“We’re a small company, operating on a bald rock in the middle of the Atlantic,” says Mark Kennedy, with a good deal of cheer. “We weren’t going to be successful by being plugged into to some great PR machine.”
Instead, Greyfirst, the St. John’s-based company of which he’s co-founder and CEO, found success by playing the long game, developing Celtx, a tool for film and television producers over the course of a decade, and letting the web-services marketplace mature around them. Today, the firm – which has been recognized by the Canadian Innovation Exchange as one of the most innovative in the country, serves millions of customers and is setting its sights beyond the world’s independent producers, to Hollywood itself.
Celtx – pronounced with a hard ‘c’ – is a suite of tools designed to knit together all the information-intensive disciplines that go into film and television production, from scriptwriting to the art, props and direction. A decade ago, Mr. Kennedy and his staff started speaking with production companies in Montreal and Toronto, taking meetings and running focus groups.
“They all had the same problem: there was no tools out there for them all to work together,” he says. Plenty of departments had their own tools, but none would talk to one another. Inventories and schedules were being kept track of with Excel spreadsheets and Word files, to say nothing of even more obscure formats. Ultimately, everything just got printed out.
“They carried everything around in those three-ring binders.”
Celtx offers a web-based alternative. On one hand, it offers collaborative scriptwriting tools, that will not only allow the user to share the material between a writing team, but help to manage revisions when it’s “locked,” or near-finalized, and distribute actors’ sides to them. The program helps shepherd that ever-evolving material through the departments that need to work with it: the props and wardrobe departments, with their sprawling inventories, and to the directors who need to sketch and block out camera shots before they shoot.
Even at its inception in the mid-2000s, Celtx was innovative in several ways. For one thing, it’s an open-source product built around open standards; the “x” is for XML. For another, it was a web service before web services were popular. In its original incarnation as a piece of desktop software, Celtx was built atop the open-source Firefox browser, allowing it to operate as a hybrid online/offline tool.
Today, its core offering is a web service more akin to Google Apps, available for a $10 monthly subscription; the company also offers an enhanced desktop client, as well as iOS apps available for one-time purchase. Mr. Kennedy says the firm wanted to hold off on releasing an iOS scriptwriting app until the iPad was released, but to his surprise, creative types were just as happy to write on smaller iPhones.
For years, its target market was small and independent production companies – ad agencies, wedding video producers, indie filmmakers. The software proved easy to localize thanks to its open-source foundation, and it quickly gained an international following, and students were quick to adopt it as well.
But now that web services have hit the big time, Celtx is attracting big league attention as well. It’s been picked up by enterprise players like Starz, and Mr. Kennedy is now demonstrating his product for the likes of NBC-Universal. In the last year, the company has doubled in size from seven to 14 employees, and is working to spin out a full enterprise product.
The big-time attention for a growing company has, by his own admission, caught Mr. Kennedy a little off-guard. So, too, the callers from the global capitals of film and television, who find themselves on the phone with St. John’s.
“They’ll ask if we’re in Montreal or Toronto,” says Mr. Kennedy. “And we’ll say, ‘just a little east.’”
Special to The Globe and Mail