UPDATED, 2:10 PM PT: The Walt Disney Co. has fired back at Scarlet Johansson’s lawsuit over the release of Black Widow, in a biting statement in which it said that the litigation showed a “callous disregard” to the Covid-19 pandemic and even revealed that she has so far received $20 million from the project.
A Disney spokesperson said, “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 $20M she has received to date.”
In her lawsuit, filed on Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Johansson claims that the day and date release of Marvel’s Black Widow on Disney+ and in theaters was a breach of her contract. The lawsuit contends that the Disney+ release siphoned potential theatergoers, costing her potential compensation tied to the movie’s theatrical revenue.
Disney’s reference to Covid-19 referred to what the company has said has been a motivating factor for the day and date release, given the limitations on theatrical moviegoing because of the pandemic. The company’s revelation of Johansson’s compensation also was an unusual, on-the-record disclosure of star movie pay.
PREVIOUSLY, 11:15 AM PT: Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney on Thursday, claiming that the studio breached her contract by releasing the Marvel movie Black Widow on Disney+ at the same time it was released in theaters.
The breach of contract lawsuit (read it here) was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and takes aim at a new phenomenon of the studio streaming wars: day-and-date releases in theaters and on the streaming platforms.
The lawsuit claims that, by steering audiences to Disney+, the media conglomerate wanted to grow its subscriber base and boost its stock price. Yet that was at the expense of Johansson, whose compensation would “largely be based on box office receipts,” according to the lawsuit, while she “extracted a promise from Marvel that the release” of Black Widow would be a theatrical release.
The lawsuit also claims that “Disney’s financial disclosures make clear that the very Disney executives who orchestrated this strategy will personally benefit from their and Disney’s misconduct,” as it identifies Disney CEO’s Bob Chapek’s equity grants “totaling 3.8 times his $2.5 million base salary” in 2021, with the “primary justification” for that award being the launch of direct-to-consumer services. The lawsuit also notes that Disney executive chairman Bob Iger received the “overwhelming majority” of his $16.5 million compensation in the form of stock grants, with the company’s annual report citing the growth of Disney+.
“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,” the lawsuit states.
Johansson’s attorney, John Berlinski of Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, said in a statement: “It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like Black Widow directly onto Disney+ 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.”
Spokespersons for the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the filing of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and names the Walt Disney Company as the sole defendant. The claims are that the media conglomerate intentionally interfered with its Marvel subsidiary’s contract with Johansson and induced Marvel to breach it. It cites a provision of her contract spelling out that there would be a “wide theatrical release of the Picture i.e., no less than 1,500 screens.”
The lawsuit contends that both parties understood that meant it “would initially be released exclusively in movie theatres, and that it would remain exclusively in movie theaters for a period of between approximately 90 and 120,” the industry standard in 2019, when Johansson’s agreement was finalized.” When Johansson’s representatives attempted to negotiate with Marvel after the day-and-date plans for Black Widow were announced, their efforts were ignored, according to the lawsuit.
Even though Black Widow posted the best Covid-era domestic opening at the box office with $80.3M, many in the industry believe money was left on the table with Disney not only crushing the theatrical and PVOD window, but leaving the Marvel movie open up for piracy — and pirated it was.
Black Widow, according to TorrentFreak, has been the No. 1 pirated movie since its opening on July 9. Disney attempted to herald the pic’s opening weekend revenue, saying it made a combined global theatrical and Disney+ Premier PVOD take of $218M ($60M worldwide PVOD plus $158M global box office debut). Disney plans to trumpet similar PVOD and theatrical stats this coming weekend for its Dwayne Johnson-Emily Blunt movie Jungle Cruise, which also is available on Disney+ Premier for $29.99. However, Black Widow dropped 68% in its second weekend, the worst ever for a Disney/Marvel movie, indicating that piracy and PVOD had cannibalized the title. The results prompted the National Association of Theatre Owners to slam Disney publicly for crushing the window. Black Widow will be lucky to make $350M at the worldwide box office, a far cry from the $700M that Universal’s traditional theatrical-windowed global release F9 is set to do. Marvel movies have had a streak of clearing $1 billion at the global box office in recent years.
Disney announced further crushing of windows this week, with Black Widow getting a 33-day theatrical window (with Disney+ Premier) before the pic’s August 10 arrival digital platforms, followed by a DVD and Blu-Ray release on September 14 and the Johansson title being completely available for free to Disney+ subscribers on October 6. This is a different window practice from Warner Bros, which has its new movies in theaters and on HBO Max for the first 30-something days, then exclusive to theaters for another month before any ancillary home windows occur.
Meanwhile, exhibition hasn’t gotten a discount on rental terms on Disney’s day-and-date releases, many theater owners tell us. This compared to Warner Bros, which I’m told has been generous on terms with theaters given its pandemic-era simultaneous theatrical HBO Max release plan, whereby its streaming subscribers get access to current theatrical movies for free.
Still TBD is whether Disney continues this same day theatrical/Disney+ Premier strategy. The rest of its upcoming theatrical slate, which includes 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy and Marvel’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is expected to debut in an exclusive theatrical window.
Disney will argue that the global pandemic and lopsided offshore markets forced it to release Black Widow and Jungle Cruise on Disney+ and theaters and that it’s not giving the movie away for free in homes like HBO Max is with its movies. NATO asserts that this practice simply moved PVOD money up slightly but will damage all downstream monies on Black Widow going forward.
Meanwhile, we hear that the Johnson and Seven Bucks camp don’t plan a similar attack on Disney like Johansson as they stood alongside the studio in the dynamic window plant for Jungle Cruise to get it before as many people as they could during Covid. Johnson even announced the theatrical-Disney+ Premier release on his social media channels about Jungle Cruise. That movie is set to open to $65M this weekend at the global box office.
Big exhibition bosses like Imax’s Rich Gelfond, who spoke during his company’s 2Q earnings call, are hopeful that this whole dynamic window tentpole plan for Disney is temporary moving forward. Knock on wood.
In the end, we could have seen that the writing was on the wall for Disney and Johansson’s Black Widow before this lawsuit.
During the pic’s release, the twice-Oscar-nominated actress told Fatherly: “I have no plans to return as Natasha. I feel really satisfied with this film. It feels like a great way to go out for this chapter of my Marvel identity. I would love to be able to continue to collaborate with Marvel in other ways because I think there’s just an incredible wealth of stories there.”