Is the new movie Blackberry based on a true story?

still from blackberry film
Is Blackberry based on a true story?Elevation Pictures - Hearst Owned

If you were anyone worth knowing in the mid to late aughts, you had a BlackBerry.

Once associated with high-flying businessmen constantly on the go, the phone – famed for its mini keyboard input – became a much-loved celebrity accessory in the 2000s, being seen used by the likes of Kim Kardashian, Beyonce and Lady Gaga. At the height of its popularity, there were over 70 million BlackBerry users worldwide, with the phone controlling 50% of the smartphone market share – earning the playful nickname ‘Crackberry’ because of their addictive quality.

So iconic was the BlackBerry, and its messaging service BlackBerry Messenger, that it reached the lofty cultural high of entering the pop lyric lexicon: ‘So I put her number in my Bold BB,’ Tinie Tempah mused in 2011, as Lana Del Rey penned the recently unearthed sexting anthem BBM Baby the same year. Asking someone you were chirpsing for their BBM code was more commonplace than asking for their number.

The stratospheric high of the company behind the BlackBerry handset – and its sudden, shuddering crash – has been brought to the big screen with the brand new BlackBerry movie. The feature film follows creators Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matthew Johnson) who team up with the steely-nerved, business-savvy Jim Balsillie (It’s Always Sunny star Glenn Howerton) to make their foray into the phone business a global success – then future flop.

cast of blackberry movie
The cast of the BlackBerry movie, in character as the team behind Research In Motion. Elevation Pictures - Hearst Owned

For those who loved The Social Network and Tetris, BlackBerry is a fascinating look at a device that once ruled the world, and how the hubris of its founders saw the company collapse.

But how much of this compelling story just artistic licence? Cosmopolitan UK has the goss on the latest must-see flick.

How was BlackBerry created?

The company behind BlackBerry, Research in Motion, was founded by Canadian university students, Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin. In the film, Lazaridis is seen as the quiet brains of the operation, while Fregin is the eager, charismatic sidekick that keeps the engineering team motivated with film nights and gaming sessions. Jim Balsillie is the hard-headed businessman, not afraid to scream at staffers and bend the rules to make the company a multi-billion dollar success it eventually became.

In reality, the way the company’s creators are depicted is vastly overcooked, according to someone who previously worked at Research in Motion.

launch of the new telstra product blackberry from 90s
Fairfax Media - Getty Images

"The real Mike Lazaridis couldn’t be more different than Jay Baruchel’s weak, introverted portrayal in the movie," Dennis Kavelman told the National Post. "He was a strong, innovative, charismatic leader. He had a vision at odds with how the rest of the world saw the future, and the will to make it happen. Thousands of software and hardware engineers followed him passionately because of the strength of his convictions, his drive, and the fact that he was one of them."

Of Fregin, Kavelman added: "There was no white tank top or orange headband like in the movie. Doug is soft spoken but brilliant and driven. He was publicly in the background by choice but had a voice at board meetings and shared Mike’s vision and philanthropic endeavours."

While the film is said to be loosely based on Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, director Matt Johnson wanted the film to be a period piece reflecting the culture of the 90s with references to pop culture of the time. There was not thought to be any regular film or movie nights at Research in Motion – but they’re a surefire way to cram a few references for the 90s babies to pick up.

Was the first BlackBerry handset made overnight?

In the film, we see Balsillie insist that Lazaridis and Fregin make a prototype for their ‘Pocket Link’ email and paging device in just one night to impress the big wigs at the Verizon phone company.

On the day of the presentation, we see bosses fiddle with the flimsy machine, boasting bare wires and a keyboard ripped from a calculator.

It’s true that Research in Motion employees pulled an all-nighter the day before the presentation in 1996 to get the phone ready – but it had been in the works for months before and was significantly more polished.

In a YouTube video, former Research in Motion employee Matthias Wandel said: "The device that was shown was an email device with a flip-top lid and QWERTY keyboard. It didn't remotely resemble [the device in the movie]."

How did BlackBerry get its name?

In the film, we see an irked Balsillie roll his eyes at Lazaridis as he scoffs blackberries on their way to their Verizon pitch. But when bosses love the prototype and demand to know what the device is called, Lazaridis’s shirt which is stained from the fruit gives him the idea.

