The Scarlett Letter

Scarlett Johansson’s Disney lawsuit is going to change theatrical distribution, whether she wins or loses

Black Widow said she was out to clear the red in her ledger. But right now, Disney’s ledger is the only one Black Widow actress Scarlett Johansson cares about.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news late last week that Johansson is suing The Walt Disney Co. for its decision to send “Black Widow” to theaters and streaming simultaneously, causing the actress to lose out on some $50 million.

Johansson filed a lawsuit Thursday in Los Angeles Supreme Court against the company, claiming Disney’s decision to release the movie in theaters and on Disney+ at the same time was a breach of her contract.

According to the WSJ, Johansson claims in the lawsuit her agreement with Disney and Marvel guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release and that her paycheck from the film was largely based on Black Widow’s box-office performance.

Black Widow was originally slated for a May 1, 2020 release and was supposed to be the start of Marvel’s Phase 4 of films and TV shows. Even after studios started shifting release dates for many other big tentpole films after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Disney initially stuck to its guns for the May 2020 release date. Once movie theaters began shutting down after CDC guidelines banned gatherings of more than 50 people, Black Widow’s release date moved to Nov. 6, 2020 and shifted the release dates for all of the remaining Phase 4 movies as a result. Black Widow is Johansson’s ninth and final contracted Marvel movie.

Johansson
Scarlett Johansson in ‘Black Widow.’ 

In Sept. 2020, Disney moved it again, this time to May 7, 2021. By early Feb. 2021, the plan was still to release the movie exclusively in theaters. In late March 2021, Disney moved the release date to July 9, in part because it was almost getting too late to release the film before it started causing issues with Marvel’s interconnected storytelling with its Disney+ TV shows, like WandaVision, Loki and the upcoming Hawkeye, which would have spoiled parts of Black Widow. It eventually debuted on Disney+ and in theaters on July 9, 2021 as a Premier Access $30 title on Disney+.

Once Johansson learned of the dual release strategy, she tried to negotiate her salary, but Disney and Marvel were unresponsive, according to the WSJ.

So far, Black Widow has made a little over 167 million domestically and $176.5 million overseas, according to Box Office Mojo. According to the WSJ, it made $80 million at the domestic box office and $78 million overseas, and generated another $60 million from Disney+ purchases in its opening weekend, the first time the studio broke down a film’s box office take in such a detailed manner. Disney stock prices ticked up that Monday, and as of this writing, shares opened at $177.22 Monday, Aug. 2.

“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,” the WSJ quotes from the lawsuit.

Disney later replied to the lawsuit, invoking the COVID-19 pandemic and saying that Disney’s Premier Access release of Black Widow on Disney+ should have increased her paycheck:

“A Disney spokesman said Ms. Johansson’s suit had no merit and is ‘especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.’ The company said it ‘fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20 million she has received to date,’” according to the WSJ.

Last October, Disney announced a huge reorganization and said it would be consolidating its multiple branches into one, with primary focuses on content distribution, ad sales and Disney+. This came as revenue from Disney parks plummeted and the company had to lay off at least 28,000 workers.

The lawsuit also claims that  Disney+’s high performance numbers are tied to annual bonuses for Disney Chairman Robert Iger and Chief Executive Bob Chapek.

“In short, the message to—and from—Disney’s top management was clear: increase Disney+ subscribers, never mind your contractual promises, and you will be rewarded,” the WSJ quotes the lawsuit as saying.

Johansson’s camp later responded to Disney’s statement, saying “the company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of.”

None of Johansson’s Marvel costars have spoken about the lawsuit so far. On Friday, former Hollywood Reporter editor Marr Belloni posted in his industry newsletter What I’m Hearing that Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige is “angry and embarrassed” about how Disney handled Johansson’s pay and the lawsuit. Feige hasn’t spoken publicly about the matter so far. The newsletter, quoted in this piece from the AV Club, claims Feige was against the hybrid release model for Black Widow from the get-go, and Feige tried to make it right once the movie’s box office started tanking and Johansson’s legal team threatened legal action.

There was speculation over the weekend that Emma Stone would seek additional compensation for the Disney+/theatrical release of Cruella, but those are just rumors so far.

Star Wars, The Genie, Quiet Places and more

Let’s back up for a minute and take a long view of things. This isn’t the first time a big Hollywood star sought more compensation from a studio. It’s not even the first time that’s happened this year.

In May, A Quiet Place Part II writer/director/star John Krasinski and star Emily Blunt sought more compensation from Paramount over the film’s shortened box office window and total gross, saying their contracts compensate them based on the film’s box office performance. The studio moved A Quiet Place Part II to its Paramount+ streaming service 45 days after it debuted in theaters- half of a typical 90-day theatrical window.

Over the weekend, Gerard Butler also said he was seeking more financial compensation for one of his movies, suing Nu Image/Millennium Films on the grounds that they owe him at least $10 million in backend compensation for 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen.

