Can ‘BlackBerry’ film shot in Hamilton rebuild its Oscar buzz with new miniseries cut


Published November 22, 2023 at 11:19 am

Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. via IFC Films.

The acclaimed film BlackBerry, about the meteoric rise and fall of Canada’s pioneering smartphone company, has been expanded into a three-part CBC miniseries.

The film, shot in part in Hamilton, depicts the birth of Waterloo-based Research in Motion (RIM), founded in 1984 by Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin. It was the first wireless data technology developed in North America. In 1992, Jim Balsillie invested in RIM and became co-CEO alongside Lazaridis. The company quickly came to dominate the smartphone market in the early 2000s, with 85 million users at its peak in 2011.

RIM began with a few two-way pager devices in 1999, the first of their kind. They expanded into modern smartphones, featuring call and text functionality with the BlackBerry 5810 in 2002. Uniquely, BlackBerry focused its design on email and later text messaging, highlighted by the iconic keyboards.

This led to a significant prominence in business and corporate environments. Soon after, in 2001, the company began to expand into the consumer market with the BlackBerry Pearl. Though Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, BlackBerries continued to dominate the sector.

While the BlackBerry market continued to go, new competitors in Apple and Android led to nervous investors. To compete with the touchscreen-only iPhone, RIM rushed their own touchscreen-based phone, the BlackBerry Storm, to market. The Storm sold well but received poor reviews from users.

At this point, RIN was listed by CNN as an endangered brand. In an effort to alleviate investor fears, Balsillie promised the roll-out of powerful new models in 2012. This has been credited as something of an “Osbourne Effect” in which the announcement of new products too far away leads to a drop in sales of those already available. The announcement was too ambitious according to analysts and further weakened the company’s credibility.

The company’s market share continued to free fall with stock prices plummeting 87 per cent between 2010 and 2013. The first few iPhones lagged behind BlackBerries due to RIM’s larger carrier base but surpassed them in sales in 2013. The company’s market share likewise collapsed in this period, falling from 43 per cent in 2011 to just 6 per cent in 2013. Lazaridis and Balsillie resigned from the company in 2012.

During this company crash, RIM laid off 2,000 employees and experienced a days-long outage of their wireless internet network. RIM launched its final phone to use their own operating system, the well-received BlackBerry 10 in 2013. The company started using Android in future devices but later abandoned designing hardware.

The collapse of BlackBerry inspired the non-fiction book Losing the Signal by journalists Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish. This in turn inspired the film BlackBerry released last spring. The movie was basically filmed in secret, with no major announcements regarding its production until just before its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. 

BlackBerry stars Canadian Jay Baruchel as Lazaridis and Glenn Howerton, known for his work on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, nearly unrecognizable as Balsillie. The film was directed by Toronto’s Matt Johnson (who also appears as Fregin) on a tight $5 million budget.

Hamilton, London, Burlington and Waterloo all featured as filming locations. An elementary school, Empire Steel, and the First Ontario Centre in Hamilton all feature prominently in the film.

(Howerton ultimately went to the Saint James Espresso Bar.)

The film was immediately acclaimed on release with humour and intelligence highly noted. The acting, particularly Howerton’s transformative role, was roundly acclaimed. While its early debut in the year has seen its Oscar buzz fade slightly, BlackBerry will be submitted for consideration, with a special push for a supporting actor nomination for Howerton.

However, the story has another chance to get in front of academy voter’s eyes with a new miniseries cut on CBC (and AMC in the United States). The film has been expanded from its tight 90-minute runtime into a series of three hour-long episodes.

Much of this detailed Balsillie’s backstory and the rationale behind his increasingly desperate, even criminal, plays during the fall of RIM, “We had all this amazing footage, and as soon as our partners knew about that, they were like, ‘Is there a way that we can use that and show more of this guy’s genesis?’” Johnson told Vanity Fair, “The limited series gets into the origins of what it was that Jim Balsillie did—and why he did it.”

While Howerton has since slipped down the bookie’s list in his odds of an Oscar nomination in the months since the film dropped, he was recently cited as a top-tier contender by Variety.

The series launched on CBC and AMC on Nov. 9 with the finale set to premiere Nov. 24. The film version of BlackBerry is available to stream on AppleTV+.

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