On May 25, the Princess Cinema hosted the local premiere of BlackBerry for a packed audience of former BlackBerry employees and Waterloo Region community members.  

The sold-out event featured Q&A sessions before the screenings with Dale Brubacher-Cressma, Research in Motion’s (RIM) fifth employee, and David Yach, the company’s chief technology officer.   

 Directed by Canadian actor and filmmaker Matt Johnson, the film is based on the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by journalists Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish.  

RIM’s co-founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis is played by Canadian actor Jay Baruchel while Jim Balsillie, RIM’s other co-CEO, is portrayed by Glenn Howerton. Howerton, known for his role in It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia, gives a fantastic performance as Balsillie, a character seemingly always on the edge of tearing someone’s head off.  

The film is not meant to be a true retelling of the BlackBerry story. Instead, it tells the story of how a Canadian company created an entirely new market, grew to dominate it, and saw it all lost to competitors who understood smartphone users’ changing needs.  

While the book covers the years leading up to the company’s founding through to 2013, the film’s story focuses on the smartphone pioneer’s rise from obscurity in 1996 to the beginning of its decline in 2007 when Apple launched the first iPhone.   

The filmmakers made several changes to the timeline, events and people involved in creating the world’s first smartphone.   

Balsillie joined the company in 1992 after leaving Kitchener-based electrical and mechanical contractor Sutherland-Shultz.  

However, the film opens in 1996 with Lazaridis and RIM co-founder Douglas Fregin, played by Johnson, attempting to pitch Balsille on their idea for a computer in a phone. The pitch goes poorly while Balsillie is distracted by a merger meeting with another firm. Balsillie makes a bold move to present a tax avoidance plan during the meeting and is subsequently fired.   

As he packs his office, Balsillie looks at the presentation that Lazaridis and Fregin had left in his office. The next day, he visits RIM’s office at the corner of Philip St. and Albert St. and takes the co-founders for lunch to pitch them on an investment that would have him become CEO.   

Baruchel, Johnson and Howerton bring angst, anger and humour to their characters as the trio go back and forth about the future direction of the company—ending with mistakenly offering Balsille the co-CEO role in exchange for a reduced investment.   

The story quickly moves to Balsillie manipulating Lazaridis to quickly build a BlackBerry prototype to pitch to Bell Atlantic, a leading cellular communications company in the U.S. at the time. When pressured by Balsillie to build a non-functioning prototype, Lazaridis says he won’t do it unless it is perfect. Basillie quickly responds that perfect is the enemy of good, but Lazaridis doesn’t relent.  

Lazaridis rallies his team to build a working prototype overnight. The scene sets up Balsille as the rule breaker and Lazaridis as the perfectionist—a dynamic that evolves through the film as Lazaridis begins to bend his beliefs to achieve success.  

One of the core stories of BlackBerry lore plays out when Lazaridis accidentally leaves the one-of-its-kind prototype in a taxi. After realizing what has happened, Lazaridis rushes out of the office to find the device and returns to deliver the pitch that lands RIM its first major contract.   

From there, the story follows the meteoric rise of RIM, from being named one of Oprah’s favourite things to becoming known as the “crackberry” for its almost addiction-inducing usage across the world.  

There are two major conflicts brewing throughout the film. First, Balsillie offers backdated stock options in a bid to attract experts from competitors to join RIM in Waterloo. In one scene, Lazaridis tells Balsillie that his existing team cannot solve a network issue. Balsille questions Lazaridis as to why this is since Lazaridis had said they had the best engineers.   

“We have the best engineers in Canada,” Laziridis responded.  

The reply elicited a loud round of boos from the audience of former RIM engineers.  

The second conflict, and one that runs throughout the story, is the friendship and fallout of Lazaridis and Balsillie. Balsille’s failed pursuit of an NHL team distracts him from the threat of the iPhone. At the same time, Lazaridis becomes increasingly angered by anyone who says the BlackBerry is not the best smartphone technology on the market.  

Toward the film’s end, Lazaridis erupts at Verizon executives who ask for an “iPhone killer.” Unlike the earlier scene with the first prototype, Lazaridis breaks with his beliefs and pitches the idea for a full-screen BlackBerry smartphone, the BlackBerry Storm. The device would become the company’s first major failure, with almost every unit eventually needing to be replaced.  

In the Q&A, moderator Mike Farwell asked Brubacher-Cressman how it felt to see a film based on a company he played a major role in building.  

Brubacher-Cressman said it was amazing to work at a company someone thought was important enough to make a film about. He added that while it is a film about BlackBerry, the people who worked there have their own stories to tell.  

“Enjoy the fact that a BlackBerry story is being told, but don’t expect it to be factual. We built something really special. What an opportunity of a lifetime to have been a part of that story,” he said.