Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over streaming release of Black Widow (Update)

Some interesting movie news today which involves Marvel and Disney. Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney today which claims the simultaneous release of Marvel’s Black Widow in theaters and on the Disney+ streaming service violated her contract.

Much of Johansson’s compensation was tied to the box office performance of “Black Widow” — if it hit certain benchmarks, bonuses would kick in.

“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 chose to placate Wall Street investors and pad its bottom line, rather than allow its subsidiary Marvel to comply with the agreement,” the suit reads.

So the way this worked was that Disney released the film in theaters at regular prices which (near me) are about $15 per adult and $10 per child. At the same time, the movie was available to those who pay for Disney’s streaming service, they just had to pay an extra $30. But it sounds as if Johansson’s contract was only based on ticket sales at theaters even though streaming customers were clearly going to cannibalize the box office totals. The Wall Street Journal has a breakdown which shows money earned on Disney+ was 3/4 of the total from domestic theaters:

During its July 9 opening weekend, “Black Widow” grossed $80 million at the domestic box office and $78 million overseas, and generated another $60 million from $30 at-home purchases on Disney+. It was the first time Disney broke out a film’s streaming performance in such detail. Disney shares ticked upward on the news that Monday.

The movie’s theatrical performance fell in the subsequent days more sharply than most Marvel films. Some analysts and executives in Hollywood questioned whether making the movie easy to watch at home was hurting box-office results. The National Association of Theatre Owners, a lobbying group for exhibitors, called the performance “disappointing and anomalous,” and proof that exclusive theatrical releases were the most profitable approach.

Keep in mind that box office figures get split between the theater and the distributor, meaning Disney only got about half of that $80 million. Meanwhile, revenue from streaming goes directly to Disney. The really sketchy part of this is that Johansson’s representatives tried to renegotiate her contract in light of the possibility the film might go to Disney+.

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.

In a March 2019 email included in the suit, Marvel Chief Counsel Dave Galluzzi said the release would be according to a traditional theatrical model, 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.”

I assume we’re only getting one side of the story at this point since Disney hasn’t really responded to the lawsuit. If the situation is as the lawsuit describes, then it sounds to me like Johansson got ripped off. If your contract is based on theatrical performance and then the distributor sends the movie directly to homes on the same day as theaters and doesn’t include the substantial home earnings toward your performance tally, you’re getting screwed. And if there’s an email (as mentioned above) which explicitly says the contract would need to be renegotiated in that case, but Disney won’t answer your calls…Well, I think the reason why is pretty obvious.

What I don’t get is why Disney is being so tight-fisted here. Johansson was part of the team them made them a zillion dollars over the last decade. They are awash in cash thanks to the films she co-starred in, films that unlike the Star Wars movies weren’t as hit and miss with critics and fans. Is it worth creating bad blood with one of their stars to hold onto another $20 million (or whatever)? Of course I don’t expect anyone to lose sleep over a multi-millionaire movie star like Johansson getting shorted. She’ll be fine either way. But I think most people would have even less sympathy for Disney which not only looks rapacious here but ungrateful.

Anyway, wasn’t the whole subtext of making this film that Marvel was trying to give women characters their due in the MCU? If so, cheating your female lead out of money seems pretty counterproductive. Disney/Marvel’s current message seems to be: Check out this bold, powerful female superhero and the wonderful actress we shorted to portray her.

Earlier this month Marvel’s Kevin Feige said he wouldn’t rule out Johansson’s return in a future Marvel film, which made it sound like things were ending on a positive note. I’d say chances of that ever happening are less than zero at this point.

Update: The empire strikes back.

“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing,” Disney said in an unusually fiery statement. “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The company went on to state that the star has already received $20 million for her work and argued that “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.” Disney did not provide any information about whether or not Johansson’s pact was renegotiated so that she could share in streaming rental revenue.

As for callous disregard for the pandemic, I don’t see Johansson saying the company was wrong to make the film available at home. I see her saying they were wrong to do it without renegotiating the contract which was based on an exclusive theatrical release. One of her major complaints was that Disney promised to renegotiate if they released the film for streaming and then didn’t follow through. It’s a bit odd that Disney apparently didn’t address that part of her complaint.

Johansson’s attorney accused Disney of “hiding behind COVID-19” and said he’s happy to prove his case in court.