Scarlett Johansson is suing The Walt Disney Company over its release of Black Widow. Directed by Australian Cate Shortland, the Film is the most recent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The lawsuit comes after Disney premiered the film on its streaming service Disney Plus on 9 July, the same day it premiered in movie theatres.
Like many top actors and actresses, Johansson’s contract with Disney subsidiary ‘Marvel Entertainment’ included backend profit participation, which saw her compensation substantially tied to the box office performance of the film.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped the way films are distributed, with streaming services becoming an increasingly popular medium for doing so. In response, A-listers are renegotiating the way they are paid for their work. Gal Gadot, and Patty Jenkins were paid $10 million after ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ was released simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max, while Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake are seeking bonuses after ‘Trolls World Tour’ was released on video on demand instead of theatrically.
In her agreement with Marvel, Johansson claims that there was a guarantee that the Film would be premiered, like other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, exclusively in theatres. As far back as 2019, she had received assurances from Marvel’s chief counsel that ‘should the plan change…we would need to come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses.’
Upon learning that Black Widow would be released in theatres and Disney Plus on the same day, Johansson attempted to re-negotiate her deal with Marvel, but Disney and Marvel were unresponsive.
Despite the film having the largest box office opening since the COVID-19 pandemic began – earning over $150 million globally on debut, Johansson alleges she has suffered up to $50 million of lost bonuses as a result of this release strategy. This is more than double the $20 million she initially received for the film.
The loss can partly be attributed to Black Widow earning $60 million on Disney Plus on its opening weekend. This revenue was raised by subscribers paying $30 to view the film on Disney Plus. These earnings do not contribute to the box office performance of the Film.
Further highlighting the impact of the simultaneous release, the Film suffered one of the biggest drop-offs ever for a Marvel title, with a box office decline of 67 percent by the second weekend. The National Association of Theatre Owners attribute this collapse in revenue to Disney’s release strategy, stating that simultaneous release is “a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself.”
Currently, ticket sales stand at $319 million globally, putting the film on track to become one of the lowest-grossing Marvel films of all time. For reference, previous Marvel films have averaged nearly $1 billion over the course of their theatrical runs.
In a statement, Disney stated that there is no merit to Johansson’s filing, and called it a “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid 19 pandemic”.
Overall, the case demonstrates the importance of a well-written, strictly worded contract. Additionally, it is significant for actors, producers, and streaming services alike. For example, the growth of Australian streaming companies Stan and Binge is reliant on securing exclusive premiers of shows and movies. The outcome will set a precedent for how such deals are negotiated in future.