BLACK WIDOW’s Scarlett Johansson Enters Monumental Legal Battle Vs. Disney
By Movieguide® Staff
Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, known for her portrayal of Black Widow in Disney’s Marvel Franchise, made waves after she sued Disney over an alleged breach of contract.
While Hollywood’s a-list actors are no strangers to legal battles, Johansson’s lawsuit against the largest entertainment company in the world is bound to turn some heads.
The BLACK WIDOW star sued the Walt Disney Company, claiming that their simultaneous release of the summer blockbuster in theaters and their streaming service Disney+—for 30 dollars—violated their original contract with the actress.
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In one corner, Scarlett Johansson who claims that the Walt Disney Company has cheated her by releasing “Black Widow” simultaneously on Disney Plus and in theaters. In the other, is Disney, which tore into the actress in unusually personal terms in a statement Thursday, calling her claims “sad and distressing” and accusing her of showing “callous disregard” for the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. The consequences of this clash of titans could fundamentally reshape the way that actors are compensated for their work at a time when new streaming services and a global pandemic have disrupted the theatrical landscape.
However, other workers in Hollywood have reportedly shown their support of Johannson’s decision.
“Good for her,” a Hollywood talent agent said, according to Variety. “A lot of other actors are cheering for Scarlett and rooting her on. She has a lot of power and that makes this a visible conversation that puts Disney on the spot. By doing all of this in public, she might be able to change the rulebook.”
As streamers became a mainstay for entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic, studios feared that they would not be able to compensate their casts and crew for hybrid releases in theaters and on streaming.
This became apparent when HBO Max struck a deal with Warner Bros. to show their complete 2021 slate of movies, including the highly anticipated DUNE, in theaters and on their streaming service.
Many executives expressed their concern because traditional payouts for actors result from the movie’s success at the Box Office, not on a streaming platform.
Variety reported an industry veteran as saying: “Something has gone wrong. I just find it absolutely stunning and amazing that they didn’t resolve this short of her suing. Disney does not want to get in a fight with Scarlett Johansson.”
The lawsuit claims that Disney guaranteed that BLACK WIDOW would receive a “wide theatrical release,” which Johannson and her legal team believed to mean an exclusive release in theaters for a minimum of 90 days.
Disney said that BLACK WIDOW received a wide theatrical release and did not promise an exclusive theatrical release as the lawsuit claims.
“This case in some respects is going to boil down to a semantic argument of, ‘Does that wide release necessarily mean exclusive?'” Chad Fitzgerald, a partner at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump Holley, said. “It’s certainly not open and shut.”
“As a general rule, you don’t delve into industry custom and standard when the contractual language is plain and unmistakable,” James Sammataro, co-chair of the media and entertainment group at Pryor Cashman LP, added.
Moreover, the lawsuits drew further attention to Disney’s—and other significant streamers—lack of transparency with the success of any given movie. While Marvel movies generally are an automatic win at the box office, after BLACK WIDOW’s $80 million debut, its numbers have dwindled.
When Disney opted to release blockbusters like “Cruella,” “Black Widow” and “Jungle Cruise” on Disney Plus simultaneously, it came up with a new formula for calculating backend deals. Insiders say that for some stars the studio agreed to add the film’s rental revenue on Disney Plus to its box office total, giving the actors a better chance of hitting their bonus marks. Warner Bros. used a different approach — it rewarded backend deals by assuming that the simultaneous release had cut box office revenues in half, so it essentially doubled a film’s final gross to calculate the bonus payout. There were variations in this math. Major stars on the order of a Denzel Washington or Will Smith have different kinds of deals, which give them a percentage of all of the revenue that a film generates over its life-cycle, from television licensing to digital rentals. Warner Bros. gave actors impacted by the HBO Max pact an advance on those downstream profits as part of the payout.
As the case continues to make waves, many executives and legal officials suspect that it will likely become a private conversation due to Marvel’s arbitration clause written into a majority of its contracts.