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Scarlett Johansson sues Disney, says Disney+ release of Black Widow broke contract


A billboard promoting the movie Black Widow with a giant picture of Scarlett Johansson.
Enlarge / A billboard above the El Capitan Entertainment Centre promoting Marvel Studios’ Black Widow on June 22, 2021, in Hollywood, California.

Getty Images | AaronP/Bauer-Griffin

Scarlett Johansson sued the Walt Disney Company yesterday, alleging that it breached her contract by releasing Black Widow on Disney+ the same day it was released in theaters.

The simultaneous release allowed Disney to pay Johansson less money because she and the Disney-owned Marvel agreed that her compensation for Black Widow “would be based largely on ‘box office’ receipts generated by the picture,” according to Johansson’s complaint filed in Los Angeles County’s Superior Court for the State of California. This was a contract violation because Johansson secured a promise from Marvel that the movie would initially be released in theaters only, the lawsuit said:

To maximize these receipts, and thereby protect her financial interests, Ms. Johansson extracted a promise from Marvel that the release of the picture would be a “theatrical release.” As Ms. Johansson, Disney, Marvel, and most everyone else in Hollywood knows, a “theatrical release” is a release that is exclusive to movie theaters. Disney was well aware of this promise, but nonetheless directed Marvel to violate its pledge and instead release the picture on the Disney+ streaming service the very same day it was released in movie theaters.

The reasons for this were twofold. First, Disney wanted to lure the picture’s audience away from movie theaters and towards its owned streaming service, where it could keep the revenues for itself while simultaneously growing the Disney+ subscriber base, a proven way to boost Disney’s stock price. Second, Disney wanted to substantially devalue Ms. Johansson’s agreement and thereby enrich itself. In the months leading up to this lawsuit, Ms. Johansson gave Disney and Marvel every opportunity to right their wrong and make good on Marvel’s promise. Unlike numerous other movie studios, however—including Warner Brothers who, on information and belief, settled with its talent on films such as Wonder Woman after it released those films “day-and-date” to its streaming service HBO Max last year—Disney and Marvel largely ignored Ms. Johansson, essentially forcing her to file this action.

The lawsuit accuses Disney of intentional interference with contractual relations and inducing breach of contract, alleging that the contract breach “was the direct result of Disney directing Marvel to ignore Ms. Johansson’s agreement and/or overruling Marvel’s wishes to comply with it.” Johansson demanded a jury trial and asked the court for monetary and punitive damages in amounts to be proven at trial.

Johansson’s lawsuit could be just the first of its type against Disney, as actress “Emma Stone is reportedly considering suing Disney over the release of Cruella on Disney+,” according to Screen Rant.

Disney accuses Johansson of “callous disregard” for pandemic

Disney responded to the lawsuit with a statement to Deadline and other media outlets, saying, “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. Disney has 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.”

Despite Disney’s claim that the online release gave Johansson “additional compensation,” one “person familiar with details of her contract” told The Wall Street Journal that Disney’s “decision to put the movie on Disney+ is projected to cost Ms. Johansson more than $50 million.”

In response to Disney’s statement, Johansson’s agent, Bryan Lourd, said the company “shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn’t.”

Defining “wide theatrical release”

The case may come down to how the phrase “wide theatrical release” is defined. The contract clause cited by Johansson doesn’t explicitly state that the film could not be released online and in theaters—it says, “if Producer in its sole discretion determines to release the Picture, then such release shall be a wide theatrical release of the Picture (i.e., no less than 1,500 screens).”

Johansson’s lawsuit said that the commonly accepted definition of “wide theatrical release” means that the film was required to run exclusively in theaters for three to four months.

“Ms. Johansson obtained from Marvel a valuable contractual promise that the release of the picture would be a ‘wide theatrical release,'” Johansson’s lawsuit said. “Both parties, as well as Disney, understood this meant that the picture would initially be released exclusively in movie theaters, and that it would remain exclusively in movie theaters for a period of between approximately 90 and 120 days. This roughly 90-120 day theatrical ‘window’ was not only industry-standard at the time the agreement was finalized but also standard practice for prior Marvel movies distributed by Disney, including those starring Ms. Johansson.”

Johansson’s contract gave her “certain fixed compensation” plus “deferred compensation and bonuses directly tied to the amount of worldwide box office receipts,” the lawsuit said.

