If there was ever any doubt that Scarlett Johansson was done playing Black Widow, it seems almost certain now. The actress filed a lawsuit on Thursday against The Walt Disney Co., claiming that the decision to stream Black Widow on Disney+ while also releasing it in theaters breached her contract and could cost her tens of millions of dollars.
According to court documents, Johansson alleges that her compensation was largely based on the film’s box office receipts, and that Marvel Entertainment promised an exclusive theatrical release. But, according to the filing, “Disney was well aware of this promise, but nonetheless directed Marvel to violate its pledge and instead release the Picture on the Disney+ streaming service the very same day it was released in movie theatres.”
Johansson contract was largely based on how the film performed in theatres, with additional compensation and bonuses that would kick in if the box office returns hit certain benchmarks. Black Widow opened to $80 million in North America, and earned an additional $60 million on Disney+ its opening weekend. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of the lawsuit, cited sources close to Johansson who estimate that the decision to release the film concurrently on streaming could cost the actress $50 million in lost bonuses.
The actress’ lawsuit alleges that Disney pursued the dual release strategy because they wanted to lure the movie's "audience away from movie theatres and towards its owned streaming service, where it could keep the revenues for itself while simultaneously growing the Disney+ subscriber base, a proven way to boost Disney’s stock price." It also alleges that Disney wanted to "substantially devalue Johansson’s agreement."
Johansson’s attorney, John Berlinski, said in a statement, “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. 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. 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.”
The suit also alleges that Johansson’s representatives attempted to renegotiate her contract after Black Widow’s dual release strategy was announced, but Disney and Marvel were “unresponsive.”
The court documents also include a 2019 email from a Marvel lawyer to Johansson’s reps which stated, “We totally understand that Scarlett’s willingness to do the film and her whole deal is based on the premise that the film would be widely theatrically released like our other pictures. 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."
Disney fired back at the actress in a statement, saying, "“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. 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."
This is the latest (and most high profile) example of Hollywood talent asking for compensation models to be updated as distribution strategies shift. Expect more studios to follow Netflix and Warner Bros’ example and set contracts that pay talent upfront instead of tying compensation to performance benchmarks.