Scarlett Johansson Sues Disney over Release of ‘Black Widow’ on Disney+

Disney said the suit is without merit; the National Association of Theatre Owners said that “theatrical exclusivity is the way forward.”

A-list actress Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney over the release of her latest film, “Black Widow,” on Disney+. The Marvel film, premiered in theaters in the U.S. on July 9, the same day Disney+ released the film to Disney+ subscribers on its Premier Access platform for $29.99 per household. According to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, making the film available on Disney+ the same day as its release in theaters was a breach of Johansson’s contract which stated the film was to be released in theaters first.

Scarlett Johansson at the World premiere of ‘Avengers: Endgame’ in April 2019. Image: Bigstock Photo

Johannsson’s compensation was tied to how well the film does in theaters, making her eligible for additional compensation based on box office performance. Releasing the film on Disney+ the same day is likely to have decreased box office sales. The Wall Street Journal was the first media outlet to report the news.

“Disney has enjoyed the benefits of having one of Hollywood’s top actresses promote its wholly owned subscription service at no additional cost to Disney, and with the intended effect of taking money out of that actress’ own pocket,” said the lawsuit.

“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,” the lawsuit said. “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’s position

Disney said there is no merit to the lawsuits.

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“The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Disney said in a statement. “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.”

National Association of Theatre Owners shows support of “theatrical exclusivity”

Nine days after the release of “Black Widow,” the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), which represents more than 35,000 movie screens in the U.S. and over 32,000 internationally, issued a statement asserting that “theatrical exclusivity is the way forward.” They also said that paid video on demand services, password sharing and movie piracy undercut revenue for theaters and actors alike.

“‘Black Widow’s’ excellent reviews, positive word of mouth, and strong previews and opening day total ($13.2 million/$39.5 million) led to a surprising 41% second day drop, a weaker than expected opening weekend, and a stunning second weekend collapse in theatrical revenues. Why did such a well-made, well-received, highly anticipated movie underperform,” NATO asked.

Based on similar Marvel titles, NATO estimated that open day and opening weekend should have been between $92 million to $100 million. Based on previews of “Black Widow,” expected box office performance was expected to be between $97 million to $130 million. NATO does not agree that Disney’s reported $60 million in Premier Access revenue is comparable to what the film would have earned in theaters.

“The many questions raised by Disney’s limited release of streaming data opening weekend are being rapidly answered by “Black Widow’s” disappointed and anomalous performance,” NATO added. “The most important answer is that simultaneous release is a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself.

Insider Take

Though news outlets like the Washington Post report there have been similar battles behind the scenes between actors and their representatives versus studios and streaming subscription services, this is the first known lawsuit debating the fairness of the simultaneous release of a film in theaters and on streaming subscription services.

Since the pandemic begin, streaming services like Disney and HBO Max have adjusted their business model to allow films to debut in theaters and on streaming subscription services at the same time. According to the Associated Press, Warner Media amended its agreements with actors based on its plans to release all its 2021 films simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. The outcome of Johansson’s lawsuit could set an expensive precedent as studios, stars and streaming services battle over what’s fair in the current movie marketplace.