5 Things ‘Air’ Can Teach You About Screenwriting
April 11, 2023
Nike and basketball seem like a foregone conclusion, but in the new movie Air, the filmmakers look back to the 1980s when a fledgling basketball division at an Oregon-based running shoe company teetered on the brink of disaster. What makes the story compelling are the obstacles that get in the way of a visionary who saw the potential of basketball and branding and how everything could have changed had several decisions not gone his way.
Ambition makes great story. Audiences love a true story about an motivated figure who lets nothing stop them from making the world see what they see. Whether it’s Erin Brockovich, Henk Rogers (the man responsible for bringing Tetris to the world) or Sonny Vaccaro (the protagonist of Air), it’s intriguing to see how everyday figures changed the world.
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Air stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman and Viola Davis. The movie was written by Alex Convery and directed by Ben Affleck.
Here are five things screenwriters can take away from Air.
1. Absorb the Culture of the Time
Air starts off with a montage of the popular cultural events from 1984 to the backdrop of Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing. While it may be difficult and even unwise to have this specific direction at the beginning of your screenplay, what this shows is the impact and change the cultural landscape was going through at the time.
The montage included clips from everything from Mr. T on The A-Team to Ghostbusters to Princess Diana holding her newborn baby. If you’re writing a screenplay about a specific time period, especially if the story centers around the introduction of something new in pop culture.
In Air, it was important to know what was going on at that specific time period. 1984 was far different than what the world was like five years before or after. Make sure you absorb the culture of that time period: do the research and learn what would have been important to your characters at that time, in that location.
2. A Lesson in Exposition
In one of the first scenes of Air, Sonny (Damon) enters the office Howard White (Tucker) – the man in charge of Nike’s basketball division. They chat about endorsing athletes in attempts to boost Nike’s basketball shoes.
There is a ton of information in this scene to bring the viewer up to speed on what’s going on at Nike in 1984 and what Sonny sees as the issues holding back the division. Even Howard gripes about why Nike shoes aren’t breaking into the basketball market and why.
This is important because it puts the movie into context and explains why, unlike today, Nike struggled to enter a new market. At the time, Nike was mainly a running shoe company so unless you were a marathon runner or jogger, you likely weren’t wearing their shoes. Yet, their company was massive – just not in basketball, which is the division Sonny is in.
Writers can see how an opening scene like this can set up backstory, character attitudes, conflicts and exposition in a real way that doesn’t seem forced.
3. Creating Conflict in a Drama
Nike needs to sell basketball shoes, they sign with Michael Jordan before he steps foot on the court for the Chicago Bulls and BOOM profit. Well, not necessarily. The conflict throughout the film is how everyone thought this investment was not only a bad idea but one that will shut down the basketball division and hurt the shareholders of Nike.
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At the time, Nike’s small budget for basketball player endorsements was miniscule compared to bigger companies like Adidas and Converse. They also spread the budget amongst three players. Sonny saw the potential in Jordan and tried to convince everyone that they should throw all the budget behind a single rookie player and create a shoe line around him.
Every roadblock Sonny comes up against, he must find clever ways around it. He must constantly fight to get everyone on his side. They refuse because his determination puts the company at risk. Writers can see how an ambitious protagonist eager to disrupt an industry stands up in the face of conflict and how they slowly start turning people to his way of thinking.
4. What Losing Means to the Supporting Characters
What does it mean when the protagonist loses? It could be anything from a personal job loss to the fate of humanity. But what does their loss mean for the supporting characters? Just as important as establishing the stakes for the hero of the story, the people around him have things to gain and lose should the protagonist succeed, or not.
Air shows you how and when you can introduce the stakes for the supporting characters. Sonny has outrageous ambitions but he also learns what it means if he’s wrong. At the time, Air Jordans weren’t a thing so the consequences of being wrong meant job losses for colleagues, his friend and CEO of the company Phil Knight (Affleck) could be kicked out by the board and Rob Strasser (Bateman) is risking his time to be with his daughter who he can see for only four hours once a week.
When writing, don’t forget that every character has a life, dreams, fears and motivations so supporting characters must be as fleshed out as the main character. Also, success or failure of the main character should have a direct impact on them in some way.
5. Why tell this story?
How Nike partnered with Michael Jordan to create an iconic basketball shoe line is compelling. But if you’re going to create a feature film instead of a documentary, there must be a reason other than the story being interesting.
One of the concepts of the movie centered around branding. In fact, the Air Jordan seemed to come at a time when celebrity branding started to accelerate. In that montage scene at the beginning of the movie, there was a clip from The A-Team featuring Mr. T, who we then see on breakfast cereal. Same with Caitlyn Jenner who appeared on Wheaties boxes at the time. Even the song, Money for Nothing playing over the montage states “I want my MTV.”
Historical film and TV can be expensive to produce. If you’re writing a historical-based screenplay, you must have a reason beyond just it being interesting. What are the themes? And how are they relevant to today’s world? Air is about the people involved with disrupting an industry and how it inadvertently changed how the public interacted with brands, their loyalty to companies and how they viewed something as valuable.
Air is currently playing in theaters.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.