In real life, this incident never happened. Branding execs of the device thought the keyboard buttons looked like strawberry seeds. Eventually, the name Blackberry was chosen, because of the device’s black colouring.

How successful was BlackBerry?

Hugely. It was considered the first smartphone, owning over 50% of the US market and 20% of the global smartphone market. At its peak, it would sell 50 million devices a year. In less than a decade since it launched, BlackBerry was suddenly a $20 billion company – making its founders incredibly wealthy.

a blackberry bold 9900 4g smartphone
Kevork Djansezian - Getty Images

It’s little surprise, when the early signs of BlackBerry’s success started to glimmer, that other companies were keen to grab a slice of the pie. In the film, we see Carl Yankowski, the CEO of Palm Pilot, trying to pursue a takeover of the company for months – this really happened. Balsillie and Yankowski reportedly kept trying to one-up each other, with talks kept vague until they were cut off altogether.

Did Douglas Fregin really get forced out the company?

In the BlackBerry film, we see Fregin try and hold onto the fun, playful nature that the early days of Research in Motion had – as Lazaridis became more determined. It eventually drives a wedge between the pair, which sees Fregin ultimately ousted.

However, according to those who worked with the pair at the time, this wasn’t really the case, with the pair continuing to have a good relationship. However, Fregin did sell all his shares and exit in the company in 2007, thought to be worth around $2 billion at the time.

Did Jim Balsillie try and buy a hockey team?

jim balsallie still in blackberry film
Elevation Pictures - Hearst Owned

Yep, he really did. However, unlike in the film, it wasn’t one of the continuing distractions that contributed to the fall of the company. A committed ice hockey fan, in 2006, Balsillie made a bid to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise for $185 million, in the hopes of moving them Hamilton, Ontario. However, Balsillie pulled his bid after receiving a notice from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that the league would negotiate the arena deal on his behalf and the league also wanted the right to take over the team if necessary.

Did the founders of BlackBerry really break the law?

In the BlackBerry film, we see Balsillie play fast and loose with the truth in order to lure some of the world’s most talented engineers over to Canada. He did this by backdating stock options to provide hard cash quickly.

However, the Ontario Securities Commission smelled a rat and launched an investigation into BlackBerry. Lazaridis offered Balsillie up as tribute to save his skin – who was then forced to stepdown from the board of directors.

As we see in the film, Balsillie didn’t serve any jail time – the company instead had to pay a penalty for stock manipulation.

Was the iPhone really the BlackBerry killer?

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 wasn’t taken seriously by the BlackBerry founders. Unlike in the film, where there is a palpable fear over Steve Jobs’s announcement, the bigwigs at Research in Motion were distinctly unruffled. Why should they be? The company was worth billions and had such a huge share of the market.

steve jobs announces the blackberry
Justin Sullivan - Getty Images

However, this laissez-faire attitude to competitors is what effectively saw the end of BlackBerry, as the company failed to innovate.

Their touchscreen offering, the BlackBerry Storm, was largely panned and hit with numerous tech issues, and by 2013, that 50% marketshare BlackBerry once had had fallen to 3%.

What happened to the BlackBerry founders?

a still from the blackberry movie
Elevation Pictures - Hearst Owned

Both Lazaradis and Balsillie left BlackBerry altogether in 2012, but in spite of the company’s failing fortunes, both left incredibly wealthy men,

Lazaradis teamed up with friend Fregin once again and launched the Quantum Valley Investments, which provides funds and support for entrepreneurs researching new technology in Canada.

Balsillie went on to found a School of International Affairs at Canada’s University of Waterloo, as well as setting up a think-tank and serving as chair of the Canadian Council of Innovators.

While Lazaradis and Fregin have kept a low profile, Balsillie has spoken out about his depiction in the BlackBerry film.

"When I first saw it, I was confused for about five minutes," he told a Canadian publication. "And then I thought, 'OK, we're being roasted here. This is a satire. They're taking an element of truth, who I am, and they're playing with it.'

"I'm aggressive. I'm competitive. I'm ambitious. I own that."

BlackBerry is released in UK cinemas on 6 October 2023

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