Air – Writing an underdog and empowerment story

The film Air originated with screenwriter Alex Convery, whose screenplay came full circle when it was sent to Mandalay, where his initial inspiration became the first step in the film’s realization.

Air reveals the unbelievable game-changing partnership between a then-rookie Michael Jordan and Nike’s fledgling basketball division which revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand. This inspirational story follows the career-defining gamble of an unconventional team with everything on the line, the uncompromising vision of a mother who knows the worth of her son’s immense talent, and the basketball phenom who would become the greatest of all time.

Today, the instantly recognizable Nike swoosh is emblazoned on athletes in every major sport; however, four decades ago, Nike’s fledgling basketball division was the underdog, with no top players wanting to wear a “running shoe” brand. Then, in 1984, an unprecedented deal between the struggling company and an untested NBA rookie named Michael Jordan rewrote all the rules, launching what would become a global, multibillion-dollar industry. But it all started with the vision of one man, the conviction of his team, the faith and determination of one woman and the unparalleled talent of one extraordinary athlete. Together, they turned the once-generic basketball shoe into something forever iconic: the Air Jordan.

“When you write a true story like that, it’s so hard to actually get it over the finish line,” says Convery, who graduated from USC’s Writing for Screen and Television program and counts Air as his first produced screenplay. He has been featured on the annual Hollywood Blacklist three times and was named one of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch in 2022.

“I would be lying if I said anything other than I thought the script would be a good writing sample that my agents could take out and get me another job. A movie gets made three times: when it is written, when it is filmed and then when it is edited. So much can go wrong.”

Convery is a self-described “huge Chicago Bulls fan,” who says, like many, that he was obsessed The Last Dance, the Emmy-winning docuseries about Michael Jordan’s career and the Bulls dynasty, which culminated with the team’s sixth championship season.

He recounts, “In episode five, there’s a segment about how Nike should never have gotten Jordan, but prevailed with this kind of unheard of pitch of building an entire shoe line around an athlete instead of the other way around.

Years earlier, Convery had worked as an intern at the company that produced the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Sonny Vaccaro, called “Sole Man.” He recalls, “I didn’t have anything to do with the project directly, but I had the opportunity to watch them edit it and saw hours and hours of footage of Sonny’s interviews. He was the guy who said, ‘Go sign Jordan,’ and that kind of led me down a whole rabbit hole of research. I read about 700 pages of his interview transcripts for both documentaries, which was incredibly valuable when it came to capturing his voice.”

When Convery’s screenplay came full circle and was sent to Mandalay, where his initial inspiration became the first step in the film’s realization, the screenplay was recommended to producer Peter Guber, the CEO of Mandalay and one of the executive producers on The Last Dance.

“I thought it had a deftly shaped narrative that captured Sonny’s passion to never give up or give in and his belief in Michael Jordan,” says Guber.

“I have always been drawn to underdog and empowerment stories;,” says producer Jason Michael Berman, “I love seeing characters fight for what they believe in and think outside the box to accomplish their goals. We believed this could be a very special movie because it’s an incredible story with so much heart.”

“We were fortunate to have Peter Guber call us with this terrific script just as we were launching our sports division. One of the most fortuitous aspects was that our first hire at Skydance Sports, Jon Weinbach, was a producer on The Last Dance and also codirected the 30 for 30 documentary ‘Sole Man,’ which was the definitive doc on Sonny Vaccaro,” says producer Jesse Sisgold, President & COO of Skydance Media.

“I have 20 years of history with Sonny, one of the pioneers in creating the nexus between basketball, athletes and sneakers, so when Peter asked if I’d ever heard of a guy named Sonny Vaccaro, I laughed. And then, once we read Alex’s script, we all loved it,” says Weinbach, President of Skydance Sports and a producer on Air.

“I think the screenplay spoke to me because the struggle and payoff that comes with following your gut is so relatable,” says Sisgold. “This theme is obvious with Sonny, but it equally applies to Deloris Jordan, too. She entered a new world and, as risky as it was, she fought against the norm because, instinctively, she knew what was right…even if that meant creating a whole new model.”

“I was fortunate to spend a day with Sonny and his wife, Pam, going over the script and hearing it from his perspective,” says Convery.

