Movies & TV / Columns

Thoughts On Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow Lawsuit Against Disney

July 31, 2021 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Black Widow Marvel

Lawsuits are messy. A Hollywood lawsuit is on a whole other level of messiness and we’re starting to see that firsthand with the legal case filed by Scarlett Johansson against Disney on Thursday.

A Hollywood lawsuit is fought on several fronts outside the courtroom and one of those ways is the court of public opinion. Everyone will take sides and no matter the outcome, winners and losers will be decided in the press and to fans. And sometimes, everyone loses. Even the fans. 

So what is the lawsuit about and what’s at stake?

While some are calling the case against Disney weak, that’s not to say that a losing effort won’t get its point across and create some change. Fair compensation is always a hot topic and Johansson’s lawsuit may just be the first of many we’ll be seeing. 

At the same time, it is news that an actress and star of Johansson’s caliber has filed against a major studio like Disney. Johansson is alleging that her contract to star in Black Widow was breached when Disney decided to put the movie on Disney+ the same day that it premiered in theaters. Specifically, Johansson is making the legal claim that Disney, as parent company, caused Marvel, its subsidiary, to breach contractual obligations.

Let’s remember that the dual approach to movie releases has been used by several studios as a compromise during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While it was used in the past with smaller features, it was only during this time that major productions were done this way, allowing moviegoers to see movies on the big screen or to watch them in their own homes. On the flip side of that, it has created criticism and threats of legal action from theater chains, stakeholders, production companies, and movie talent.

If you look at actors’ contracts they will often stipulate that they’ll be paid a combination of an upfront fee and either a percentage of the box office profits, or bonuses based on hitting certain benchmarks as part of a “back end deal”.

Studios like this type of deal for several reasons. One, it helps keep the budget in line and two, it guards against heavy losses if the movie fails at the box office. On the actor side, if you happen to make a movie that does very well at the box office, the payoff is very lucrative. Everyone wins!

Now the small print. Contracts usually stipulate a guarantee that the movie will receive an exclusive theatrical release, which ensures that they reach their maximum box office potential. Here’s where Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney comes into play. Her lawsuit states that her salary was largely tied to the performance of Black Widow, with Johansson set to receive bonuses when it hit targets at the box office, and that the decision to release the movie simultaneously on Disney+ constitutes a breach of contract. 

Looking at the numbers, Black Widow made $158.8 million internationally in its opening weekend, and Disney released that it had also generated $60 million in Disney+ Premier Access purchases, for a combined $218.8 million global launch. The movie dropped sharply in its second week and Johansson’s lawsuit argues that this split release strategy cut into Black Widow’s box office profits, and impacted the amount that she was projected to make from the movie.

As expected, Disney has responded to the lawsuit stating: “There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The statement goes on to argue that “the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced [Johansson]’s ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20M she has received to date.”

So are they saying she’s getting paid in exposure? 

A Wall Street Journal “source” with knowledge of Johansson’s contract claims that she faces a projected loss of $50 million in earnings due to Black Widow’s release on Disney+. 

Still, it will come down to whether or not she can prove damages and that loss of money.

The actress’ attorney, John Berlinski, responded to Disney’s statement, “It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like Black Widow directly onto Disney Plus to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company’s stock price – and that it’s hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so. But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of its films in furtherance of this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving as much in court. This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts.”

It all comes down to money. Most likely this will be settled out of court but what comes next for the industry? Expect new wording in contracts and tweaking of the “back end deals”. When it comes to the relationship between Johansson and Disney, that’s another angle. While nothing overt, who’s to say this doesn’t dampen her career for
speaking out?

Where do you stand on the lawsuit?