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The Long Tail Nature of a Documentary

On August 23, 2016, my very first documentary premiered. It was a new experience, one that I could hardly appreciate due to the toll that the 11-month long project had taken on me.

This was a Hail Mary throw of a project - it was only made possible by the enthusiasm of a ragtag team of largely Year 1 undergraduates, led by someone with no experience in neither the execution of an expedition nor the making of a documentary.

If it was not for deliberate ignorance on my part, as well as a self-imposed tunnel vision on the grand prize of producing a documentary that I can call my own, giving up would always have been the more sensible option.

But beyond my own self-interest, what was the value of this documentary? Officially, I had sold it to funding organizations as an attractive media asset that would increase their 'return of investment'. After all, they were already spending thousands on our 28-strong team to go on a 12 day exhibition across Indonesia - why not spend a little more so that a documentary can be made for the larger student body to benefit from such an undertaking? That would be the impact that the documentary would have: bringing back the experiences we had so as to spread the learning value of this endeavour and potentially spark a whole new culture of exploration. The latter, hearteningly, was realised by future generations in the college, with seven more expeditions having been held over the four years since our inaugural voyage.

Yet, if that was it, then I might not have continued on my path of becoming a documentary storyteller. The impact of a documentary is always of importance and should be a key validating factor. But it cannot replace an essential need for such work to go unpaid. Much like a start-up believing in its own product, I believed that I would also see returns on my own investment. When I took on the project as its leader, I had also decided to inject most of my life savings into it. I had never seen my bank account this empty. These circumstances truly made for a formative period in my life. How could I justify spending thousands of my own savings on a project that I had no experience in? This doesn't even include the opportunity costs of embarking on an 11-month project during my very first year as an undergraduate.

One concept allowed me to remain stubbornly firm on my perception of the documentary's value - that of its long tail nature. Like a patent, once the documentary is complete, I own it! This is a powerful fact, and one that when realised for its potential, may display some sense in this investment of time and resources.

And so, I worked on realising that potential. The submission of The Conservation Conversation to film festivals gave much-needed credibility to both the film and to my role as a documentary storyteller - credibility that has seen returns in the long run. I can directly reference at least one overseas commissioned work that I gained due to an audience member having watched the documentary and enjoying it. But these are indirect returns. A direct return would see the film generate revenue by itself. And I believed that its long tail value would one day be proven.

Three years have passed since The Conservation Conversation premiered to about 100 people at a small theatre in NUS. And I have long moved on to other projects, forgoing the money I invested in the documentary as fees for learning on the job.

Life went on. But to my surprise, my first documentary that accelerated my career as a documentary storyteller had a bit more to give before calling it a day. On a flight to Myanmar to shoot another documentary, I received a heart-warming email: the documentary had been picked up for distribution. I let out a sigh of acknowledgment and looked forward to the next project as the plane touches down.

The Conservation Conversation is now disturbed in 5 countries through HOOQ and can be viewed here: https://www.hooq.tv/sg/movies/the-conservation-conversation-772c1a9f-e81c-448e-a787-0a67bd460da8