Donovan Chan is the man behind Beach House Pictures, who produces shows like Singapore Masterchef, and the recent two-part documentary on Raffles Hotel produced for Channel News Asia.
BY AUN KOH
09 MAY 2020
It’s funny that in the television industry, while the hosts often become household names and, in many instances, can become celebrities, the people behind the shows are often unknown to the general public.
That can definitely be said for Donovan Chan, who along with his wife and co-founder Jocelyn Little, run one of the most successful production companies in Singapore.
It doesn’t help that the 42-year-old Singaporean producer is neither on Facebook nor Instagram, despite repeated suggestions from friends. The only social media platform that Chan is on is LinkedIn.
However, if you ask TV insiders in Singapore or abroad about his company, Beach House Pictures, you’ll hear only great things. Here’s just one example for the regard that Donovan and Jocelyn have earned: Mediacorp was inviting production companies from all over the world to pitch new food television show ideas. When asked what local company these producers would want to work with, the one company that was suggested, time and again, was Beach House Pictures.
Some Beach House-produced shows you may be familiar with include Singapore Masterchef, and the recent two-part documentary on Raffles Hotel produced for Channel NewsAsia.
Beach House is now 16 years old, and has multiple arms (including branded content and children’s content) and offices in Singapore, China and Taiwan. To think it all began with just Chan, his wife, and two assistants.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO TV PRODUCTION?
By accident! My elder sister Diane and her film diploma course mates convinced me to play the role of a hitman Joey – named after the Concrete Blonde song–in their final year short film. I thought it was a pretty cool gig running around in a black trench coat, which in retrospect was not smart in tropical Singapore but so ‘exotic’ then, being a ‘Creative’ with a script and heavy camera gear, hanging out with girls a year above me, generally feeling rather important stopping traffic and getting stares in the streets. It’s the closest I will ever get to a gangster origin story. From there, I never looked back.
WHAT WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD LIKE? DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE IN THE MEDIA?
I came from a typical middle class Singaporean background. My parents were both civil servants who were tearing their hair out wondering why I wasn’t acing my schools exams like everyone else. I was really only interested in English, Literature, Art, Photography and bizarrely, Physics. I guess I was always super curious about how things work. Somehow that translated into a TV career. I became a lot more driven after national service, and with the help of my mum, flew to the UK and enrolled into an undergraduate documentary filmmaking course. So when I left university, there was really only the one thing I wanted to do and felt I could be good at.
HOW DID YOU AND JOCELYN FIRST MEET?
After graduation, despite a few cool gigs, I was still a broke student and desperately needed to grow my contacts in the industry. A friend somehow got me, a complete nobody, invited to Discovery Channel Asia’s 10th Anniversary party and that’s where I first met Jocelyn. Back then, she was already an incredibly respected producer and I was an out of work director who thought a brown vest over a white t shirt was the height of fashion. I’m guessing she looked past my many faults and found something worth sticking around for!
HOW AND WHEN DID BEACH HOUSE GET STARTED?
It was between 2004 to 2005 when we first started discussing the concept of Beach House – what it would stand for and what our goals would be. We were generally unhappy with the number of high quality factual and unscripted shows being produced out of Singapore – and Asia in general – for global markets. We were convinced that Singapore was a great place to headquarter an international production company that could win commissions from around the world, attract top co-production partners and compete with the very best.
BEACH HOUSE IS NOW ONE OF THE BIGGEST AND MOST WELL-REPUTED PRODUCTION COMPANIES IN SINGAPORE. WAS THERE A BUSINESS PLAN THAT YOU GUYS FOLLOWED?
If we knew then how incredibly hard it was going to get to where we are today, we probably wouldn’t have done it! As unbelievable as it sounds, we are pretty much now running the company we have always wanted. It is international with Asian and Singaporean roots, producing high quality content across different genres from factual to scripted. What we didn’t expect was how big it would grow into, between 60 to 150 staff depending on how many projects we have on. We also didn’t expect to find the business partners like Blue Ant Media in Canada, who invested in us, and our colleagues in China and the US who have joined us on this crazy journey.
