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Jim Balsillie sets the record straight on 'BlackBerry' movie

Canadian businessman and former Research In Motion co-CEO and chair Jim Balsillie is shown during an interview in Toronto, April 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston Canadian businessman and former Research In Motion co-CEO and chair Jim Balsillie is shown during an interview in Toronto, April 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
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TORONTO -

Jim Balsillie is having his Hollywood moment.

It was almost inevitable the Waterloo, Ont., businessman would one day be portrayed in film for his role in the global success of the BlackBerry smartphone.

And yet Balsillie never predicted how strange it would be to see it happen, especially since his cinematic version is almost unrecognizable to him.

The new Canadian dark comedy "BlackBerry" takes no prisoners in the executive suite, but it's especially ruthless to Balsillie. He's played by "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" star Glenn Howerton as an agitated live wire prone to violent outbursts and foul-mouthed tirades as he plows down the road to success.

"When I first saw it, I was confused for about five minutes," Balsillie acknowledged during an interview in a Toronto board room.

"And then I thought, 'OK, we're being roasted here. This is a satire."'

Being portrayed as a tyrant doesn't bother him much. He sees it as fair game.

"They're taking an element of truth, who I am, and they're playing with it," he said.

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

What's still unclear is whether moviegoers will be as quickly attuned to the joke.

When "BlackBerry" arrives in cinemas on May 12, viewers who are vaguely familiar with the company's origin story might find it difficult to sift out the truth. They also might wonder if there's more than a sliver of realness in Howerton's over-the-top portrayal of Balsillie.

The realness buried in the "BlackBerry" movie has fascinated a segment of the former employees at Research In Motion, the company that later renamed itself after the smartphone it created.

One-time employee Matthias Wandel, who operates a popular YouTube channel, devoted an 18-minute video to dissecting the film's trailer, breaking down what's real and what isn't. His clip has been viewed more than 45,000 times in little over two weeks.

Historical accuracy hasn't concerned "BlackBerry" director Matt Johnson or the film's other creators, who set out to tell their own wildly unhinged story. But with a film built on a foundation of truth -- and set in some version of Waterloo still fresh in people's memories -- it's understandable there's room for confusion.

Already, Balsillie has been inundated with interview requests seeking his reaction to the movie. And so, over the past few weeks, the 62-year-old has navigated showbiz without a map, staying quiet and careful not to trample on the creative freedom of the creators.

He will attend the Toronto premiere at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday and plans to walk the red carpet in a show of support. But he's leaving the Q&A portion of the post-screening to the moviemakers, skirting any possibility that he could fall into a fact vs. fiction debate in a public space.

Balsillie, who recently founded the non-profit Centre for Digital Rights, sees "BlackBerry" as an opportunity to have some fun, even while he's being poked fun at. His friends don't seem to mind a chance to prod him either.

Earlier in the day, two business pals in the technology sector gifted him a red and orange cap with "superstar" written across it. They jokingly asked him for his autograph, he said, something he's more accustomed to putting on a legal document.

Other key BlackBerry players portrayed in the movie haven't been so keen to play along. RIM co-founder Doug Fregin and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis -- played by Johnson and Jay Baruchel -- don't plan to attend the premiere and haven't sat for a private screening, according to Elevation Pictures.

Still, despite Balsillie's willing participation, he wouldn't mind setting a few things straight about his time at RIM, where he served as co-CEO.

In particular, he takes issue with how big-screen Balsillie becomes embroiled in stock fraud. That never happened, he pointed out.

It's likely a reference to a real-life scandal where he and other top executives were fined for stock option backdating, a practice meant to enrich employees holding stock options.

In 2009, the RIM leaders reached settlements with regulators, including the Ontario Securities Commission who called the executives negligent in overseeing the options backdating, but said they did not commit fraud. They paid millions of dollars in fines.

"If you think growing a $20-billion company is designing illegal tax scams and raging f-bombs there's nothing I can do to help you," Balsillie said.

"BlackBerry" also shows Balsillie as he races around trying to buy a hockey team. It happens at the same time his company is suffering a major network outage.

The scenes are recreations of Balsillie's failed bid to bring a National Hockey League team to Hamilton, though the film's drama implies that Balsillie was distracted by his own priorities, contributing to the company's downfall. Critics said as much at the time.

More than a decade later, Balsillie doesn't believe his NHL bid was ever a distraction. He said he attended two meetings in three years, hardly a hindrance when compared to other personal side projects.

"For 10 years I did long-course triathlons," he added.

"I trained two hours a day and spent 100 times more time on that than I did hockey. But nobody ever wrote an article on that ... When you are prosperous you have lots of different initiatives, everybody does."

Among his other quibbles, he wishes the filmmakers took more care in recreating his office. There was never a wall of tribal masks, as in the movie, but he did hang a winged wooden frog from the ceiling.

As he tells it, for 20 years Balsillie would point to the oversized frog when somebody came to him with an excuse for why a deadline couldn't be met. The old adage goes, if a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his butt when he hops. And that's what Balsillie would tell them, pointing out that you can't solve problems with tools you don't have.

Balsillie treasures that wooden frog, pulling it out of a cloth bag and reassembling its wing span as he shares the memory. But the filmmakers never approached him about the prop.

"They could've roasted me coast-to-coast on the darn frog," he said.

It's a small detail, but meaningful to Balsillie, who describes himself as "maniacal for facts." He's less confident about how he critiques movies.

With the fictional BlackBerry tale, he hopes audiences can set aside their historical knowledge and experience the ride. A more accurate historical retelling could always take shape later.

Two documentary producers -- one Canadian and another from the United Kingdom -- already seem to be on that track. They recently contacted Balsillie in hopes of convincing him to share his memories. He said he's still weighing his options.

If "BlackBerry" stokes more interest in the origins of the tech company, it's likely others may poke their heads into the past. For now, Balsillie is fine letting this outlandish version have its time.

"They're having a lark with us," he said. "Lighten up, everybody. It's a movie."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2023.

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