Blackberry: A Good Business Movie?
The following comment is based exclusively on my impressions, hence it may be completely wrong… but it seems to me that the movie industry, in its insatiable demand for new content (not by chance, Netflix, Amazon or Apple are behind the films I’m about to mention), is becoming more interested in business stories. This year, for example, we had the formidable “Air”, a truly excellent movie that centered around the development of a product, the Nike Air Jordan, stripped of all romance and drama; “Tetris”, the very well told story of the intricacies and power plays behind the development of one of the world’s most famous games; “The Beanie Bubble”, on the eponymous stuffed animal, a more traditional story full of drama and strongly biased against “greed” (as virtually all business movies used to be). And now, “Blackberry”, by Matt Johnson.
I liked “Blackberry” a great deal. For one thing, it played the nostalgia effect, for me. I loved my blue Blackberry and I still miss it as the best cell phone I ever had. Not that my iPhone isn’t packaging together a great deal more things – but the Blackberry was all about e-mails, a by now outdated form of communication still dear to me vis-à-vis WhatsApp, Telegram, et cetera. Blackberry was fast, lean, and (but my memory may be tricking me) quite reliable.
The movie is mostly about business, in the sense that it does not indulge in the personal or love lives of the characters. That sometimes is important for the story, but sometimes is a trick played by screenwriters who just find business uninteresting. It is not the case of Matt Johnson.
I know very little about the story of Research in Motion, RIM, the company which made Blackberry. I finished the movie wanting to know more, which is a good sign.
The film focuses on mainly two figures: Matt Lazaridis, the brain behind Blackberry, and Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO with a business rather than a tech background. It could be seen as a suits vs geeks story. Screenwriters, but also viewers, tend to be biased in favour of the geeks. So I assumed Blackberry was, at least looking at the theatrical manifesto.
But it is a more balanced movie. The success of Blackberry is traced back to Lazaridis’ genial intuitions, both when it comes to the product itself and the way in which it interacted with the telecom network. But it is clear that the company would have never taken off, if it wasn’t for Balsillie imposing some business discipline on it. The Faustian bargain between being loyal to the nerdish original spirit and the quest for success (and profits) at the beginning pays off, but then it provokes a mutation of the geek Lazaridis into kind of a suit – which doesn’t work particularly well. I do not want to anticipate too much, but I found it telling that, though late and bad because he was distracted by personal matter, it is Balsillie who understood the change of the game with the iPhone. Lazaridis is now sacrificing him (for reasons you may remember, or go watch the movie) but moreover can’t hear him. He is enamored (as many genuine entrepreneurs are) with his business model and can’t contemplate an alternative one.
As I said, I do not know how accurate the movie is, and I would like to know. I suspect it exaggerated the precarious conditions of RIM before the launch of the Blackberry phone and presented its decline after the introduction of the iPhone as more tumultuous and quicker than it was. Yet I found it a decent description of the business world. It does not deny the existence of “pirates” and fraudsters (who could?) but tells a story in which a company is being truly innovative and generating value for customers and wealth for its founders. It also points out, in a rather neutral and intelligent way, that the tables may turn, and innovation is not necessarily path dependent. A new comer may arrive and revolutionize the market. Creative destruction doesn’t spare anyone.
Our understanding of the world we live in is shaped by stories, and in the times we live stories are mainly movies and TV series. How people “get” the market economy depends upon them more than anything else. So, I find good business movies a more promising and important signal than good best-sellers in economics (and no longer a rarer one, perhaps because best-seller in economics are now mainly carbon copies of old Marxist pamphlets).