My advice to any young entrepreneur is that it’s definitely worth starting with a three or even five-year business plan but if you are doing well, and because we operate in such a rapidly changing market, those plans go out of date real quick. So be resourceful, be highly adaptable, move quickly, be fastidious, lead from the front with loads of energy and make everything as beautifully as possible.
DO YOU THINK IT’S HARD TO RUN AND GROW A CREATIVE BUSINESS IN SINGAPORE?
Yes! We are like ducks in a pond. Calm on the surface and frantically paddling beneath. We are constantly problem solving everything. And for every win, there are ten failures and disappointments so we have to grow very thick skins.
WHAT KINDS OF SHOWS DO YOU GUYS SPECIALISE IN?
We are blessed to have an amazing team that oversees a diverse slate of shows for streamers like Netflix and broadcasters like Discovery and Nat Geo. From premium documentaries to entertainment and reality formats, kids programming (puppetry, animation and scripted) to branded content. And we produce for platforms from Singapore to China, UK to the US.
WHAT KINDS OF SHOWS, IN PARTICULAR, DO YOU LOVE TO MAKE?
We love a good challenge so we are always trying to devise original concepts that don’t feel like derivatives of existing shows. We are also keen on melding a theatrical style to our documentaries. I also love really noisy formats that pop and feel modern and fresh.
TELL US ABOUT FIRST MAN OUT
We are super excited about Season 2 of First Man Out, which we made for Discovery Channel and Chinese streamer Bilibili. Unlike the first season, we shot this series entirely in China’s remotest regions with British explorer and survivalist Ed Stafford. Ed is on a quest to find out if he’s really the best in the world and in every episode he invites some of the world’s top survivalists to race with him across vast distances and elevations, employing ingenious bushcraft skills to finish First Man Out.
I’m really proud of the whole team and it’s a great example of how far we have come as a company – a Singaporean producer that has made a global series airing in China to tens of millions of people and also in the US. It’s rolling out across Asia this weekend.
HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED YOUR BUSINESS?
As we are a company operating in both Asia, China and the US, you could say we had a “double dose” of the pandemic shutdown. First with the looming crisis in China early in the year, then the rest of the world. It was a period of complete chaos and extreme disappointment. Within the space of a month, we had around 10 projects either postponed or cancelled. A real body blow to morale and a massive shock to the business. But there was very little time to remain shell shocked and rattled. “Get up, get on with it and keep moving”, we told ourselves. The whole team pulled together and I’m glad to say after a lot of hard work we feel there is some momentum finally, but we are certainly not out of the woods yet.
FROM THE OUTSIDE, IT LOOKS LIKE THE PANDEMIC HAS IN SOME WAYS BENEFITED STREAMING COMPANIES. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THE CURRENT STATE OF TV AND VIDEO AND WHAT IS THE NEW NORMAL GOING TO LOOK LIKE MOVING FORWARD?
You can say that the pandemic has shone a light on every country’s and everyone’s strengths and weakness. There is simply nowhere to hide. The question is what are you going to do about it? It’s the same for subscription-based content platforms and linear channels like cable and national broadcasters. Every network’s ratings are through the roof but while subscriptions are up, ad buys are down. You don’t need a crystal ball to tell you that as a content provider you need to have robust diversity in your portfolio or you should really invest fully in the subs business or online delivery. As a producer, you can reap the benefits if you move fast, smartly and work hard to provide original premium content in volume and as competitively as possible.
WITH THE CIRCUIT BREAKER IN AFFECT, DO YOU FIND YOURSELF SUDDENLY WITH A LOT OF FREE TIME OR ARE YOU BUSIER THAN EVER?
What is “free time”? I don’t think I have worked as hard in my life as in the last few months! And it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Wish me luck!
FINALLY, WHAT’S THE DREAM PROJECT?
An actual beach house with an amazing sea view! Sorry, I know that’s not a TV or film project, but that’s my dream.