Amazon Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection
Before “Air” could get the greenlight, director Ben Affleck needed one last seal of approval. With months of development already complete, the director flew out to meet with Michael Jordan, seeking his blessing for the film, which explores the NBA star’s landmark 1984 sponsorship deal with Nike and the origin of the Air Jordan line.
For screenwriter Alex Convery, this was the most stressful 24 hours of his career.
“Either this was going to get made and it would be my first produced movie, or it’s all going to fall apart. Back to square one,” Convery recalls in a conversation with Variety. “To really do this responsibly, you need Michael to say yes. Ben said it in the first meeting, ‘We will not do the movie if Michael doesn’t want to do it.’”
Déjà vu. Waiting for a call that could change his life, Convery found himself in a situation that he had practically written into his own screenplay. “Air” culminates with a Hail Mary meeting between the Jordan family and Nike executives, led by scrappy Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who takes the wheel during the pitch by looking the then-incoming rookie Jordan in the eyes and expounding about his generational talent, predicting a future of how it will come to elevate the sport itself.
Vaccaro’s soliloquized idealism fades over the following days, waiting by the phone to learn if Jordan bought his argument.
“Looking back, so much of what Sonny is saying is exactly how I was feeling as a stuck screenwriter,” Convery laughs. “Him saying, ‘I have a feeling! I know this can be something!’ I’m the only one who could probably see it, but I do laugh. It is way too obvious.”
To get Jordan to visit Nike headquarters, Vacarro goes behind a bunch of executives warning him to steer clear of the rising star, whose reputation is seen as too outsized for the Nike basketball division’s slim budget. Like his protagonist, Convery reveals that he went rogue in writing the screenplay for “Air,” chipping away at it between paid writing gigs. Even once he began sharing a finished draft, producers warned him that the project was unlikely to be approved by the necessary parties.
“I didn’t tell my agent or managers I was doing it because I knew they would say ‘Don’t write it.’ Smartly!” Convery says. “Don’t spec something you don’t control the rights to.”
Convery had already learned this lesson the hard way. After penning a script about the rise of Marvel Comics and its rivalrous leaders Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the screenwriter says his “heart was put in a blender” when the project couldn’t find a way off the ground.
Nonetheless, Convery couldn’t help himself. The writer grew up in the suburbs of Chicago during the ‘90s, witnessing up close the unmatched fervor for Jordan and his six-championship franchise dynasty. Reliving the Bulls glory days with the hit ESPN doc “The Last Dance” in 2020, Convery found his creativity activated by an anecdote in the series that detailed Nike’s unlikely deal with Jordan.
Courtesy of Alex Convery
“My version of write what you know is ‘What are you most passionate about?’” Convery says. “I just saw the movie, which so rarely happens. I never have good ideas. But it was just all there… I didn’t want to write it, but I had to because no one else knows there’s something here.”
Convery understood early on that Jordan couldn’t be an explicit character in the screenplay. The NBA star is a spectral presence in “Air,” sometimes comically so; the 21-year-old rookie can be seen walking into business meetings, but always facing away from the camera or with his head just out of frame. Jordan speaks only once in the film – and it’s one word on the other end of a phone call. In previous interviews, Convery has compared Jordan’s narrative function to the shark’s in “Jaws” – a looming force of nature that goes unseen.
“The less you show of him, the more powerful the idea of him is,” Convery says. The original spec detailed a climactic cut to Jordan’s face during Vaccaro’s speech to him, but the idea was promptly scrapped. “To Ben’s credit, from the first time we sat down, he was like, ‘You have to pick one or the other.’ The minute the headline comes out of which actor is going to be playing Michael Jordan, that will be the only story of the movie.”
Instead, “Air” finds its conduit for the Jordan family in Viola Davis, who portrays the star’s mother, Deloris – a woman carefully navigating an onslaught of businessmen, judging which parties will actually pay for the value they see in her son.
In the film’s climax, Deloris calls Vaccaro to agree to his deal, provided that Jordan receives a fraction of the revenue for all Nike products featuring his name and image.
Vaccaro deflates at first. It’s not even that he disagrees with the principle; it’s that sponsorship deals simply have not worked like that before.
“Knowing the Jordan family gets their due at the end, I just always felt that would shine through more than the idea of executives at Nike. It’s the Jordan family that has the final victory,” Convery says. “The way Ben puts it is Dolores suddenly becomes the protagonist. The guy you thought you were rooting for the entire movie suddenly becomes the guy you’re rooting against.”
For Convery, there are mixed emotions to his first produced screenplay coming to fruition as the Writers Guild of America prepares for a potential strike. The screenwriter calls a renewed WGA contract “long overdue.” The ultimate triumph of “Air” is watching an athlete receive rightful compensation for a product with his name on it. As negotiations continue between the WGA and major studios, Convery’s sentiment is that writers are only seeking the same.
“The business has been changing under our feet for a long time. The way writers are compensated is not reflected in that change,” Convery says. “There are writers that are going to be affected by this more and less than others. That’s the painful part of going into any battle — not everyone is going to be affected equally. But all of these places are profit-driven; if they could cut us out, they would. It’s the power of the guild that we’ve gotten as far as we are now.”
As Dolores looked out for her son while negotiating with Nike, Convery sees this labor rally among WGA members as a necessary, deserved investment in the future.
“William Goldman didn’t have health care! It’s crazy! Paddy Chayefsky didn’t have health care. I wouldn’t either if people before me, who didn’t know me and probably never will, didn’t go on strike,” Convery says. “Here we are again and we’re ready.”
“Air” is in theaters now.
Variety's J. Kim Murphy contributed to this post.