The Aussie who shook up world's film industry
Grant Petty has made a huge impact globally, but isn't so well known here. Photo: Supplied
Melbourne's Grant Petty is hailed around the world as the man who democratised the film industry by giving ordinary film-makers access to the technology used in blockbuster Hollywood films such as Avatar and Prometheus. But few people close to home know of his design and film technology company's international success.
“Nobody believes a company this big is actually here,” says Petty, 44, the chief executive of Blackmagic Design. “We kind of hide what we do because we're just so busy.”
Sure the big movies are great, but it's when anybody can get access to it - that's when it's exciting.
The company creates high-quality post-production and filming products – such as cinema-quality cameras, memory sticks that hold huge volumes of audio visual data, and a range of software and hardware that supports the creation, storage and editing of film –sold for an accessible price.
Blackmagic's technology was used in blockbuster movie Avatar.
The global business has its headquarters in Port Melbourne and ships almost 100 products to more than 100 countries, with other offices in the UK, Japan, Singapore and the United States. Australia accounts for only one per cent of the company's sales, and this is a deliberate business strategy.
“I realised the market for products [in Australia] is tiny. To make a good product it's not worth the return on investment unless you sell globally,” says Petty, who is based in the Port Melbourne office.
The business idea was born 20 years ago when Petty was working as a post-production engineer making television programs in Melbourne and he started questioning why all the equipment was so expensive. As he started developing his first product he juggled part-time engineering work with his experimentations on circuit boards.
“I worked from about 10am to about 1am seven days a week for years developing the first product. I did not have any start-up capital at all, and I scraped together the parts to build my first few products and then the sales of those products funded more parts to build the next products," he says.
"Some weeks I ate only white rice as I had no money, and my shoes had worn through with holes in the soles.
“The problem I faced is when you only have an idea and no experience, you cannot get funding. No one will put money into it. So at the time I was on my own. I just had to work hard and eventually prove myself.”
Petty's persistence paid off. He has never once needed to access capital: the entire company has been built on earnings, and Blackmagic products are used in films, television programs, advertisements and news broadcasts around the world. But Petty's popularity has stemmed from keeping his eye on the little guy.
“A couple of weeks ago a 14-year-old kid emailed me a link to some movies he'd been doing – he was making beautiful-looking stuff with his friends," says Petty.
"Sure the big movies are great, but it's when anybody can get access to it - that's when it's exciting.”
In the past three years, Blackmagic Design has acquired four major US and UK film product companies (including the iconic colour correction company DaVinci).
“We completely overhauled [DaVinci]. We made massive improvements. It was always powerful, but they cost over $800,000 each and we got them down to $30,000 and you have to buy your own computer. We've even got a free version and it's beautiful,” Petty says.
This has been the consistent theme with Blackmagic's acquisitions: relaunching popular film production products at a fraction of the price, with greater functionality and simplicity and improved aesthetics.
While these high profile acquisitions have expanded the scope of the business, its heart has remained with its own design and development. In April the company launched the Cinema Camera, which rivals the cinematic quality and features of the popular RED digital cinema cameras, but costs only $3000 rather than upwards of $25,000.
Petty is often asked how he can make his products so much more affordable than his competitors' and he says he's not sure why competitor products are so expensive.
Efficiency is a business mantra for Blackmagic, and Petty wrote the software himself to automate all the business processes and reduce management costs.
Another of Petty's philosophies for business is to have a structure that can handle setbacks.
“This whole company is designed to fail,” Petty says. “If you can try something and be radical, you've got to design the company to support the fact it might not work. Too many people pin their hopes on something - that it has to work. If you design your company like that and it fails, then you die.”
It is the manufacturing processes of Blackmagic products that support this culture.
“We manufacture products ourselves, so if a new model doesn't sell well, we say, 'What a shame, why didn't we sell more?', then we just change it, it doesn't matter. A lot of people love outsourcing [manufacturing] but the problem is it doesn't let you screw up. It doesn't let you fail.”
Petty heralds his employees as the company's lifeblood, with the majority of the 300 global staff working in design and engineering. “They're really humble, smart, creative people,” he says.
“When you're in a room with really smart people you really think anything is possible, and that for me is the main reason why I love doing this. The products are great, but what's really fun is you dream of something and you work hard on it and in six months or two years it's there, this physical thing that came from our mind. It's incredible.”