Conversation Series: Blackmagic CEO Grant Petty Talks Pricing and 4K

The maker of the $4,000 Blackmagic 4K camera tells THR why technology is “too expensive,” what he loves about filmmaking and why he “hates” his products.
Blackmagic CEO Grant Petty

Grant Petty -- the Australia-based post-production facility engineer turned CEO of technology maker Blackmagic Design -- follows his own path when it comes to products and pricing.

Blackmagic, which had been primarily known as a post-production technology company, stunned NAB attendees in 2012 when it announced that it was going into the camera business and unveiled a digital cinema camera for just $3,000. And it followed that up by last month drawing huge crowds to its NAB booth with a new 4K camera for just $4,000. Petty kicks off the THR Behind the Screen blog’s conversation series, which will run on Mondays.

“The thing that annoys me the most is when the creative guys get screwed over,” Petty said when asked what bugs him about the business. “Too many manufacturers make products that are way too expensive or too complicated. You have to buy their service contracts … but often they are used as a way for the manufacturer to produce poor quality products and make money off the service. That's the wrong that they industry has. … That sounds strange coming from an equipment manufacturer, but everyone forgets I’m a post-production guy.”

His background as a post-production facility engineer helped drive Blackmagic to step in and save color grading system maker Da Vinci in 2009 when the company was having financial trouble. “When we bought Da Vinci, I didn't understand why they were changing $150,000 for [its systems],” Petty cited as an example of his thinking. “It didn’t cost $150,000 [to make]; we were using the same parts."

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Blackmagic re-designed the technology, and went as far as launching a software-only version of Da Vinci Resolve for $1,000 (it was previously only available as a hardware and software system). To further grow the market and make color grading tools more ubiquitous, Blackmagic cameras come with a free copy of the software.

Said Petty: “I’m trying to make it so the creatives can afford it and can take control of their lives.”

The CEO believes that there are three elements that make a post-production company succeed: A beautiful and comfortable environment, energy and creativity. “If you have that, the client will come back. None of those have to do with the equipment," he said.

“What I love about this medium is the creativity,” Petty added. “Because we’re industry people we want to solve problems. …  Others see it as a money-making machine. They like low volume because they can sell it themselves and go hobnob with the Hollywood guy or a broadcaster. It because a lifestyle choice and about the perception of being high-end. Just because it's expensive doesn’t make it high-end -- it’s high-end if it’s powerful.”

Asked how he determines pricing of Blackmagic products, he responds: “Sometimes it’s what it costs to make. Sometimes we say 'if we could make this product at this price point then it would make a huge difference.'”

This year at NAB, Blackmagic introduced numerous technologies that support Ultra HD, or 4K. Petty urges use today for live events that use big screens, and soon to produce for large TV displays in the home, as well as to support the increasing resolution of screens on many mobile devices.

“It’s not what if they do, but what’s going to happen if they don’t,” he said of broadcasters moving to 4K. “The computer industry is itching for a television-based killer app, and Ultra HD is it. If [broadcasters] want to stay in the game, they have to think about the computer industry nipping at their heels. There’s all this bandwidth and optical fibers going in. They do have competition now. These other industries can potentially compete.”

New tools introduced last month at NAB include Blackmagic’s 4K camera, which outputs 4K over a single cable using 6G-SDI, an industry standard interface which is four times faster than HD-SDI. Also supporting 4K with 6G-SDI is the Blackmagic ATEM Production Studio 4K live production switcher and ATEM studio format converter.

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“We have tried to make [4K] the same price as HD gear,” he explained of his strategy, “so you can buy it and use it in HD, and then when you want Ultra HD, most of the stuff you’ve got is already capable. That’s why 6G is important. Ultra HD is four times the resolution in HD, and 6G is four times the speed of regular HD SDI. So now there’s one cable that can switch from SD to HD to Ultra HD. It’s about future proofing it.”

Following last month’s product introductions, it's time to start thinking about what’s next. “What I have to do now is go back and hate my products,” Petty said. “I know that sounds weird—they’re great, but if I don’t start pulling them apart and finding things I don't like, then I don't have anything for the future. In six months I’ll think ‘I can’t believe we don't have those things.’”

In 2012, Blackmagic acquired struggled film scanning/image processing company Cintel, and Petty reported that the company is still trying options and researching what it will do with the technology.

“Cintel’s ImageMill was a really good image processor, I’ve got to get some of that into [a future version of] Da Vinci. That would be fantastic," he said. (An upcoming version 10 is currently being tested at several L.A. post houses; it includes the capability to plug the software into a camera on set for real-time color correction.)

Asked about the Cintel film scanning technology, Petty reported: “We’re still researching that. If we think we can we can make something viable with the market that’s left, then we’ll do it. Otherwise we’ll just use the IP.

“You want creative options; I hope someone keeps manufacturing film,” he said, adding that should Kodak [which maintains that it will continue to make film though it is currently working to emerge from chapter 11] at some point cease to make film, there might be a business there for a small company that “buys the licenses from Kodak and runs a few hundred feet of film a day. It could still be several thousand feet. There’s still a lot of film being consumed.”

“I think it would be a shame if film disappears completely,” he said, adding that the industry should try to keep it available.

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