This is not a cell phone ad. New BlackBerry miniseries fleshes out the story of RIM

Co-writer Matthew Miller wants to change how Canadians see their own stories.

Co-writer Matthew Miller wants to change how Canadians see their own stories

Two men sit in profile
Jay Baruchel (foreground) and Glenn Howerton as Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie in BlackBerry. (Courtesy CBC)

BlackBerry co-writer Matthew Miller knows that having a film and a miniseries with the same name, coming out within six months of each other, could be confusing for audiences. Particularly when they star the same people, have the same creative team behind them, and contain many of the same scenes. But for this screenwriting veteran — he and co-writer Matt Johnson worked together on cult favourite Nirvanna the Band the Show — it's a risk worth taking. (Johnson also directed BlackBerry, and plays Research in Motion co-founder Doug Fregin.) 

For one thing, creating a miniseries and a film at the same time opens up more potential funding avenues. It also helps broaden the audience — something that's especially important for a Canadian production. 

"I don't know if you know this or not, but it's pretty hard to get Canadians to see Canadian content in film or television," Miller says. "I think there's hesitation from Canadian audiences to engage with the culture that's been created by and for them."

"We feel like for a small, independent Canadian film and series to have a second go around, to build an audience and get people talking about it, is pretty helpful."

While it can be hard to get Canadians to watch their own cultural products, Miller says American and overseas audiences don't have any problem with BlackBerry's Canadianness. The film received critical acclaim in the U.S., and the series has been picked up by AMC south of the border. 

Two men, one in a business suit, one in yellow T-shirt and red headband look pensively into the camera
Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson as Research in Motion co-founders Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin in BlackBerry. (Courtesy CBC)

"I think Canadians tell themselves Americans don't want to see Canadian stories, because it's easier to stomach that than the idea that Canadians don't want to see Canadian stories," he says. "I think people are more and more curious about what's coming out of Canada and our Canadian stories. One of the really amazing things to come out of BlackBerry and the experience of taking it around festivals and screening it is that nobody knew it was a Canadian story outside of Canada, which speaks to our own inability to celebrate our successes and champion ourselves."

But audiences all over the world did know BlackBerry, and the film came out at the same time as several other "brand story films" earlier this year, which made BlackBerry part of a broader cultural trend. Those movies included Air — the Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Viola Davis vehicle about the creation of the Air Jordan — and Tetris, which starred Taron Egerton and told the story of the video game of the same name. Miller says there is a bit of a difference between BlackBerry and those films, though.

"[What separates] BlackBerry from those other movies… is the stature of the brand in the marketplace today," he says. "I don't think anybody could accuse BlackBerry of being a two-hour commercial for a cell phone company… At the end of [Air], you're still like, 'Well, I have to put something on my feet — maybe I wanna put on Nike sneakers?' And that part of those movies makes me a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, we never had that problem." 

He acknowledges that not every film can be turned into a miniseries, or vice versa, but says that it worked well for this particular story. The miniseries allowed them to flesh out certain parts of the story, and the tale of Research in Motion — BlackBerry's parent company — can be broken out fairly neatly into three chapters: the late '90s, when it was a scrappy start-up founded by two geeks from Southwestern Ontario; the early '00s, when it was a fast-growing stock market darling making a status phone; and the late '00s/early '10s, when it was a lumbering corporate behemoth, unable to respond to new competition.  

"We don't see it like 'one is better than the other,' or 'this is the director's cut,'" he says. "One is very much a feature film, one is very much a three-part limited series, and we wanted to be truthful to both of those formats."

"It wouldn't be my first choice to replicate again in the future because it's just challenging… but I do think it worked well for this project."

Having said that, he thinks the film and television industry will keep having to find more creative ways to make projects happen, particularly smaller projects like BlackBerry.

Three men look concerned inside an office.
Rich Sommer, SungWon Cho and Jay Baruchel in BlackBerry. (Courtesy CBC )

"The movies that made me want to make movies as a kid were those with people in rooms talking," he says. "I think the industry thinking is like, 'Oh, all of those stories are now relegated to streamers and HBO… people don't go see movies like that anymore.' I think that's nonsense. If you make intelligent movies for intelligent audiences, they will come to see it. What's changed is the business model… So that means we have to shift things. Can we make movies for a little bit less money? How are we going to do that?"

Miller has an "if you build it, they will come" attitude to getting Canadians — and the rest of the world — to watch Canadian film and television.

"As soon as Canada makes a few films that get recognized internationally, or break through, or make money, everybody's going to be lining up to get the next one," he says. But we need to do it a couple of times and show people that we're capable of doing it."

"It's like the old thing about being a Canadian band, where you haven't made a career until you're on the radio in the United States. I think the same thing is kind of true here. I think having success in the U.S., having AMC put out the television series, having audiences come and critics really respond positively to it — if we could do that a few more times in Canada, then that's how you shift a perception."

BlackBerry premieres Nov. 9 on CBC and CBC Gem.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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