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Scarlett Johansson Sues Disney for Black Widow Release Strategy

  • Jackson Reynosa - SUBTA
  • Aug 5, 2021
  • 5 minute read

This article was updated on Aug. 23.

Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney for a breach of contract regarding her lead role in Black Widow

Disney’s decision to release Black Widow in theatres and behind a $29.99 paywall on Disney+ allegedly cost Johansson $50 million, according to the New York Times.

Read on to learn how the controversy will impact the entertainment industry for actors as well as the most popular streaming services.

The Changing Landscape of Contract Negotiations in the Streaming Era

Released on July 9, 2021, Black Widow had a strong first weekend at both the box office and on streaming platforms. The film generated $215 million globally, with $158 million from box office sales and $60 million from online streaming, according to the Walt Disney Company

Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

The movie’s success drastically slowed down in week two with a 67% decline in sales.

Back in April, Disney announced it would release Black Widow both in theatres and on Disney+. While proactively planned, this initiative fell short of contractual expectations and led to controversy within the entertainment industry.   

Johansson reportedly earned $20 million for her role in the movie, according to a Disney spokesperson who gave this information to PEOPLE. However, she unknowingly lost out on significant commission opportunities in the process. 

Trouble in Hollywood

The actor and her team are suing Disney for “intentional interference with contractual relations.” The lawsuit includes the following statements: 

  • “Ms. Johansson’s representatives reached out to Marvel to confirm that the launch of Disney+ would not impact the exclusive, wide theatrical release that Ms. Johansson had bargained for in the Agreement. Dave Galluzzi, Marvel’s Chief Counsel, responded on March 20, 2019: ‘Further [to] our conversation today, it is 100% our plan to do a typical wide release of Black Widow. We have very high expectations for the film and are very excited to try to do for Black Widow what we’ve just done with Captain Marvel.’”
  • “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.”
  • “In engaging in the misconduct alleged herein, Disney acted with malice, oppression, or fraud, and in willful disregard of Plaintiff’s rights and interests, thus entitling the plaintiff to an award of punitive damages in an amount appropriate to punish or make an example of Disney pursuant to Civil Code § 3294.”

Disney has since responded to the matter, denying any use of malpractice or wrongdoing.

In a statement to PEOPLE, Disney officials said the company “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.”

A Disney representative added that Johansson’s filing is “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to PEOPLE.

Many have spoken out in support of Johannson, like Creative Artists Agency’s (CAA) Co-Chairman, Bryan Lourd. “They have shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn’t,” Lourd stated, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Is Streaming Starving Box Office Profits & Increasing Piracy?

Disney’s decision to release Black Widow on multiple platforms has led to a split of viewership on each medium, which ultimately tinkered with the predicted revenue from the movie’s box office success. The movie has made $319 million total to date — on track to be the lowest-grossed Marvel movie of all time. 

The National Association for Theatre Owners (NATO) speculates the movie underperformed entirely due to its cross-platform release strategy.

“Despite assertions that this pandemic-era improvised release strategy was a success for Disney and the simultaneous release model, it demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life,” NATO officials stated in a press release.  

Additionally, Black Widow’s online release led to a sharp increase in illegal downloads for the movie. Black Widow was the most pirated film for nearly a month after its release.

Photo Credit: Jay Maidment for Marvel

What Does This Mean for Streaming?  

Johannson’s lawsuit is just the beginning of an evolving Hollywood landscape. As more high-profile movies are being released on streaming platforms, there is concern amongst actors regarding their contracts and commission clauses.

Lourd believes that this lawsuit is indicative of Disney placing profits over people.

“This suit was filed as a result of Disney’s decision to knowingly violate Scarlett’s contract. They have very deliberately moved the revenue stream and profits to the Disney+ side of the company, leaving artistic and financial partners out of their new equation. That’s it, pure and simple,” Lourd added in the Hollywood Reporter’s article. 

“It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like Black Widow directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company’s stock price — and that it’s hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so,” said John Berlinski — Johansson’s attorney — in a statement to Variety

There are ongoing speculations that Disney’s new CEO Bob Chapek could be at fault. The Wrap refers to it as “Brand Carnage”, and points out Chapek’s lack of experience interacting with movie stars.

As industry professionals strike deals with streaming companies, contract negotiations must be solid to ensure both parties are satisfied in the end. Especially as streaming popularity continues to increase, strong leadership and an understanding of the industry can allow the streaming space to develop in a way that is beneficial for producers, talent, and subscribers alike.

Hollywood Stands up to Disney

Johansson’s decision to file a lawsuit against Disney has inspired actor Emma Stone, who starred in Disney’s Cruella, to consider doing the same. 

“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 Berlinski. 

Disney has already released five large titles on Disney Premier Access and plans to continue this strategy in the future. Now, it must find a way to ensure that all constituents feel satisfied with the outcome of each new release. 

“Emma Stone no doubt created huge value for Disney+,” wrote former Hollywood Reporter Editor Matthew Belloni in his newsletter, What I’m Hearing… “Well beyond whatever P.V.O.D. (Premium Video On Demand) revenue ends up in her box office pool. Dwayne Johnson will no doubt do the same when Jungle Cruise is released in July. Maybe they deserve a royalty per attributed subscriber? Maybe their bonuses should be tied to stock price? I don’t have the answer.”

Conflicts like these can illuminate the gaps between the past and present system and help identify areas for improvement moving forward. 

UPDATE: Disney is now seeking arbitration for the case. 


Key Takeaways: 

  • Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney for a breach of contract regarding her lead role in Black Widow.
  • Johansson allegedly lost $50 million due to a shift in Black Widow’s release plan, according to the New York Times. 
  • The company released the movie behind a $29.99 paywall on Premier Access for Disney+ — Johansson is unable to make the same commissions from streaming revenue as she can from box office sales. 
  • Black Widow was the most pirated film for nearly a month after its release.  
  • Johansson’s decision to file a lawsuit against Disney has urged actor Emma Stone to consider doing the same. Stone starred in Disney’s Cruella.

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