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Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over ‘Black Widow’ digital release

An existential battle gets a lawsuit — and a big-name ally

Scarlett Johansson in a scene from “Black Widow.” (Marvel Studios-Disney via AP)

In an unusually public showdown between a major actor and Hollywood’s top studio, Scarlett Johansson sued Disney Thursday over the digital rollout of the film “Black Widow,” saying placing it on a streaming service breached her contract with the company to release the film in theaters first.

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Johansson claimed that the film’s availability on Disney Plus’s Premier Access platform, where it can be purchased for $30, limited potential ticket sales at theaters and cost her bonuses tied to the film’s theatrical performance.

“Disney has enjoyed the benefits of having one of Hollywood’s top actresses promote its wholly owned subscription service at no additional cost to Disney, and with the intended effect of taking money out of that actress’ own pocket,” the suit says, offering a lengthy recounting that painted the performer as acting in good faith while alleging that the studio sought to disenfranchise her.

Disney disputed the claim. “There is no merit whatsoever to this filing,” it said in a statement. “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.”

The suit goes to existential questions that have bubbled beneath Hollywood as it pivots to digital distribution, namely: who gets to write the rules for this new world, and who gets to profit from them.

The Marvel film has significantly underperformed at the box office since its release earlier this month, taking in an uncharacteristically low $318 million globally, though it is very difficult to know how much of that is due to its simultaneous release on Disney Plus and how much to other factors.

Scarlett Johansson plays a Russian spy named Natasha Romanoff in Marvel's "Black Widow." (Video: Marvel Studios)

The legal action is the most visible salvo to date in a battle that has been playing out behind the scenes for months, as stars and their representatives have complained that studios are shortchanging them by not releasing in theaters their movies shot before the pandemic. Actors’ compensation is frequently tied to box office performance.

Still, experts were taken aback that a standoff had grown so litigious or so public. While stars and studios fighting over money is nothing new, it is highly uncommon to see a celebrity who has been in so many of a studio’s films take issue with that studio while one of those movies is in release.

“I’m absolutely shocked, given how important she is, that Disney didn’t just pay her,” said Sky Moore, a partner at the Los Angeles firm of Greenberg Glusker who has negotiated many talent deals in Hollywood. “In almost all of these cases, a star calls a studio and the studio works it out with them.”

Much of Johansson’s case, Moore said, will come down to the question of whether Disney had committed in either contracts or email agreements to an exclusive theatrical release.

The complaint cited an email in March 2019 from Dave Galluzzi, Marvel’s chief counsel, noting that “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.”

Moore said those last four words were critical: a judge would have to decide whether to interpret that as other pictures at the time of the email, when simultaneous releases for franchise films weren’t common, or at the time of release, when Disney had already put out a number of them simultaneously due to the pandemic.

It is unclear how much money was at stake.

The complaint noted that that “the bulk of Ms. Johansson’s compensation” was “tied to box office receipts,” suggesting she took less than a top star’s typical upfront fee of $20 million in exchange for high box-office bonuses, which can reach as much as $30 million or $40 million, depending on a film’s performance.

Disney, though, pointedly noted in its statement “the $20M she has received to date,” implying the bonus money was much lower.

It also suggested that Disney Plus revenue had been factored into the formula for calculating Johansson’s bonuses.

Johansson, who plays Natasha Romanoff, or the Black Widow, has appeared in nine Marvel movies. Her future with the Disney division was already in question given her recent comments that she was finished playing the Romanoff character, but she had, before Thursday, said she “would love to be able to continue to collaborate with Marvel in other ways.”

The issue over star compensation was thrown to the fore during the pandemic when studios either released movies to their own exclusive digital platforms or flipped them to streamers. Absent box office, those instances have often seen studios pay stars under a generous assumption of what the theatrical take would have been.

But “Black Widow” presents a particularly thorny case because its release both digitally and in theaters still allowed for real-world box-office dollars — just, potentially, fewer of them. (When Warner Media enacted a similar simultaneous release plan for its 2021 movies, it renegotiated many deals with talent to take the lost box-office revenue into account.)

The case is likely to be closely watched by studios and talent for the benchmarks it sets for Hollywood’s new Wall-Street-friendly hybrid models of release, in which box office is just one component of a film’s primary revenue stream. While Disney has not scheduled any major films for such a rollout beyond this summer, it could still be a way for some studios to release mid-budget movies even after pandemic restrictions end.

And even while experts say that future deals will better bake the possibility of hybrid deals into negotiations, the suit hints at a larger power struggle between studios and stars over who in the streaming age holds the leverage in their relationship — a battle that across a century of Hollywood history has swung wildly between them.

Theaters, too, will be watching it keenly, as many celebrities have taken their side in pushing studios to maintain exclusivity, albeit with somewhat different motivations.

Johansson’s suit argues that Disney is prioritizing subscribers and Wall Street over stars.

“Over the past decade, Scarlett Johansson’s work has generated billions of dollars for Marvel Studios, and, by extension, its parent company, Disney,” the suit said. But by undertaking the simultaneous release without involving Johansson in the decision or the profits, the company wished to “keep the revenue for itself while simultaneously growing the Disney+ subscriber base, a proven way to boost Disney’s stock price” and also “substantially devalue Ms. Johansson’s agreement and thereby enrich itself.”