quite impressed with the level of talent on display. What really caught my eye was the diversity of genre. While I have built aircraft for many years, and always liked to see them, the “business” side of me knows that diversity in genre is the key to long-term engagement across a wide audience.
So the aircraft tables began to fill up. But so did the ships, and tanks, and cars, and dioramas. Scifi and space also looked particularly strong, as did figures.
But what really caught my eye, and so many others too, was the Gundam table. It grew, and grew, and grew. Fairly quickly it filled up. More tables had to be added, doubling the space allotted for it. By the time the deadline passed for new entries, almost 100 Gunpla models were spread across four tables. The early number I heard was that the effort resulted in that genre representing 10% of all kits entered in the show.
Maybe There Is Hope
What I found really encouraging was watching the two bubbles bump into each other… and burst. Old guys and young guys were talking. The old guys tentatively took a look at this “new kid on the block”, and I think were quite pleasantly surprised to see the level of skill and talent on display.
Yet I also noticed that the younger audience began to turn from facing in towards their table, and began to look at all around them. Ages and genres and backgrounds began to mingle.
I deliberately walked around observing this process. In more than a few cases, I eavesdropped on a few conversations. (Sorry… yes, I was creeping y’all! 🙂 ) The wealth of skill from the older group was being passed on to the newer group. The newer group shared their enthusiasm for the hobby with the older group – and also engaged in discussion about new techniques.
I saw guys my age and older suddenly walking around with Gunpla and other “new” kits under their arms. And the folks who’d raised the Gunpla flag were laying down money for some traditional kits.
Of course, in the bigger scheme of things, this is no Berlin Wall or birth of a child. When you get right down to it, all we’re really talking about is people who gather together in order to share a love of plastic toys.
Yet in terms of the health of the hobby – this is where it needs to be. Just as previous generations of craftsmen pass the torch on in terms of skills, techniques, and knowledge, so must this generation – which is represented by IPMS – pass things on to the next. The kits may look different, the people may not dress the same, or have the same outlooks in many areas, yet the common hobby we all share brings everyone together.
Most importantly, a merging of the worlds as I saw this past Saturday grows the audience for the companies that service folks with plastic, paint, glue, and so much more. When the automobile emerged, the companies that kept going were the ones who transformed from making buggies and carriages to building cars. I think the same call is being made to traditional manufacturers. The way forward is there… it may just not be where you expect.
I’m quite encouraged by all of this. As I say so often, this hobby is about fun.
The process I saw this weekend was fun to watch. And I think if it grows, it will only increase the fun.
A Few Final Notes
I wish I could remember all of the names of the folks I met, and who were instrumental in getting all of this together. I’ve already mentioned Joel Stone, who did an amazing job of promoting and energizing some very passionate and talented Gunpla builders. The folks at IPMS Richmond, as always, put on a superb show. It’s by far the best IPMS show I go to, year after year. My dear friend Chazz Klanian from IPMS Richmond, is always a gracious host, and embodies everything we want to see in this hobby. To all the folks I met – thank you for taking the time to stop and talk with me. It was truly a blessing to get to know each one of you.
If I could encourage anything, it would be to keep this process going. The hobby needs it.