Black Widow is going back on the warpath, and this time the enemy isn’t Thanos or a world-spanning collective of assassins—it’s the House of Mouse. Scarlett Johansson, Hollywood megastar and face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recent Black Widow, filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court Thursday against none other than Disney, arguing that the media giant had breached her contract when it released the film simultaneously on Disney+ alongside its theatrical debut. The court case is sure to set some precedents when it comes to studios/media conglomerates being expected to abide by performer contracts in an increasingly digital age when there are more options than ever for how a film might be distributed.
Johansson’s argument hinges on the fact that her contract with Disney reportedly guaranteed the film an exclusive theatrical release, because her compensation for making Black Widow was largely based on the final box-office performance of the movie. The suit seems to imply that the decision to simultaneously release the film on Disney+ ultimately cost the actress a big pay day, saying the following: “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.” Disney has not yet publicly commented on the suit.
This is sure to be a hot-button industry issue for the fact that several companies have handled similar issues quite differently. WarnerMedia, for instance, ended up renegotiating many talent contracts that were tied to box office performance after it made the deal for its movies to simultaneously premiere on HBO Max. Granted, it made those payouts after industry outcry against the company, but still.
According to Johansson’s complaint, it’s not as if she didn’t try to bring up the issue, either. When she learned of the dual-release strategy for Black Widow, her representatives attempted to renegotiate her contract. According to The Wall Street Journal, they were rebuffed with a lack of response from Disney and Marvel, leading to Thursday’s suit. The suit is claiming that Johansson could have lost out on somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million, although this number is presumably drawing projections on what Black Widow’s box office gross would supposedly have been otherwise.
What we can say is that Black Widow grossed more than $80 million at the domestic box office and $78 million overseas on its July 9 opening weekend, along with another $60 million from at-home purchases via Disney+. One can understand why Johansson would be miffed, given that these Disney+ purchases don’t seem to count toward an official “box office” total when they are clearly exactly that by any reasonable definition.
“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,” said lawyer John Berlinski, representing Johansson.