Explainer: Scarlett Johansson’s legal battle with Disney

The Black Widow star claims the movie’s hybrid release breached her contract

Scarlett Johansson. (wiki.commons/ Gage Skidmore)

Black Widow star, Scarlett Johansson, has launched a lawsuit against Disney over an alleged breach of contract involving the movie’s simultaneous release in theatres and on the Disney+ streaming service. 

Johansson’s movie was released in theatres and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9 — where the streaming service is charging $35 to all subscribers for home viewing. However, she claims she was promised an exclusive theatrical release for a minimum of 90 to 120 days before it would be made available online. Johansson also says that online streaming “dramatically decreased the box office revenue.” 

Disney refuted the lawsuit by saying Johansson had no regard for the current circumstances surrounding the ongoing pandemic. This gave her the opportunity to earn additional compensation, besides the $20 million dollars she had already received. The studio claims they complied with her contract. 

However, Johansson’s agent Bryan Lourd said Disney tried to make the actor sound like someone she’s not and weaponized her success as an artist and businesswoman when they revealed her salary. 

Some say she’s simply defending her contractual rights, but according to advocacy groups, this was a “gendered character attack.”   

A simultaneous movie release could also cost Johansson $50 million dollars, given that her back-end bonus pay is tied to box office sales. That’s how much she would make if the movie were to hit $1 billion dollars in global ticket sales, according to the New York Times

On top of that, Marvel usually gives out bonuses to their stars whenever a film “hits a certain box office benchmark.” Black Widow was also released when the studio knew the theatrical market was weak. Moviegoers opted to stay home and watch the movie. 

No attempt was made to redo her deal, and as a result, she filed a lawsuit.

WarnerMedia got into hot water last year when they stated that they’d release their entire 2021 slate of Warner Bros films in theatres and on HBO Max at the same time — at no additional cost. To avoid any potential lawsuits, they made large payouts to actors and any filmmakers involved. 

The studios have been hit hard throughout the pandemic, which is why streaming has become a focal point for viewers to access movies. The issue with that is consumers have resorted to piracy. According to Vulture, Black Widow was the top pirated movie of the pandemic era. In its second week, ticket purchases plummeted 67 per cent — the most dramatic decrease for a Marvel film to date. 

With more movie releases scheduled for later this year, studios will have to adapt to the new model, according to Verge

As much as WarnerMedia would like everyone to return to the movie theatres, they know that everything needs to be balanced out. Streaming services will be a more prominent option because theatres won’t be able to operate at full capacity right away. 

If streaming services are going to continue to premiere the latest movies, Hollywood will have to alter the way it deals with talent, according to MobileSyrup. Stars don’t get paid more if a streaming service gains more subscribers on their platform. Johansson’s lawsuit has exposed tensions over the long-term effects in the entertainment industry.

Before Johansson’s lawsuit was made public, Disney had already planned to stop Premier Access after Jungle Cruise was released. However, behind the scenes, there have been discussions regarding other actors coming forward with lawsuits, including Emma Stone against Disney for her film Cruella, and Emily Blunt for Jungle Cruise.  

Besides facing potential lawsuits for previously released Disney+ Premier Access films, MobileSyrup states there are no future movies as of yet that might run into a similar situation.