Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit Thursday against The Walt Disney Company, claiming the studio breached her contract by releasing Black Widow on Disney+ at the same time it was released in theaters.
The lawsuit claims that Johansson’s compensation would be “largely based on box office receipts” and was promised from Marvel the movie would be a theatrical release. Because Black Widow was also released on Disney’s streaming service, Johansson’s contract did not include revenue gained from the streaming release. Additionally, the lawsuit claims the media company used the film to grow its subscriber base and boost stock prices.
Due to COVID-19 protocols still in place around the world, Disney+ and other streaming services like HBO Max have released original content both in theaters and on streaming platforms. The pandemic led more people to join streaming services during the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal reported that world-wide streaming subscriptions passed 1 billion subscriptions in 2020.
Marvel movies have historically had a strong box office pull, with three Marvel films ranking as three of the top 10 grossing movies of all time. Black Widow was the first Marvel movie to premiere in theaters in nearly two years, so Johansson was surely expecting a large paycheck. By streaming Black Widow on its platform, Johansson was likely shortchanged, although it’s not clear by how much.
John Berlinski, Johansson’s attorney, 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.”
The lawsuit claims that both parties understood the film “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,” when Johansson’s agreement was finalized in 2019. Johansson’s representatives claim they attempted to negotiate with Marvel after the release plans for Black Widow were announced, but their efforts were ignored.
Although Black Widow did well in its opening weekend (pulling in $80.3 million), it experienced a sharp decline in the subsequent weeks. Many believe this is due to not only the streaming option, but also piracy. By making the film available in homes, the film was able to be pirated and widely distributed. According to TorrentFreak, Black Widow has been the No. 1 pirated movie since its opening, which has of course diminished the film’s earnings.
It’s unclear how the lawsuit will play out, but it does give a glimpse into the next few years of debates surrounding streaming platforms. Lockdown restrictions are still present in parts of the world, and as streaming services gain in popularity, theaters and production companies will surely have an endless list of battles they’ll want to pursue. Johansson’s lawsuit definitely won’t be the last fight we see.