AIR, BlackBerry, Tetris: What’s with our current fascination with elaborate company origin stories?

By Louis Shankar

Published May 23, 2023 at 03:54 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Sometimes going to the cinema feels like endless déjà vu, with a constant cycle of remakes, reboots, and unnecessary sequels. Just look at the month of May: Fast X, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Little Mermaid. But there’s also a new genre of film emerging this year that’s cashing in on a different wave of nostalgia—movies based on intellectual property (IP), origin stories of brands and products. They’re basically biopics, but about a product rather than a person. In other words, true stories about individuals you’ve never heard of, but end results you have.

The most legendary of these IP biopics is arguably the 2010 Oscar-nominated tech movie The Social Network. Directed by David Fincher, the story followed the rise of Facebook and its fearless (albeit unhinged) leader Mark Zuckerberg. Given recent developments and revelations over the years, it should be noted that The Social Network does now seem both dated and rather lopsided in its storytelling.

Then there’s Joy, the 2015 film starring Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the self-wringing Miracle Mop—but we should also keep in mind that this movie focuses more on her business empire and entrepreneurial skills than the product itself.

The latest in this line is BlackBerry, a biographical comedy-drama about the history of the BlackBerry line of mobile phones, aka the OG smartphone. But there’s also AIR, recently released on Prime Video, which tells the story of the Air Jordan, a legendary collaboration between Nike and Michael Jordan. And let’s not forget Tetris, which was released on Apple TV+, a biographical thriller about the race to licence the eponymous video game from within the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War.

AIR is directed by and stars Ben Affleck alongside long-time collaborator Matt Damon, as well as Jason Bateman, and Viola Davis who’s playing Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan. This specific slice of sporting history manages to tell several larger stories. Most prevalent being the rise of Nike as a sportswear brand to rival the likes of Adidas which was thanks, in large part, to the launch of the Air Jordan, which although having been predicted to make around $3 million in sales, in the first year actually earned $162 million.

This success in turn instigated a new wave of collaborations between sports stars and fashion brands that went far beyond mere sponsorship deals—turning athletes into multimillionaires in the process, and giving them income after retiring from professional sports.

Weirdly, the film doesn’t feature Jordan himself and largely avoids even showing him onscreen as a character, instead focusing on his family. During a special New York City screening, Affleck explained this decision: “He’s too famous, and I like him being the guy above it. It’s how our relationship is with these icons and idols, they’re not in our living rooms, in our lives, they’re people who are in our fantasies.”

The director went on to add: “The only person who could play Michael Jordan, as I’ve said to him, is too old now to play Michael Jordan.” And, although he was not directly involved in the film, Jordan gave Affleck his blessing, asking for only four changes to the script before filming.

These films offer a new perspective on recent history, an insight into worlds we feel familiar with, even though we know so little about the people who actually lived within them. Everyone knows about the game Tetris, but was anyone aware of how it came to be so successful worldwide?

Developed by programmer Alexey Pajitnov, who worked for government-owned ELORG in the Soviet Union, Tetris had a messy beginning—something the new film covers in length.

Focusing on Henk Rogers, played by Taron Egerton, a Dutch video game designer based in Japan, the recent blockbuster tells his story of an obsession with the game, including Soviet paranoia and corruption, as well as the rivalry between SEGA and Nintendo (the latter were ultimately successful). Spoiler alert: Tetris and creator Pajitnov were eventually liberated from the Soviet Union. Rogers and Pajitnov even went on to co-found the Tetris Company in 1996, which still manages worldwide licensing to this day.

Both Rogers and Pajitnov reviewed the script and made suggestions here and there, but in a February interview with Canary Media, the Dutch game designer noted: “It’s a Hollywood script, a movie. It’s not about history so a lot of [what’s in the movie] never happened.”

Nonetheless, it’s impressive that the filmmakers managed to tell a story that is ultimately about licensing law in an engaging and exciting way, in large part thanks to the historical peculiarities of its setting.

The BlackBerry story is a particularly timely film, adapted from the non-fiction book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. At a time when smartphones are now ubiquitous, this origin story explores how the technology emerged.

At its peak in September 2011, BlackBerry had 85 million users. Any gen Zer will remember the desperate need to have a BlackBerry, just so you could be involved in the proto-social media that was BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). The phones were especially notable for always having a full hardware QWERTY keyboard before, and after, touchscreens became the norm. Sadly, as of January 2022, the uniquely keyboarded phones have since met their end, with a formal discontinuation by the brand.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a of 98 per cent based on 143 reviews, higher than either AIR (92 per cent) or Tetris (82 per cent). The site summarised: “With intelligence as sharp as its humour, BlackBerry takes a terrifically entertaining look at the rise and fall of a generation-defining gadget.” The Canadian film helmed by internet favourite, Matt Johnson is yet to see a UK release.

As entertaining as they are, should we expect a greater variety of formats when it comes to this genre of film? That would be a big yes. It’s a neat way for brands to cash in on intellectual property and build their reach (even if it’s too late for poor ol’ BlackBerry).

A LEGO movie about the origins of the building blocks themselves could easily be on the cards. Or what about a film telling the story of the revolutionary Swedish flatpack pioneers, IKEA? It’s all fun and giggles until we’re watching a three-hour film about Percy Pigs.

There might be more creative and interesting ways to go about such storytelling. For instance, one of this summer’s most anticipated blockbuster releases is Barbie, by Little Women director Greta Gerwig. As of yet, not much is known about the plot, but we certainly shouldn’t expect a tale about the design and launch of the iconic doll.

Instead, the trailer has us thinking it’ll be somewhere between Toy Story, The Lego Movie, The Stepford Wives, and Thelma & Louise. We’re so here for it.

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