Disney’s unilateral decision to debut “Black Widow” on Disney Plus at the same time movie was released in theaters has triggered a legal struggle with MCU actress Scarlett Johansson. According to a report in Variety, attorneys representing Johansson filed a lawsuit yesterday in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that the star’s contract was violated when the studio chose not to release the film solely in theaters, a decision they believe harmed ticket sales for the Avengers spinoff. Much of Johansson’s pay was related to the success of “Black Widow” at the box office – if it met certain targets, bonuses would be paid.
In other words, she was to receive a portion of the theatrical release profits, which she contends were suppressed by Disney’s decision to release the film the same day on their streaming platform, of which Johansson receives no bonus from. Obviously the film did not perform as well as hoped.
According to Variety, Scarlett’s legal team is claiming that:
“Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel,” the suit reads.
Disney announced in March that “Black Widow” would premiere simultaneously on the studio’s subscription-based streaming service, for a premium $30 price, as well as on the big screen. The move was made as the movie theater industry was rebounding from COVID-19 closures and capacity restrictions. On July 9, “Black Widow” set a pandemic-era box office record with its $80 million debut in North America and earned an additional $78 million overseas. It also pulled in $60 million on Disney Plus. Ticket sales steeply declined in subsequent weeks and currently stand at $319 million globally, putting “Black Widow” on track to become one of the lowest-grossing Marvel movies of all time.
The Wall Street Journal reports that a spokesperson for Disney claims the suit has no merit and is “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The company said it “fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20 million she has received to date.”
The suit could be a bellwether for the entertainment industry. Major media companies are giving priority to their streaming services in pursuit of growth, and are increasingly putting their high-value content on those platforms. Those changes have significant financial implications for actors and producers, who want to ensure that growth in streaming doesn’t come at their expense.
“This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts,” said John Berlinski, an attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP who represents Ms. Johansson.
Disney began distributing movies on Disney+ and in cinemas at the same time, partly due to the Covid-19 outbreak, when theaters were shuttered or had restricted capacity, as well as to promote its brand new streaming platform. At the same time, AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia, which controls the HBO Max streaming service, began employing a similar technique for the full 2021 Warner Bros. film slate. NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast Corp., followed suit, releasing “The Boss Baby: Family Business” in cinemas as well as on its Peacock streaming service.
The WSJ report continues:
According to the complaint, Ms. Johansson’s representatives sought to renegotiate her contract after learning of the dual-release strategy for “Black Widow,” which she has said is her ninth and last Marvel movie. Disney and Marvel were unresponsive, the suit said.
The decision to put the movie on Disney+ is projected to cost Ms. Johansson more than $50 million, a person familiar with details of her contract claimed.
Variety learned that the Johansson’s management had been trying to reach Disney from moment her people learned about the dual release, and were ignored:
Johansson legal team said that representatives for the actress were worried that “Black Widow” would debut on Disney Plus even before coronavirus brought life to a standstill. As part of the suit, they share emails from the star’s management group that asked the studio to guarantee that “Black Widow” would premiere exclusively in cinemas. In response, Marvel Chief Counsel Dave Galluzzi promised a traditional theatrical bow, while adding “We understand that should the plan change, we would need to discuss this with you and come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses.”
Well, Disney did publicize that they broke $200 million opening weekend, so they made bank, according to their internal reports. This particular feud is somewhat unusual in that Johansson’s character is (spoiler alert) dead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the actress has stated that she has no plans to reprise the role. In short, she has nothing to lose by going up against Disney. However, if she wins or reaches a settlement, the case might serve as a litmus test for other actors considering similar claims.
And given that studios have embraced streaming while cinemas have closed, there could be a lot of them. This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts,” Johansson’s lawyer stated.
Looks like Johansson has a case. We look forward to updating this story when Disney decides to settle out of court.