There can only be so much suspense in “Air.” The new drama depicts Nike’s quest in 1984 to sign the then-rookie Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal, and everyone knows that in the end, Nike will get its man. Some viewers are doubtlessly wearing Swoosh-adorned Air Jordan sneakers.
Yet the filmmakers conjure a gripping moment late in the film. Through wit and grit, Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike executive played by Matt Damon, has secured Jordan’s agreement — until Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), makes an additional demand: Her son must receive not only a $250,000 fee, but also a cut from every sneaker sold.
“A shoe is just a shoe,” she tells Vaccaro, “until my son steps into it.”
This seemingly small nuance, more than just a plot development, embodies one of the central themes of “Air”: the value a talented individual brings to a business and the importance of compensating him for what he is worth.
“He created that value,” Damon, also a producer, said in an interview. “Yeah, they had some great advertising campaigns, right? But Michael Jordan going out and being the best player every single night is what put the meaning in the shoe.”
The lesson of “Air” can also be applied to the new company that produced it. Artists Equity was co-founded by Damon and his longtime friend Ben Affleck to make movies that earn more money for their artistic talent. “Air” — directed by Affleck, who also plays the Nike co-founder and chief executive Phil Knight — was deliberately the company’s first project.
“Thematically it was on point in terms of what we’re trying to do with the new company,” Damon said of “Air.”
He elaborated: “Sonny feels, like we do, that the people who are putting the value in something deserve to share in the revenue and be compensated, and rather than it being extractive, it’s a partnership.”
The message of “Air” might help explain why it has been embraced by critics and audiences. It turns Michael Jordan from an extraordinary athlete into a stand-in for the viewer. “He’s not the underdog compared to the everyday person, but he’s still someone people can relate to,” said Thilo Kunkel, a professor at Temple University who studies athlete branding.
In real life, it was Nike that initially offered Jordan a piece of the business — it was “the bait on the fishing hook,” Vaccaro said in an interview. Nike had been desperate to outbid its larger rivals, Converse and Adidas, to secure the rights to a player it predicted would be a generational talent.
The film closely reflects reality, Vaccaro added, in portraying this proposal as important to Deloris Jordan, the central decision maker in her household. “She reminded me 10 times before you saw it in the last scene,” Vaccaro said, adding, “The only reason that we survived and we won was because of him having a piece.”
Vaccaro’s career in basketball and the shoe business is rich enough that years ago there was very nearly a movie made about a completely different period of his life (he was to have been played by James Gandolfini). Vaccaro started organizing high school all-star games in the 1960s. At Nike he not only helped sign Jordan, he also pioneered contracts with college basketball coaches that put Nike sneakers on their players, as N.C.A.A. rules barred the athletes from making their own deals. In the ’90s, he signed Kobe Bryant to Adidas.
But the real-life Vaccaro took to heart the moral of “Air” during his late-career shift from shoe-company veteran to gadfly who helped college athletes win the right to sign endorsement deals of their own.
In 2007, he quit the sneaker business (his résumé also included Reebok) and became an advocate for college players’ rights. For lawyers looking to sue over colleges’ profiting from their players’ names, images and likenesses, Vaccaro helped find an ideal lead plaintiff: the former U.C.L.A. basketball star Ed O’Bannon. The lawsuit filed in 2009 and known as the O’Bannon case, along with other lawsuits, state legislation and a sea change in public opinion — itself cultivated partly by Vaccaro, an easy and colorful quote for journalists — led the N.C.A.A. in 2021 to begin letting college athletes sign endorsement deals.
“To allow me to get to Eddie O’Bannon — it never would have happened without me being with Michael Jordan,” Vaccaro said.
Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball commentator, perceives a connection between Jordan’s securing a cut of his Nike business and Vaccaro’s lobbying to get college athletes more of the profits they help generate.
“It’s the same analysis,” said Bilas, who played basketball for Duke University when Jordan was on the archrival University of North Carolina Tar Heels. “Whether it’s an hourly worker negotiating with McDonald’s or doctors and nurses negotiating with a hospital system, what’s always true is that the business is going to make substantially more than the worker. Everyone in America, in a free-market system, deserves the right to negotiate for their fair value.”
At the film premiere last month, Damon said, the audience “erupted into applause” at the end when onscreen text described Vaccaro’s involvement in the O’Bannon case.
“It was thematically right for the movie, but it was also perfect for Sonny,” Damon said.
“The obvious thing he would go do was go fight for them,” Damon added. “It’s in keeping with how you see him throughout the movie, genuinely caring — it’s not just business for him. This is his passion and it’s his love. There’s a morality that grounds it.”
Damon is engaged in a similar enterprise. He and Affleck substituted filmmakers for athletes into Vaccaro’s equation, and, backed by $100 million from a private investment firm, started Artists Equity last year to restore to filmmakers a share of projects’ profits that had disappeared as Hollywood moved toward streaming and studios scaled back on the most generous deals.
In Artists Equity’s view, turning filmmakers — from stars like Damon and Davis to directors, cinematographers and editors — into something less like employees and more like financial partners will give them an incentive to make better movies more efficiently.
“‘Profit participation’ is the key phrase,” said Jason Squire, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. “If they fulfill this, it’ll be a wonderful, refreshed model for this part of the business.”
For its part, “Air” appears to be a financial success. The film was acquired by Amazon for $130 million. It opened last Wednesday exclusively in theaters (in advance of becoming available on Amazon’s streaming platform), and exceeded expectations with a box office take that hovered around $20 million.
Affleck’s argument for the model could have come from Deloris Jordan. “This business has never incentivized and made congruent the interest of the artist and the people financing,” he said at a New York Times conference last year. Referring to his wife, the pop star and actress Jennifer Lopez, he added, “The people who principally create value on the sales side and on the audience eyeball side are these artists who have worked their entire careers — like my wife — building a name, a reputation, a connection with fans that has real value. And oftentimes that value isn’t reflected in the deals.”
There is an irony in the argument about people getting shortchanged by the old way of doing business. Michael Jordan, Matt Damon — these are some of the more enviable people on Earth.
But anyone who has shelled out for a pair of Air Jordans or watched the Chicago Bulls win six world championships in the 1990s can testify that Jordan deserved a good deal of credit.
And in ceding a small percentage of the Air Jordan profits to its namesake, Nike did not exactly suffer. Along with the applause-generating reveal about Vaccaro’s successful advocacy on behalf of college athletes, the viewer of “Air” learns at the end of the film that Nike went on to buy its former rival Converse on its way to becoming the juggernaut it is today. Last year, Nike said Jordan Brand brought in $5 billion in annual revenue.
“Ben says it as the Phil Knight character,” Damon said. “He goes, ‘If this kid makes a bunch of money on this deal, it will be the best thing that ever happened for Nike.’ Right? It was really a deal that favored everybody. Absolutely everybody won.”
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