One of the major conflict points in the ongoing Hollywood strikes is actors and writers’ demands for tiny shares of the money that audiences pay to watch their work on screen. As they pay their executives millions, the studios have reportedly refused to give in to actors’ request that they receive a mere 2 percent of the streaming revenues that those actors generate. Studios have also refused to give writers a bigger share of residuals that studios earn off their scripts.
And yet, less than three months before the impasse, one of the world’s largest studios released and promoted a film valorizing this very demand — affirming the ultimatum’s morality in the never-ending battle between capital and labor.
In April, Amazon released Air — described by the company as a film about the “game-changing partnership between a then-undiscovered Michael Jordan and Nike’s fledgling basketball division, which revolutionized the world of sports and culture with the Air Jordan brand.”
The movie is about many things — the courting of a young athlete, the sneaker as a cultural touchstone, the rise of a global brand, and the veneration of a CEO (who frankly doesn’t deserve to be venerated). But the central story is about one single transaction that signed Jordan up as the face of Nike, and that established the most important Jordan Rule of all — the one about fair compensation.
At the core of that tale is the film’s hero — not Jordan himself, but his mother, Deloris, played by Viola Davis. She is the hero not just because of her poise and demeanor, but also because of her hard-nosed negotiating. Amid all the courting and the hype of potential NBA stardom, she calmly confronts corporate executives on behalf of her son and — by extension — every other value-creating worker in the economy.
That confrontation happens in the film’s culminating scene, when Deloris dares to make a then-unprecedented demand for her son to get a cut of the sales of the sneakers that bear his name.
“Michael will get a percentage of the revenue of the sale of each shoe that is sold,” she tells Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon.
“Mrs Jordan, so that’s not how the business works,” he responds incredulously. “The athletes get a licensing fee . . . but they don’t actually participate in the gross sales of the shoe.”
She persists, telling him: “He deserves to be compensated. You eat, we eat. That’s all he’s asking. . . . He deserves a piece.”
Amazon didn’t try to hide this scene. On the contrary, the company aggressively marketed it. It’s supposed to be the pivotal moment for audiences to remember as a triumph for workers who actually create value. Indeed, the film ends with a postscript noting that “the precedent set by the Air Jordan deal resulted in billions more dollars going to athletes and their families.”
Three months later, though, Amazon and other studios are standing against the exact same demand that actors and writers — the Michael Jordans of their own industry — are now making. Their past strikes, including one led by Ronald Reagan, had successfully secured a share of revenues earned from traditional movies and television. Now the labor force simply wants a share of streaming revenue, too.
These workers know their intrinsic value — they know that they, not the studio executives, are the value creators. Like Jordan, they want a cut of the cash that their talent and labor are generating.
Disney’s yacht-owning CEO Bob Iger — who raked in nearly $500 million in the last five years — has labeled this understandable request “unrealistic.” In Air, Vaccaro echoes that same type of vapid platitude about the idea of giving the talent a share of the revenue.
“Nike is a public company so that would disrupt the industry, there are a whole other set of economics around this. It’s very complicated,” he insists.
“Maybe that needs to change,” Deloris answers in what Amazon itself has touted as “the phone call that changed the world.”
It certainly transformed a small part of the sports world, but not the whole world. That’s the task of the Hollywood strikes and so many of the other strikes in industries across the country.
It is a battle for fair compensation that is being waged in more than just a phone call.
It is a class war to extend the Jordan Rule to every worker in America.