Tech giants sure crash and burn a lot on Wall Street, and Canada’s Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the Blackberry, the world’s first smartphone, eventually fell like a fiery anvil from the sky after achieving surprise global telecom dominance.
But director Matt Johnson, whose Canadian biopic BlackBerry will have a world premiere in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, opted against portraying RIM’s dramatic descent into obsolescence. His film has few of the usual business drama tropes like blood-and-guts confrontations between colorful executives scheming behind the scenes and putting the sword to rivals as the mother ship goes down.
Instead, BlackBerry, which stars Jay Baruchel as RIM co-founder Mike Lazaridis and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Glenn Howerton as co-CEO Jim Balsillie, focuses on the origins of RIM to explore how the iconoclastic Blackberry phone, with its physical keyboards, became a status symbol of the early-2000s among top business people and politicians, only to see its Waterloo, Ontario-based creator face fatal execution issues just as Apple’s Steve Jobs launched the first-generation iPhone.
“We show the entire culture of the company as news of the iPhone breaks, and what happens in the months after that, but we don’t go into the moment when stockholders realize that they are going to zero and this company is going to be destroyed,” Johnson explains about his narrative focus in BlackBerry.
That’s because mutual pride shown by Lazaradis and Balsalli typical of Greek tragedies allowed Johnson to foretell the company’s eventual collapse by underscoring the Canadian start-up company’s fatal flaw: character traits in the company founders that helped them succeed, but ultimately became a liability.
“To me, all of the central flaws that led to the destruction of the company were bred in the bone,” Johnson tells THR.
BlackBerry, which was mostly shot in an old turbine plant in Hamilton, Ontario that allowed for extensive use of conference rooms and manufacturing facilities with a late 1990s vibe, reaches its dramatic climax just as Lazaradis and Balsillie are at the top of their game, only to be blindsided as Apple and Samsung swoop in and snap up the global smartphone market they invented out from under their noses.
“They are becoming one of the most valuable companies in the world. And this Blackberry now represents around 50 percent of the global cell phone market,” Johnson recounts in his film as it ends with top RIM execs viewing TV coverage of Apple’s Steve Job famously unveiling his first-generation cell phone.
In Johnson’s telling, BlackBerry boils down to Lazaradis and Balsallie, not a sophisticated tech play.
Their business philosophy on the way to the top is apparently built into every smartphone sold and used today by consumers prizing self-reliance due to an expanding array of apps and services and not having to depend on others to complete everyday tasks, the director adds.
“That worldview was something Jim (Balsallie) was passionate about and Mike (Lazaradis) shared… Even looking at an iPhone, you’ll see the same things, the way the world is built into these devices. And we’ll never be rid of them,” Johnson says of the Blackberry and its legacy.
BlackBerry also has director Johnson playing Doug Fregin, RIM’s third founder and as a character in the film serving as a foil to Balsillie.
But as the company was launched into the telecom stratosphere, BlackBerry portrays amid executive suite celebrations top execs fumbling out of sheer stubbornness their market success as they prove far too slow in adapting to new technology – especially new touchscreen devices.
Lazaradis and Balsallie, who eventually got bogged down with personal grievances and questionable business dealings, ominously discounted tech issues and customer complaints for new product launches, until it was too late.
Lazaradis thought it was “absurd,” according to Johnson, to sell a smartphone without a physical keyboard, which is what Apple and Samsung did with their category-killer touch
screen devices. And even when Steve Jobs famously unveiled his iPhone, with real-time GPS, streaming video and music, BlackBerry has Lazaradis seeming to laugh off the competitive threat, with fatal consequences.
“He thinks this guy (Jobs) has no idea how phone carriers work, and he has no idea how this market works,” Johnson explains. Lazaradis and his team of engineers ultimately failed to grasp the surging consumer interest precisely in those smartphone features from Apple and Samsung, which would force phone carriers to rebuild their infrastructures.
Johnson adds he didn’t need to focus on RIM’s fall because the film’s audience will already know where the Canadian company and its iconic Blackberry device ended up – as a bit player in a global smartphone market.
In the film’s final scenes, as Apple’s iPhone is launched, with its touch screen and access to iPod music, Lazardis and Balsallie unveil Storm, their first touchscreen phone. That innovation in real life sparked mounting customer complaints and investors and Wall Street analysts questioning for the first time the company’s future.
Johnson insists Lazaradis had fatally fallen in love with his own product: “When you do that, you become so resistant to feedback, to outside change.” In one scene in BlackBerry, Lazaradis is arguing with the CEO of Verizon, insisting he and RIM had invented the smartphone market. “How dare he assume that Mike (Lazaradis) doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And that’s the definition of pride before the fall,” Johnson says of the hubris that eventually hobbled RIM and its founders.
The BlackBerry director insists the humble origins of corporate titans, how they scramble to the top, is always more interesting than after they reach the summit. “Mostly because that’s when you’re willing to do the impossible. And then when you have success, you get comfortable,” Johnson says.
He insists few movies are made about wealthy kings doing little more than presiding over a kingdom. “There’s no story there. The story is in a desperate situation where you need to do something you probably never had the gumption to do,” he adds.
In the end, BlackBerry, as its launches in Berlin, becomes a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley and the tech sector overall, where failure after creative disruption by rivals is part of the natural order of things.
“You can literally be the best in the world. But if you’re not willing to change, that crown will be taken by somebody younger, every single time,” Johnson insists.