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Interview: Lionel Chok

(Photo (C) Lionel Chok)

This week we have a special treat: an interview with Singapore-based filmmaker and executive producer Lionel Chok. Lionel’s TV credits include Culture Shock for Channel News Asia International; Lifestyle – a health series for overseas broadcast fronted by Nadya  Hutagalung; and Activate Your Camera – Singapore! an eight-part Hi-Definition local series on photography fronted by Tom Ang (whose last photography series was commissioned by the  BBC ). Lionel also has theatre and feature film credits  and works as a Film Instructor at SAE Institute.

Lionel, tell us a little about yourself.

A little? Sure! I started out as a runner in the TV industry here in Singapore and over the last 15 odd years – dabbled in writing/producing/directing and even editing – for TV, Commercials, Theatre, Web and even ran events!

You have a varied background - including screen-writing and theatre -
but tell us about your adventures in documentary.

Because my early stint in TV started out in drama, I didn’t get any exposure in documentary till I met friend & (Singapore) Tour Guide extraordinaire – Geraldene Lowe – way back in 1997. She’s not just amazing with historical facts, places, etc as a tour guide, she’s also full of wonderful insights and advice on life and people – that I thought that I just had to put her in tape. Before I knew it, I ended up with more than 20 hours of footage, which was painstakingly edited into an hour-odd documentary over 6 months in 1998… It was later selected for screening at a Video Festival in New York (back in 1999).

That was my very first taste of documentary. I found that I quite liked it, so I promptly asked for a transfer at work from the drama department – to one that was producing corporates and documentaries where I have been producing factual programmes ever since.
What are you up to now? 

I’m currently concentrating on developing a couple of titles right now as an independent producer: most of which are set in Asia. The subject matters vary from culture, to photography and even food. I usually pitch and develop the programme/concept with the broadcaster/MDA of Singapore till it’s greenlit then approach my network of contacts to see who/which production company woulld be best for the programme/concept- taking a percentage equity stake / option in it. Through the years, I’ve come to realise that working independently as an individual allows me to find and match the best production company for different factual ideas, although sometimes it can be very draining because you kinda have to do it all… It has worked well for 3 series so far since 2007 and I hope to keep it going.

What kind of factual TV is popular in Singapore / Asia right now?

Being right in the middle of Asia means audiences in Singapore are truly spoilt for choice, From Korean and Japanese dramas, to TV serials and documentaries from the UK/US, there’s just so much to watch on a daily basis. For documentaries and Factual TV, most of those that resonate range from programmes aired on Discovery to National Geographic, Bio/History Channels, etc. Locally produced programmes surrounding current affairs, finances and opinions are quite well-watched as well.

What's your favourite factual TV programme?

Most of my favourite programmes tend to be more lifestyle and host-fronted. Like Three Sheets with Zane Lamprey! Traveling to various corners of the world just to find wine/beer and basically all sorts and forms of liqueur – is just a fabulous concept: you can be assured your host won’t quit on you too!

Tell us about the main TV channels in your territory - what kind of programming do they broadcast?

Besides the mentioned international cable channels, local free-to-air channels here in Singapore include Channel News Asia (CNA) and OKTO. Both showcase quite different types of factual programmes. CNA tends to broadcast more current affairs related factual programmes as their target market are mostly PMEBs [Professionals, Managers, Executives and Businessmen], while OKTO transmits more (acquired) info-educational types of programmes: like Mythbusters, and Supernanny.

Are the Singapore/Asia markets essentially the same or are they v. different?

Personally – I feel it’s very different. Because the cities in Asia are so fragmented by the different cultures, languages and people. I remembered some years back when a Korean friend came to Singapore on a visit and the topic of movies and TV came up. To my surprise, he revealed that most Koreans rather watch their own produced TV programmes and films, rather than even the well reputed shows and blockbuster movies – solely because of language and culture. This is, of course, vastly different from once-colonial Singapore. I dare say: westernized beyond recognition, Singapore is quite the opposite where locals tend to favour more imported programmes and movies, rather then locally produced ones.

But having said that, because English is also our main language – our locally produced shows have been very well received in many places. With Singaporeans becoming well-traveled and better-informed: producers are able to expand into the neighboring Asian countries for content, thereby offering potential distributors and broadcasters a truly wide range of programme possibilities.

Are there any European/US programmes that have done particularly well in Asia?

I can’t really say for the rest of Asia, but in Singapore where I’m based: besides well-known serialized dramas and sitcoms like The Office and CSI, etc – factual programmes that have been well received are those that transcends cultures. But being limited to only our free-to-air and cable channels, the feed to most and if not all Singaporeans would be those you can find on BBC World, Discovery, Animal Planet, etc.

Have you pitched in Europe / US?

No I have not; but would love to get the opportunity to do so – hopefully in Cannes 2010!

What do European/US producers need to know if they want to break into the Asian market?

Speaking for Singapore again, the broadcasters and Government here really appreciate the co-production model and hope to be able to find subject matters – and of course funding  – that would make sense to both sides in terms of production and distribution. Looking back, I’m also glad I dabbled in the various mediums because the buzzword nowadays for any/most productions – is the cross-platform element. Besides a compelling subject matter and of course – sufficient funding support – the possibility to cross different platforms would mean a more attractive model to distribute/syndicate/sell.

Are you available to consult with European/US producers who want to pitch in Asia?

Most definitely! I’m in touch with a couple of (UK) distributors nowadays so I’m quite familiar with the time schedule! They start their day while I’m close to ending mine so that’s when we usually call/talk.

What's the best way to contact you?

Email to setup a call either via the web or mobile is best – just drop me a line: Email [at] lionelchok.com

Or visit Lionel’s website .


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