Scarlett Johansson has sued Walt Disney Co. over its controversial release strategy for “Black Widow,” in a move that escalates simmering tensions between high-level Hollywood talent and the media companies using their movies to grow streaming services.
In a complaint filed Thursday, Johansson accused Disney of breaching its contract by debuting the big-budget Marvel Studios superhero movie on Disney+ and in theaters at the same time, a move that her representatives say hurt her compensation.
Johansson’s filing said Disney broke a promise to give “Black Widow” a full, exclusive theatrical release “in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel.”
A Disney spokesperson said there was “no merit whatsoever to” Johansson’s filing.
“The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Disney representative said in an emailed statement. “Disney has 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 $20M she has received to date.”
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal, could be a watershed moment for talent who feel they have been cheated out of money by studios that decide to release their films simultaneously on streaming services and in theaters, a practice that upended the way Hollywood’s biggest names are paid.
Multiple stars and directors have pushed back on media companies that placed their films on streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of giving them a months-long exclusive release in theaters, which is typical for big Hollywood movies.
Directors and actors were furious, for example, at Warner Bros. and WarnerMedia for funneling their 2021 movies to HBO Max at no extra cost for consumers, but such disputes have largely been resolved through negotiation rather than in court. WarnerMedia paid more than $200 million to talent up front to compensate for filmmakers’ loss of traditional profit participation, known as “back end.”
Johansson’s compensation for the Marvel movies is based largely on the box office performance of the films, according to the actress’ complaint. Before the pandemic, blockbusters like Marvel movies usually are released in theaters exclusively for about 90 days before they’re available for home viewing, a strategy meant to maximize box office reciepts.
But with the pandemic still ongoing, Disney decided to release “Black Widow” both in theaters and on Disney+ for $30 for subscribers. It made similar moves for releases such as the live action remake “Mulan” and the villain origin story “Cruella.” The company released Pixar’s “Luca” on Disney+ for no extra cost to subscribers, who pay $8 a month.
Disney is using movies and TV shows from its biggest brands, including Marvel and Star Wars, to boost subscriber counts for Disney+. The success of the streaming service helped keep Disney’s stock price at high levels, even as the company suffered financially from closures and capacity limits at multiplexes and theme parks.
“Black Widow” opened respectably with $80 million in domestic box office grosses during its first weekend in theaters, but fell off quickly in later weeks. Movie theater owners blamed the same day release for spurring piracy and cannibalizing box office sales. Disney said the movie generated $60 million in grosses from Disney+ during its initial weekend. It has not reported Disney+ sales since.
The suit said Johansson was concerned about such simultaneous releases on Disney+ even before the pandemic. According to the complaint, her representative extracted a promise from Marvel that “Black Widow” would receive a “theatrical release,” taken to mean that the film would be only in theaters for a period of time.
In May 2019, the complaint said, Marvel’s chief counsel confirmed to Johansson’s lawyers that “her whole deal is based on the premise that the film would be widely theatrically released like our other pictures. We understand that should that 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.”
The complaint said Johansson wanted Disney and Marvel to make good on its promise the way that Warner Bros. did for talent such as Patty Jenkins for “Wonder Woman 1984,” but that Disney “largely ignored” her entreaties.
“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, an attorney for Scarlett Johansson, in a statement. “But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of its films in furtherance of this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving as much in court.”
Berlinski continued, “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.”
It remains to be seen whether other filmmakers and actors will file similar suits or keep their pay disputes private.
Simultaneous releases and shortened theatrical windows became common during the pandemic, which broke longstanding traditional practices between studios and theaters. Universal released “The Boss Baby: Family Buisiness” in theaters and on Peacock on the same day.
Bloomberg News in May reported that “A Quiet Place II” director John Krasinki and star Emily Blunt wanted more money from Paramount Pictures after parent company ViacomCBS decided to put the film on Paramount+ 45 days after its theatrical release. However, they have not filed a lawsuit. The film was a box office hit despite the shorter window.
Disney’s next big-budget movies “Jungle Cruise,” starring Dwayne Johnson and Blunt, is being released in theaters and on Disney+ for $30 this weekend.