Disney is being sued by Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson over the company’s decision to stream the Marvel blockbuster on its streaming service Disney Plus simultaneously with its release in theaters. The suit alleges that Disney breached Johansson’s contract, claiming she was guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release and missed out on compensation because her pay was partly tied to the the film’s box-office performance.
Disney said the complaint had “no merit whatsoever.”
“The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the company said in a statement, adding that Disney “has fully complied” with Johansson’s contract. On top of the $20 million Johansson has received to date, Disney said, releasing Black Widow on Disney Plus “significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation.”
Black Widow’s streaming release is allegedly projected to cost Johansson $50 million in compensation, according to a Wall Street Journal report Thursday, which cited an anonymous person familiar with her contract.
Marvel’s Black Widow is the biggest same-day film release on Disney Plus so far. As has become the practice of several major studios during, Disney released the film in theaters and online at the same time, which gives film fans wider options for watching a highly anticipated flick when health risks and public safety protocols continue to crimp audiences’ ability and willingness to cram into theaters. Disney’s model, known , requires an extra $30 payment on top of the regular price of a Disney Plus subscription.
But this same-day strategy has outraged some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, directors and producers, whose pay is often linked to box office performance in contracts that were devised pre-pandemic, when the idea of a same-day streaming release of a megabudget franchise film was preposterous. When Warner Bros. revealed an unprecedented plan to release its entire 2021 slate on streaming service HBO Max at no extra cost the same day films hit cinemas, Christopher Nolan, one of the studio’s star directors for nearly 20 years, derided the decision for flipping the “greatest movie studio” into “the worst streaming service.”
Johansson’s suit marks the most high-profile court challenge to the same-day strategy so far.
The contract and the conflict
The key issue in Johansson’s contract is a requirement that Black Widow have a “wide theatrical release,” which the contract characterizes as being on no fewer than 1,500 screens. In the US, Black Widow opened on more than 4,200 screens.
But back in March 2019, Disney’s then-CEO Bob Iger touted to investors that Disney Plus would stream every Disney movie and film after their theatrical runs. So Johansson’s representatives reached out to Marvel’s top lawyer, asking if that would change the theatrical release plan for Black Widow. Marvel’s Chief Counsel Dave Galluzzi responded in an email that a typical wide theatrical release was still “100% our plan,” according to the complaint.
Then the pandemic happened.
With cinemas shuttered globally, studios across the board upended traditional movie-release cycles that had be sacrosanct for decades. Disney currently charges a $30 extra fee to stream its same-day movie releases; Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal’s DreamWorks Animation make movies available to stream on their services at no extra charge. Warner Bros. movies are available to anyone who’s a $15-a-month premium subscriber to HBO Max, and DreamWorks released its latest film, its Boss Baby sequel, on NBCU’s streaming service Peacock for members paying as little as $5 a month.
Black Widow drew a big audience its opening weekend, both on the big screen and at home. Disney Plus subscribers spent more than, on top of its $158 million haul at the box office worldwide during its first weekend. But the film didn’t have as much staying power with theatergoers as previous Marvel blockbusters have in the subsequent weeks, stoking speculation that the movie’s online availability may be weighing on demand to see it in cinemas. So far, the film has grossed more than $300 million globally in theaters.
Movie stars like Johansson often have bonuses in their contracts tied to milestones of box-office performance. The bigger a blockbuster…