Disney’s decision to release “Black Widow” on Disney Plus at the same time it hit theaters has sparked a legal battle with Scarlett Johansson, the actress tasked with playing the Marvel superhero.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, attorneys for Johansson allege that the star’s contract was breached when the studio opted not to debut the film exclusively in theaters, a move they claim depressed ticket sales for the Avengers spinoff. Much of Johansson’s compensation was tied to the box office performance of “Black Widow” — if it hit certain benchmarks, bonuses would kick in.
“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 suit reads.
Disney announced in March that “Black Widow” would premiere simultaneously on the studio’s subscription-based streaming service, for a premium $30 price, as well as on the big screen. The move was made as the movie theater industry was rebounding from COVID-19 closures and capacity restrictions. On July 9, “Black Widow” set a pandemic-era box office record with its $80 million debut in North America and earned an additional $78 million overseas. It also pulled in $60 million on Disney Plus. Ticket sales steeply declined in subsequent weeks and currently stand at $319 million globally, putting “Black Widow” on track to become one of the lowest-grossing Marvel movies of all time.
Johansson’s legal salvo comes as new distribution paradigms and the COVID-19 pandemic are reshaping the way that A-list actors are paid for their work. Many top actors include backend profit participation as part of their contracts. But the rise of streaming services, such as Netflix, has removed those forms of compensation and the decision by traditional movie studios, like Warner Bros. and Disney, to release films on their own in-house subscription services has further upended these old ways of doing business.
When Warner Bros. opted to send its entire film slate to HBO Max, realizing that movie theaters were only operating at limited capacity for much of the year, the studio had to pay tens of millions of dollars to the stars of those films. That resulted in actors such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Keanu Reeves earning their full back-end on the movies that Warner Bros. released on its new service. If successful, Johansson’s suit could embolden more actors to seek additional compensation for films that migrated to streaming services and may lead to agents including stricter language in contracts regarding compensation if an exclusive theatrical release is compromised or bypassed. Johansson’s attorneys suggested that her suit could be a precedent setter.