Previous films were theater-only for months

In the months leading up to the November 2019 launch of Disney+, “Johansson’s representatives sought assurances that Marvel would hold up its end of the bargain with respect to the theatrical release” of Black Widow, the lawsuit said. Marvel’s chief counsel replied in May 2019, “We totally understand that Scarlett’s willingness to do the film and her whole deal is based on the premise that the film would be widely theatrically released like our other pictures. We understand that should the plan change, we would need to discuss this with you and come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses.”

Marvel’s statement that the Black Widow theatrical release would be “like our other pictures” is a reference to the “standard Marvel/MCU 90-120 days of theatrical exclusivity,” the lawsuit said.

“At the time the agreement was entered, it was well understood by the parties and Disney that a ‘theatrical release’ referred to an exclusive release in theaters for an extended period of time that was roughly 90-120 days,” the complaint said. Marvel Studios’ previous films “had uninterrupted theatrical windows between 82 and 159 days,” and all seven of Johansson’s previous Marvel movies had theatrical windows of at least 96 days, the lawsuit said.

None of the previous Marvel movies with Johansson “included ‘day-and-date’ releases on streaming platforms as would come to pass with Black Widow; rather, in connection with those films, it took six to eight months before Marvel Studios’ films would be available for streaming on an SVOD [subscription video-on-demand] service like Disney+,” the lawsuit said.

Disney+ charged users $30 for Black Widow

Disney announced it would release Black Widow online and in theaters simultaneously in March 2021, with Disney+ users being charged a one-time fee of $30 for access to the film. It was released on July 9.

In the intervening months, “Johansson, through her representatives, attempted to negotiate with Marvel to reach the aforementioned alternative ‘understanding’ that Marvel’s chief counsel had promised under these circumstances,” the lawsuit said. “Ultimately, however, Marvel ignored this outreach, no resolution was reached, and the picture was simultaneously released in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9, 2021.”

“To no one’s surprise, Disney’s breach of the agreement successfully pulled millions of fans away from the theaters and toward its Disney+ streaming service,” the lawsuit continued. “According to Disney’s own self-congratulatory press releases, the picture grossed more than $60 million on Disney+ Premier Access in its first weekend alone.”

Disney executives benefit

The Disney+ release thus “save[d] Marvel (and by extension, Disney) ‘very large’ amounts of money that it would otherwise owe Ms. Johansson,” the lawsuit said. Disney’s stock price jumped 4 percent in the days after the release, and company executives are likely to benefit directly from the streaming service’s success, the lawsuit said:

Disney’s financial disclosures make clear that the very Disney executives who orchestrated this strategy will personally benefit from their and Disney’s misconduct. In fiscal year 2021, Disney’s Chief Executive Officer, Robert Chapek, was awarded equity grants totaling 3.8 times his $2.5 million base salary. The primary justification for that award, according to Disney’s compensation committee (as detailed in the company’s 2021 annual report), was that Mr. Chapek “worked to quickly program new offerings on our DTC [direct-to-consumer] and linear channels” and “launched our direct-to-consumer services in several key markets.” Robert Iger, Mr. Chapek’s predecessor, also received the overwhelming majority of his compensation—just over $16.5 million—in the form of stock grants. The reason for his mammoth award (according to the same annual report) was that he “[s]uccessfully launched Disney+ and drove unprecedented subscriber growth in the first year.” 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.

To support Johansson’s contention that Disney forced Marvel to violate her contract, the lawsuit cited a February 2021 article in which ‘Variety reported that [Marvel Studios’ President Kevin] Feige ‘was opposed to a hybrid rollout,’ but that ‘the powers that be’ from Disney could still ‘convince Feige to change his mind—or overrule him completely.'” The next month, less than a week before announcing the Disney+ release, “Disney’s Mr. Chapek cleared up any remaining doubt that it was Disney, not Marvel, calling the shots, telling Bloomberg Television that ‘We’ll make the call probably at the last minute in terms of how these films come to market, whether it’s Black Widow or any other title… We’ll be watching the call carefully and make the call when we have to,'” the lawsuit said.

Feige is reportedly “angry and embarrassed” about Disney’s decision, as he tried to convince Disney not to release Black Widow on Disney+ until after a standard theatrical window.



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