UPDATED with additional details from Disney earnings call: The revenue for Black Widow wasn’t to be found in Disney’s last earnings report Thursday, but the fallout from Scarlett Johansson’s explosive lawsuit against the House of Mouse certainly was.
Showing a surge in Disney+ subscribers from the same time last year, the Bob Chapek-led media giant exceeded expectations with its Q3 2021 report. However, as strong as the after-hours stock jump was, the public dust-up with one of its longest- serving and biggest stars was on the table early in the subsequent analysts call with CEO Chapek and CFO Christine McCarthy.
Stressing that Disney “needed to find alternative methods” for distribution because of the lockdowns of the coronavirus, Chapek made it clear in his opening statement that despite rumors to the contrary, there was no dispute between himself and the soon-to-be departing Bob Iger and that “distribution decisions are made on a film-by-film basis.”
“Bob Iger and I, along with the distribution team, determined this was the right strategy to enable us to reach the broadest possible audience,” said Chapek, allowing no difference of opinion between himself and his predecessor, both of whom were called out in Johansson’s suit for their big-bucks compensation.
After making a point of praising Black Widow as “the top performing film at the domestic box office since the start of the pandemic,” the velvet-ish glove over an iron hand Chapek laid down the law loudly for Johansson’s attorneys, CAA agents and all other talent to hear. Going forward, Disney will always do “what we believe is in the best interest of the film and the best interest of our constituents,” he said.
In other words: straight to theaters, straight to streaming or hybrid — that’s up to us.
Later in the call, Chapek implied that Johansson may be flying solo on her complaint, literally and figuratively.
“We’ve figured out ways to fairly compensate our talent and since Covid has begun we have entered into hundreds of talent arrangements with our talent and by and large they have gone very, very smoothly,” he said.
Johansson filed her high-profile lawsuit on July 29, after the Disney+ Premier release of the Covid-delayed Black Widow on July 9, the same day it debuted in cinemas. The action came after behind-the-scenes talks with Disney brass supposedly ended in the corporate equivalent of falling in a ditch.
Not naming Marvel as a defendant nor sticking to a straightforward breach of contract dispute, the two-time Oscar nominee and her Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP attorneys alleged that releasing the Marvel movie on the streamer at the same time it was released in theaters sliced deep into her potential profit participation.
Within hours, Disney hit back to call out the legal action as showing a “callous disregard” to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a scorched-earth move that hints at their defense strategy and a likely push to have the whole thing moved out of the public eye and into arbitration, Disney took the rare jab at Johansson’s compensation proclaiming that the top-paid female actor in Hollywood had been paid $20 million from Black Widow to date and could see more money from the strong performance of the flick on Disney+.
The unusually harsh response from Disney saw an outcry from Johansson’s agent Bryan Lourd and others. “Disney’s direct attack on her character and all else they implied is beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades,” the CAA boss said on July 30.
Disney has not responded in Los Angeles Superior Court to Johansson’s suit, but today’s remarks by Chapek make it apparent the studio is not in a forgiving mood.