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Life’s a Beach House: How Singapore’s Top Factual Producer Is Using Its Edge in Asia to Get Ahead

Variety logo Variety 12/7/2022 Manori Ravindran
© Provided by Variety

Weathering the pandemic was a “make or break” situation for most production companies, but few can say they emerged a transformed operation. For Singapore-headquartered Beach House Pictures, going into the COVID crisis with five Netflix commissions in hand meant there was a lot at stake when lockdown hit. But an expansive footprint across the continent, a booming China business and sheer grit has ensured the company has stayed the course — and dared to thrive.

Founded by partners Donovan Chan and Jocelyn Little in 2005, Beach House began with a focus on science and travel documentaries for the likes of Discovery and Nat Geo, and — up until the pandemic hit in 2020 — had built up its reputation as one of Asia’s top factual producers through shows such as the wide-selling David Attenborough-narrated “Wild City” and “Ed Stafford: First Man Out.”

Post-pandemic, however, Beach House is increasingly aligned with premium titles such as the slick lifestyle series “Mind Your Manners” and scripted drama “Mr. Midnight,” both of which are for Netflix. Such commissions were among the crop of greenlights that came through in 2019 and 2020, when streamers like Netflix began commissioning originals out of Asia in earnest. Understandably, there was some trepidation when COVID hit, explains Little. “We were very much in that space of either giving up and having a break for a while, or strategizing and thinking, ‘Right, how do we grow this company?’”

Expanding into other markets with laser-focused acquisitions was a key pillar in the growth plan. Beach House in 2021 acquired a majority stake in Tokyo-based “Bake Off Japan” producer Vesuvius Pictures and “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” outfit Momo Film, a scripted business intended to turbocharge the company’s drama ambitions (Beach House is teaming up with “Night Manager” indie Ink Factory for a Cleopatra Wong TV show). More recently, the company teamed up with executive Raghav Khanna to launch Riverland Entertainment in Mumbai, India, with a focus on unscripted and documentary projects. On the latter, Beach House saw “huge potential” in a fast-developing economy with a rising middle class hungry for documentaries and clever unscripted entertainment, explains Chan.

The acquisitions were, more broadly, about “looking at the way the market was evolving and [thinking about] how we respond to that,” says Little. “A big part of that was the regional expansion.”

Chan adds: “We always laugh about the fact that we’ve been in start-up mode non-stop, ever since we started the business, because everything changes all the time. We made the initiative early on to go to the U.S. when the Americans had no reason to work with Asian companies or buy Asian content. We went to China when, why would they work with a Singapore company? But we did that to understand the markets, because quite early on, we identified the key markets — and we were mostly right.”

Ironically, at a time when China’s industry is becoming more insular than ever — certainly not helped by the pandemic and strict travel restrictions — Beach House has its largest China slate in six years, and is working with the likes of streamer Bilibili and broadcaster CCTV-9, among others.

“Being a Singapore company is very beneficial,” says Little. “We are seen as very neutral.”

Beach House co-founders Donovan Chan and Jocelyn Little © Provided by Variety Beach House co-founders Donovan Chan and Jocelyn Little

China also doesn’t suffer from the constant churn of personnel, explains Chan, which has made it easier to properly embed. “You see these consolidations, firings and entrenchments in the West that happen almost every two or three years. But in China, things don’t move that quickly as far as we have seen, and so those relationships that were built over 15 years come to bear fruit.”

Canada’s Blue Ant Media acquired Beach House Pictures in 2017 when it purchased media org RACAT Group — a move that rapidly expanded Blue Ant’s production portfolio in Asia Pacific. Normally, such a deal might have seen distribution arm Blue Ant International become the sole distributor for Beach House content, but the pact between the two companies has remained non-exclusive, allowing Beach House to work with other distributors as well.

“One thing that’s really great is that on certain topics, [Blue Ant] have been willing to back them, and have come on board as investors,” explains Little. “And then on the distribution side, we are still very flexible: we work with [Blue Ant] on some projects, and there are others where we don’t. We still very much look at the project and what is best for the project.”

Like most producers, a necessary diversification of clients is also underway, especially as the sustainability of the streamers’ deep-pocketed commissions was finally thrown into question in 2022. As in Europe, the co-production model is once again in vogue across Asia, and in addition to securing full commissions, Beach House is working with new partners like factual streamer CuriosityStream and broadcaster Insight TV.

The next chapter, however, isn’t about doing more of the same, but rather elevating the level of work that’s come before. For Chan and Little, it’s meant realizing that the middle ground in factual programming is well and truly eroded.

“Things that don’t feel original and play derivative — if you’re still coming up with those ideas, and expecting the market to take them on board, that viewer is gone,” says Chan.

“There’s no middle ground. It’s either really compelling content with great talent attached, or you have a vast library and you’re exploiting it as best as you can. Any companies in the middle will find it hard to grow,” he adds.

The slate going forward will always have some “Asian-ness” layered into it, “But I think the pivot for us is about coming up with high-end, original ideas that would sit comfortably in markets like the U.S. and U.K., as opposed to shows that would be sold into those markets as nutritional programming,” says Chan.

Little adds: “Eventually we just want to be producers in this part of the world that do great content for the global market. But at the same time, we draw inspiration from our roots and the territory we’re in. That’s always going to be important.”

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