Nearly 40 years after the actual events unfolded, Vaccaro allows, “No one in the world could have imagined what the Air Jordan would become. Even I never believed that that would happen because no one had ever done what Nike did. That’s what the marvel is. There is only one GOAT, the ‘greatest of all time,’ but that doesn’t always mean who won the most championships or who’s the best player. Those are all authentic things, but it’s what Michael did off the court, too. He revolutionized companies. He created generational wealth for individuals, making the athlete a partner. There were great players before and after Michael, but Michael and that shoe… A shoe. Can you imagine that?”

When it came time to choose a director for Air, the producers and the screenwriter were in synch about the best person to be at the helm.

“This story clearly connected with Ben Affleck on multiple levels,” says Weinbach “As a legit sports fan, as a child of the `80s, and as an astute interpreter of modern American history in films like Argo. He also had the gravitas to elevate this story, attract an unbelievable cast, bring in some of the best professionals in the industry, and—perhaps most importantly—to approach Michael Jordan and get his thoughts on it. None of that was possible without Ben at the helm, and it was wildly exciting to see him make it all happen.”

Convery points out that Affleck has also demonstrated an innate ability to make moviegoers second guess what they know. “You hear all the time that it’s all about the journey not the destination, but that is even truer here because virtually every single person comes into this movie knowing the outcome. But Ben is able to work the tone and the tension in a way that makes you think, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen. Is he going to sign?’ It’s similar to Argo in that he takes you on this journey and, whether you know the ending or not, you’re along for the ride.”

“Ben’s enthusiasm for the story and his understanding of the film’s challenges made him the perfect choice for us, as well as the perfect first project for him and Matt Damon in their new company, Artists Equity,” says Guber.

Affleck concurs, remarking, “The story reflects several themes that are parallel with what Matt and I are trying to do with Artists Equity, in terms of taking ownership of the material we’re creating and embracing the idea that artists and creators are risking a lot putting themselves in their work. There is no story more emblematic of the value created by a person’s identity and cultural footprint than Michael Jordan. And I also felt that this was a movie that genuinely had something positive and inspiring to say.”

Damon reflects, “This was such a significant time in these people’s lives. One thing Sonny Vaccaro was very clear with me about was that the feelings of camaraderie, friendship and loyalty are his takeaways from that time. That’s what we wanted to put in the movie—a story about these underdogs doing something that had never been done before.

Affleck concludes, “My hope is that this is a story that audiences will connect with and it will resonate with them. I hope they will find it meaningful and rewarding to watch…because that’s the point of telling stories.”

Statement from Director Ben Affleck

I really believe that human excellence is a beautiful thing; the concept of genius is one of the things that’s most fascinating to me, and Michael Jordan is nothing if not a genius. There is a mystery in what exactly makes him who he is—that level of elite, that cut above, the greatest basketball player ever. His influence on basketball and sports in general, and the people who love them, is incalculable.

However, this a story that exemplifies how—even before he stepped on an NBA court – he completely transformed the world of sports marketing and how athletes are compensated, championed by his mother, who envisioned his future and knew his worth.

Air is not Michael Jordan’s story, but there is no story without him. I would not have made this movie without first reaching out to him. And I’m grateful to Michael for sharing what was important to him. His presence and influence is felt throughout the film, though we don’t see his face. Because he is such an icon—an undisputedly important and meaningful figure, someone everyone holds in such high esteem—we didn’t want to shatter the illusion, but rather let the audience invoke their own memories and experiences of what Michael Jordan means.

The unconventional team at Nike, led by Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Howard White (Chris Tucker) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) saw greatness in Jordan, but they never imagined that a shoe designed around a single player would be the catalyst for a multibillion-dollar global industry that would set a new standard. Today, we take it for granted when stars in any arena have a brand, but this is a story about the nascence of that—when the concept of creating a brand and associating it with personal identity was first formed.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie for me was that, going into it, the protagonist isn’t who you think it is. In the course of developing the film, I came to the realization that the fulcrum of the movie is Viola Davis’s character, Deloris Jordan. I wanted to do justice to her, as well as Michael, and honor who they are and the lasting impact they have on our culture.