Inside BlackBerry’s Limited-Series Makeover—And Wild Oscar Campaign

If the camera on Matt Johnson’s Zoom seems a little wobbly, that’s because he’s calling in from an RV and he’s on the move. The BlackBerry director is driving across the country with his small but mighty production crew—I’m introduced to them on a quick virtual tour of the vehicle—as they embark on their next project together. They’re in the midst of shooting a secret new movie. With each leg on the road, Johnson is balancing guerrilla filmmaking with Oscar campaigning. “Every single day I’m stopping in cities to talk with people and do screenings [of BlackBerry], but this is while we’re shooting,” he says. “No rest for the weary.”

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The Toronto-born Johnson had been making films in relative obscurity for about a decade before helming BlackBerry, a kinetically paced and brilliantly acted docudrama about the rise and fall of the early-aughts smartphone phenomenon. This movie, made on a very tight seven-figure budget in his native Canada, hit differently from the moment it premiered in Berlin, receiving wide critical acclaim and grossing millions of dollars at the box office. BlackBerry’s U.S. distributor, IFC, has mounted a robust awards push for the indie darling, with top strategists working on the title. Its scene-stealing antagonist, Glenn Howerton, is already on the board with a deserved Gotham Award nomination.

All of that fits into a familiar trajectory for a small, well-crafted critical hit that resonates with viewers and builds industry steam on word-of-mouth. More recently, though, BlackBerry took an unprecedented detour.

IFC’s television partner, AMC Networks, announced last month that Johnson had expanded his 121-minute biopic into a three-episode limited series, with 16 minutes of previously unseen material weaved in. (The series premieres November 13 on both AMC and its streamer, AMC+.) Ingmar Bergman did the reverse with his 1973 miniseries Scenes From a Marriage; Baz Lurhmann’s TV take on his 2008 film Australia, retitled Faraway Downs, starts streaming on Hulu later this month. But for a movie to rebrand as a show within a year? The move proved divisive among BlackBerry’s champions, who’d admired the original version’s narrative economy and momentum. Oscar-winning director Christopher Miller (the Spider-Verse films) responded to the news by posting on X, “I really enjoyed this film. I recommend watching it, even binging it in one 2 hour sitting if you can, like the movie it is.”

But the 38-year-old Johnson, who considers himself an experimental director above all, jumped at the idea for a three-part version of BlackBerry when it was first presented to him. “I’m a pretty small Canadian filmmaker, and so in a way, the opportunity for this project—that I love deeply and was making with my friends—to be seen by so many more people is kind of amazing for me,” he says. “As you can see, I’m in an RV crossing the country. I’m not living the lavish lifestyle and can’t afford to be precious.” He views this adaptation of sorts as a kind of modern-media director’s cut. “Except it’s in a format that a bunch of people are going to see—it’s not just like a DVD or a Blu-Ray extra that only cinephiles are going to watch,” Johnson continues. “In fact, it’s almost the opposite. It’s a broadening of the same thing.”

The additions in the limited series center on Howerton’s Jim Balsillie, the volatile investor whose co-CEO run with BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) ends in disaster. In prep, Johnson had allocated the bulk of the production budget to actual shooting days, allowing the actors more time to find their best work. “There’s no action moment, there are no guns,” he says. “We decided, Let’s spend as much time on performances as we possibly can. That’s where we’re going to put all the money.” This meant that they had room for scenes exploring Balsillie’s backstory, which didn’t make the final cut of the movie. “We had all this amazing footage, and as soon as our partners knew about that, they were like, ‘Is there a way that we can use that and show more of this guy’s genesis?’” Johnson says. “The limited series gets into the origins of what it was that Jim Balsillie did—and why he did it.”

And if showcasing more of Howerton’s towering portrayal furthers his awards candidacy, then so be it. (The BlackBerry campaign confirms that the title will be submitted for Oscars, despite the series extension; per AMC, it is not eligible for Emmy consideration.) “I’ve never seen somebody so dedicated in my life,” Johnson says of the actor. “Every single take with him was usable—it was like watching a magician.” The director thinks back to the movie’s Berlin world premiere in February, as they nervously geared up for the first public response. Howerton, a Juilliard graduate best known for decades-long work on the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was on the precipice of a potential career breakthrough—and broke down “in pieces,” as Johnson remembers it: “He’s grabbing my arm with both hands so hard, I had a bruise—he’s like, ‘They’re going to hate me. They’re going to hate this.’”

Then the movie played like gangbusters, and Howerton let go. “He went through every possible emotion right beside me,” Johnson says.

Critics admired Johnson’s previous features The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, but the director can see now why they didn’t meet as much attention. “My other films were experimenting with form in a major way,” he says. The reaction to BlackBerry “taught me very, very clearly that my work with actors is more important than anything else I was experimenting with.” The film maintains a spontaneity and immediacy; you feel the director’s exploratory nature behind the camera. But the telling of the story was, by his standards, straightforward. This time, he landed on the performances, specifically Howerton’s, as the element to run wild—and run wild they did.

The result, as Johnson continues to talk about BlackBerry months after its release, speaks for itself. “I’m still stunned,” he says. “I’m amazed that people are still talking about the movie.” He finds himself adjusting to the meet-and-greets with voters and industry heavy-hitters; he’s not used to the glitz and glamour, nor directors he admires—in a handful of cases, directors who directly influenced BlackBerry—“talking to me as though I’m an authority on this style of filmmaking, which is in my head so laughable because I’m like, ‘Guys, I really have just stolen all this from you.’” The praise undeniably feels good, but he knows not to let that feeling take over.

“The more time you spend going to festivals, going to these types of self-congratulatory events, or celebration-style screenings, that’s time that you’re not working on your next project—and so, be very careful,” Johnson says. “Although I’m in the midst of an awards campaign for my last movie, I’m still in a diesel-smelling mobile home sleeping in a bunk bed trying to cross the country as fast as possible.”

Out of this whirlwind, Johnson plans on carrying the acknowledgment from his peers that he made good work. “It makes me feel like I’ve been invited to the adult table for the first time in my life,” he says. “Yeah, it’s been the biggest change in my adult life by far.” He remembers, as he says this, that Hollywood awards are in fact a peer-driven metric. Then he recalls Sally Field’s legendary Oscars acceptance speech. “What is it? ‘You love me, you really love me,’ or ‘You like me’ maybe?” he asks. (Getting warmer!) “It’s emblematic of what actually is going on—that, ‘Oh, I fit in, I belong.’ I just realized that. I just realized what that line meant, and it’s so beautiful.”

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