Scarlett Johansson, one of the mainstays of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for her portrayal of former assassin-turned-superhero Black Widow, has filed suit against the Walt Disney Company for breach of contract over the release of her first solo-starring outing in the popular franchise.
In papers filed in Los Angeles Superior Court earlier today, Johansson argues that her contract with Disney subsidiary Marvel Entertainment, the producers of the MCU films including Black Widow, guaranteed her an exclusive theatrical release for the film that her compensation for starring in it would be based in large part on the film’s box office performance hitting certain benchmarks. By releasing the movie simultaneously in theaters and Disney’s streaming service Disney+ with a premium upcharge, the suit claims that Disney suppressed the theatrical box office take, thus negatively impacting Johansson’s ability to earn her bonuses.
The suit alleges that “Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, who broke the story, those losses could total up to $50 million.
When it premiered in theaters on July 9th, Black Widow had the strongest box off ice opening of any film in the pandemic era, pulling in some $80 million in domestic sales and another $78 million overseas. Disney also announced that they had earned another $60 million globally from the film’s availability on Disney+. Previously, Disney has not released figures from the films that they had made available on Disney+ with an upcharge – Mulan and Cruella.
However, the film’s theatrical take took a sharp decrease its second week, nearly 67% off from the previous weekend. In a statement, the trade group the National Association of Theatre Owners blamed the hard second week drop of box office revenue on the film’s availability through streaming.
The suit claims that the move to a simultaneous release was done to help bolster the Disney+ service and the company’s stock over its obligation to Johansson.
Disney chose to placate Wall Street investors and pad its bottom line, rather than allow its subsidiary Marvel to comply with the agreement. To no one’s surprise Disney breach of the agreement successfully pulled millions of fans away from the theaters and toward its Disney+ streaming service.
This is not the first time that a studio has run afoul of talent when it has tried to move the release of their films from a strictly theatrical release. At the beginning of the year, Warner Brothers received considerable blowback when it announced that it was going to release its entire 2021 slate of films in theaters and on their HBO Max streaming service simultaneously. The studio reportedly had to pay out make-good payments to a number of parties to avoid the situation that Disney finds themselves in now.
The big question here is how much power does Johansson wield in this situation? The actress has been a major pat of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its third installment in 2010’s Iron Man 2, appearing all four Avengers films as well as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. However, it seemed that given the character’s fate in Avengers: Endgame, and the flashback nature of the Black Widow movie, her tenure in the franchise may be over.
So does Disney have a motivation to try and settle with the actress to keep her happy or do they try and fight the suit? My thought is that they most likely will settle, preferably the sooner the better. Taking the long view, Disney would most likely rather settle this case rather than let it go to trial and set a legal precedence that might not be to their advantage.
This suit also raises the question as to how did Disney treat the similarly day-and-date released Cruella and its star Emma Stone? Details are not currently available, but I would think that an actress of her caliber would have a similar backend gross profit participation clause in her contract. Did Disney make a payment to her that would have compensated for the film’s lack of theatrical exclusivity? If they did, they should have been prepared to have made the make a similar offer to Johansson to avoid landing where they are now.