Suit Up: Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over release of Black Widow

September 22, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Scarlett Johansson, best known for portraying one of Marvel’s Avengers, has sued Disney over its mixed release of her latest film, Black Widow, in cinemas and on the Disney+ streaming service.

What does this mean?

Ms Johansson is suing the Walt Disney Company for breach of contract as she said that one of its subsidiaries, Marvel Studios, promised that Black Widow would be a “theatrical release”. This meant that she was expecting the initial release to have an exclusive opening in cinemas for around three months before being streamed on Disney+. Ms Johansson’s salary is based on the film’s box office performance and does not include revenue made from its performance on Disney+. As a result of the simultaneous release to cinemas and Disney+, it is estimated that the actress has lost out on $50m.

The lawsuit against Disney claims that the company wanted to “steer audiences to Disney+” so that it could “keep the revenues for itself while simultaneously growing the Disney+ subscriber base”. Disney fought back, saying that the lawsuit had “no merit” and that the company had “fully complied with Ms Johansson’s contract”. It argued that the dual release to both cinemas and its dedicated streaming service “significantly enhanced…Ms Johansson’s ability to earn…on top of the $20m she has received to date”.

What's the big picture effect?

In such an ever growing industry which has seen record-breaking revenues of over $100bn in 2019, it is no surprise that one of Hollywood’s biggest stars is bringing the challenge against one of the world’s most established production companies. The film raked in $80m in US and Canadian box offices while generating an extra $60m through Disney+. It is therefore unsurprising that Ms Johansson is suing Disney as its streaming service is a successful addition to its business model. Fourteen months after its release, the streaming service has acquired 94.9m subscribers and achieved revenues of $3.5bn. In context, Disney initially thought it would take upwards of four years to reach 90m members. One of Disney’s many competitors, HBO has also seen success with its own streaming service called HBO Max. So far it has obtained 64m subscribers since its launch in May 2020 which is more than Hulu’s 39 million which it gained since its launch in 2008.

Ms Johansson’s case against Disney could cause a ripple effect throughout the entertainment industry as these mixed cinema and digital releases become the new norm. Many who work in the industry are, much like Ms Johansson, hoping the prioritisation of streaming services does not come at their expense. John Berlinski, an attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP who is representing Ms Johansson, said that “this will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that…it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts”. Matt Mueler, editor at Screen Daily, exclaimed that “it’s surprising that Disney let it get to this stage” especially as AT&T’s Warner Bros Studios successfully negotiated payments to actors and others involved in films that saw a dual release to the cinemas and streaming platforms. Overall, it is very likely that Ms Johansson’s case will be resolved behind closed doors before getting a chance to reach court. It is also just as likely that Disney will continue to pursue its dual release approach in future. But it may make actors think twice about signing a contract if it leaves them at risk of missing out on the coffers that streaming services seem to rapidly fill. 

Update: 

As at 1 October 2021, Scarlett Johansson and Disney have settled out of court. The details of the deal have not been released but the duo will continue to work together with Johansson next set to appear in Disney’s “Tower of Terror” film.

Report written by Dan Furniss

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