Special for New York Times GlobeLiveMedia.

There’s no way there’s much suspense in “Air: The Story Behind the Logo.” The new film depicts Nike’s mission in 1984 to get then-rookie Michael Jordan to sign an endorsement deal, and everyone knows Nike will eventually get their man. No doubt some spectators in the room will be wearing Air Jordan sneakers emblazoned with the famous Swoosh logo.

But the filmmakers evoke a striking moment at the end of the film. With ingenuity and determination, Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike executive played by Matt Damon, sealed the deal with Jordan, until Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), made an additional request: her son should receive not only a compensation of $250,000 but also a percentage of each shoe sold.

“A shoe is just a shoe,” he told Vaccaro, “until my son puts it on.”

This seemingly insignificant detail, more than just a plot development, embodies one of the central themes of “Air: The Story Behind the Logo”: the value that a talented individual brings to a company and the importance to reward him.

“He created that value,” Damon, also the film’s producer, said in an interview. “Yeah, they did some great advertising campaigns, didn’t they? But Michael Jordan, going out there and being the best player every night, that’s what gave the shoe meaning.”

The lesson of “Air: The Story Behind the Logo” 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 films that bring more money to their artistic talents. “Air: The Story Behind the Logo” – directed by Affleck, who also plays Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight – was the company’s first project.

“Thematically, it was in line with what we’re trying to do with the new company,” Damon said of “Air: The Story Behind the Logo.”

Damon explains: “Sonny believes, just like us, that people who put value in something deserve to get a share of the revenue and to be compensated, and rather than extractivism, it’s a partnership.

In real life, it was Nike who initially offered Jordan part of the business: “the bait on the hook,” Vaccaro said in an interview. Nike was desperate to outbid its biggest rivals, Converse and Adidas, to secure the rights to a player it believed would be a generational talent.

The film faithfully reflects reality, Vaccaro added, describing the importance of this proposal for Deloris Jordan, the main decision-maker in her house.

“He called me back 10 times before he was seen in the last scene,” Vaccaro said. “The only reason we survived and won the deal was because Jordan got a share of the profits.”

Vaccaro’s career in basketball and the shoe industry is so storied that a movie about a completely different time in his life was almost made years ago (James Gandolfini was going to star him). Vaccaro began hosting high school All-Star games in the 1960s. At Nike, he not only helped sign Jordan, but also pioneered contracts with college basketball coaches to have their players wear basketball shoes. Nike shoes, as NCAA rules prohibited athletes from doing their own thing. In the 1990s, he signed Kobe Bryant to Adidas.

However, the real Vaccaro took the message of “Air: The Story Behind the Logo” to heart during his belated transition from veteran of the headache shoe company that helped college athletes earn their right to sign their own sponsorship agreements.

In 2007, Vaccaro left the sneaker business (his resume also included Reebok) and became a college players’ rights advocate. For attorneys seeking to sue universities that have taken advantage of their players’ names, images and likenesses, Vaccaro has helped find an ideal lead plaintiff: former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. The lawsuit filed in 2009 and known as the O’Bannon case, along with other lawsuits, state law and a sea change in public opinion – cultivated in part by Vaccaro, who has always provided a simple and colorful quote to reporters – led to the NCAA in 2021 to begin allowing college athletes to sign sponsorship deals.

“The Eddie O’Bannon thing would never have happened without my experience with Michael Jordan,” Vaccaro said.

Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball commentator, sees a connection between Jordan getting a percentage of his business with Nike and Vaccaro’s efforts to get college athletes to benefit more from the profits they help generate.

“It’s the same analysis,” said Bilas, who played basketball for Duke University when Jordan was with their rival, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. “Whether it’s a worker who negotiates his hours with McDonald’s or doctors and nurses who negotiate with a hospital system, what will always be true is that the company will earn much more than the worker . Everyone in America, in a free market system, deserves the right to trade fairly.”

At the film’s premiere last month, Damon said, the audience “erupted in applause” at the end, when on-screen text described Vaccaro’s involvement in the O’Bannon case.

“It was just for the theme of the movie, but also perfect for Sonny,” Damon said.

“It was obvious he was going to fight for them,” Damon added. “It matches how you see him throughout the film, sincerely concerned. It’s not just a business for him. It’s his passion, and it’s his love. There’s a moral behind it. That.”

Damon is engaged in a similar business. He and Affleck replaced filmmakers with athletes in the Vaccaro equation and, backed by $100 million from a private investment firm, founded Artists Equity last year to give filmmakers back the right to a percentage of the projects’ profits, a practice that had died out in Hollywood. turned to streaming services, and studios cut their most generous offers.

According to Artists Equity, turning filmmakers – from stars like Damon and Davis to directors, cinematographers and editors – into something less like employees and more like financial partners will inspire them to make better, more effective films.

“The key phrase is ‘profit sharing,'” said Jason Squire, professor emeritus at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “If they do that, it will be a wonderful, renewed model for this part of the business.”

For its part, “Air: The story behind the logo” seems to be a financial success. The film was acquired by Amazon for $130 million. It opened exclusively in theaters last week (it will later be available on Amazon’s streaming platform) and exceeded expectations with a box office of around $20 million.

There is a certain irony in the argument that people are disillusioned with the old way of doing business. Michael Jordan, Matt Damon, they’re some of the most privileged people on the planet.

But anyone who paid for a pair of Air Jordans or watched the Chicago Bulls win six NBA championships in the 1990s can attest that Jordan deserved a lot of the credit.

Not that Nike exactly suffered after ceding a small percentage of Air Jordan’s profits to its namesake. In addition to the sad revelation of Vaccaro’s successful work in advocating for college athletes, viewers of “Air: The Story Behind the Logo” learn at the end of the film that Nike ended up acquiring former rival Converse as he was on his way to becoming the titan he is today. Last year, Nike said the Jordan brand generated $5 billion in annual revenue.

“Ben says it in the movie, where he plays the character of Phil Knight,” Damon said. “He says, ‘If this guy makes a lot of money from this deal, it’s going to be the best thing that’s ever happened to Nike. Truth? It was truly a win-win deal. Absolutely everyone won.”

Matt Damon, who plays Sonny Vaccaro in ‘Air: The Story Behind the Logo,’ in Los Angeles on March 31, 2023. (Ariel Fisher/The New York Times)

Sonny Vaccaro, the former Nike marketer who helped land Michael Jordan for the company, with Matt Damon, who plays Vaccaro in “Air: The Story Behind the Logo,” in Los Angeles on March 31, 2023. ( Ariel Fisher/The New York Times)

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