And those who may feel inclined to rush to the House of Mouse’s defense should do some digging—the company has a history of disagreements with stars over contract violations. Just ask Robin Williams, quoted below in ‘Robin’, Dave Itzkoff’s biography of the actor.

“At the time he signed up to play the Genie—a role for which Disney paid him only scale wages and not his usual multimillion-dollar salary—he believed the studio had agreed to not use his voice in the marketing or merchandising of the film. So it came as a shock when he heard himself talking back in ‘Aladdin’ commercials and toys.

“‘All of a sudden, they release an advertisement—one part was the movie, the second part was where they used the money to sell stuff,’ Robin explained. ‘Not only did they use my voice, they took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.’ Disney countered that it had vetted all of the film’s marketing materials with Robin and [his then-wife] Marsha, and that nothing it had done violated the studio’s contractual agreement with him.”

Williams continued his dispute with Disney for years until the company later apologized.

And then there’s Alan Dean Foster, an author who ghost wrote the novelization of the original Star Wars and practically built the template for the Star Wars Expanded Universe of books with his original Splinter of the Mind’s Eye novel. In 2020 after Disney’s acquisition of Fox, Foster, along with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, accused Disney of not paying him royalties off of his Star Wars and Alien novels. Foster said the matter was settled as of May 2021.

Also this year, Pixar Studios sources reportedly said Disney’s decision to release both Soul and Luca onto Disney+ with no additional theatrical distribution was frustrating. Onward at least had a theatrical release in the spring of 2020 right before the pandemic shut theaters down, but Disney moved that to Disney+ at no additional fee less than a month later.

“‘Luca’ doesn’t even have a premium price next to it,” one Pixar staffer told Insider in April. “Does it make it lesser? It’s hard to grasp.”

But Disney is not the only movie studio dealing with this kind of payment issue. Warner Bros. and HBO ran into the same problems when they decided to move their whole 2021 new release slate to HBO Max and same-day theatrical release. However, by all accounts, Warners has been good about renegotiating salaries with stars in the wake of that distribution switch. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot reportedly made $10 million each in compensation for WW84, and Denzel Washington reportedly got $20 million for The Little Things.

Jungle Cruise stars Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson haven’t said anything about whether they will seek additional compensation for Jungle Cruise’s recent Disney+/theatrical release. That film won the box office last weekend, pulling in a total of $90 million, including $27.6 million internationally and more than $30 million from Disney+.

The House of Mouse always wins

This isn’t a case of “a spoiled Hollywood actor wants more money,” as many Twitter pundits have been putting it. It’s not about money. It’s about contract language. Johannson’s contract stipulated that she would get more money off of box office receipts, and from all accounts reported now, Disney failed to renegotiate a deal before Black Widow came out.

And in addition to Disney’s Oct. 2020 move to focus more on Disney+, the company also tried to keep its parks open as long as it could even during the pandemic, going so far as to reopen Disney World after 116 days in the middle of a coronavirus case spike in Florida, so invoking “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic” as a shame-based response to Johansson’s lawsuit is disingenuous at best and heinous at worst. So far, we haven’t seen any COVID cases reported from going to a movie theater. Can’t say the same for Disney theme parks.

If Johansson loses this lawsuit, it could open the floodgates to a storm of litigation from stars demanding better contracts and better theatrical distribution deals. On the other hand, Johansson could win her suit, but analysts say that’s unlikely.

No matter who wins the Johansson lawsuit, Disney will win overall. The company’s name has stayed in the news all week because of this, and people are talking about Marvel again before its new films and shows come out on Disney+. A staggering number of people are rushing to defend the multibillion-dollar corporation as if it was a person in need of saving by the Avengers themselves. Everybody loves some good behind-the-scenes drama, and all press is good press.

Those going to bat for Disney (again, a multibillion-dollar corporation that wants your money) miss the point entirely; Disney does not need your support. Even if it has to pay Johansson for her lost income, Disney will be fine. It will somehow ride this bad press into marketing for future Marvel projects.

But don’t be surprised if more stars begin suing studios as the pandemic continues to affect film distribution.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

One thought on “The Scarlett Letter

  • August 4, 2021 at 1:26 pm
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    The lack of comment from Johannsen’s co-stars is interesting. It suggests to me that these kinds of negotiations are only particularly relevant to top level stars, since anyone underneath their level isn’t ever making enough in residuals for it to matter.

    I do agree that Disney doesn’t deserve a particularly spirited defense from anyone, especially since Warner Brothers appears to have had the exact same problem but resolved it much more quietly. And it’s not like the issue only came up a couple of weeks ago. Christopher Nolan complaining about Tenet reducing his residuals (not that he was vulgar enough to actually say that) was a pretty big social media thing.

    Reply

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