How a Chicago area screenwriter sold Air

The movie AIR, which opens April 5, originated with screenwriter Alex Convery, a self-described “huge Chicago Bulls fan,” who says, like many, he was obsessed with 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.

Convery, a Chicago native, 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 episode 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.”

Interestingly, Convery’s screenplay came full circle when it was sent to Mandalay, where his initial inspiration became the first step in the film’s realization.

Alex Convery

Producer Peter Guber, the CEO of Mandalay and one of the executive producers on The Last Dance, recalls, “Our president, Jason Michael Berman, and vice president, Jordan Moldo, recommended the screenplay to me. 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.”

Berman, a producer on AIR, says, “I have always been drawn to underdog and empowerment stories; 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.”

Mandalay connected with Skydance Sports, where producer Jesse Sisgold, President & COO of Skydance Media, offers, “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 co-directed the 30 for 30 documentary ‘Sole Man,’ which was the definitive doc on Sonny Vaccaro.”

Weinbach, President of Skydance Sports and a producer on AIR, says, “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.”

Sisgold adds, “I think the screenplay spoke to me because the struggle and payoff that comes with following your gut is so relatable. 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.”

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

Nearly 40 years after the actual events unfolded, Vaccaro noted, “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?”

Watch the trailer below:


Choosing a Director

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. “Ben Affleck is whip-smart and a fantastic director,” Weinbach states. “This story clearly connected with him on multiple levels: 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.”

Guber adds, “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.”

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.”

Air opens in theaters April 5.

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