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Scarlett Johansson reportedly sues Disney over ‘Black Widow’ digital release

UPDATED: Thu., July 29, 2021

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Scarlett Johansson in a scene from "Black Widow." The star has reportedly filed a lawsuit against Disney over the streaming release of her superhero movie.  (Courtesy photo)
This image released by Marvel Studios shows Scarlett Johansson in a scene from "Black Widow." The star has reportedly filed a lawsuit against Disney over the streaming release of her superhero movie. (Courtesy photo)
By Steven Zeitchik Washington Post

In an unusually public showdown between a major actor and Hollywood’s top studio, Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney over the simultaneous digital rollout of “Black Widow,” saying it breaches her contract with the company to release the film in theaters first.

The actress, who portrays Natasha Romanoff in the film, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court.

She is seeking undisclosed damages in compensation, alleging that she lost payments due to the film’s availability on Disney Plus’s Premier platform, where it can be purchased for $30.

“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,” the suit said.

A Disney spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Marvel film has significantly underperformed at the box office since its release earlier this month, taking in an uncharacteristically low $318 million globally, though it is very difficult to know whether that is due to the simultaneous release as opposed to other factors.

The legal action is the most visible salvo in a battle that has been playing out behind the scenes for months, as stars and their representatives have complained that studios are shortchanging them by not releasing their movies theatrically.

Actors’ compensation comes partly in the form of incentives tied to box office performance, a concrete figure for a specific film.

The suit goes to the existential questions that have bubbled beneath Hollywood as it makes its pivot to digital distribution, namely: who gets to write the rules for this new world, and who gets to profit from them.

While stars and studios fighting over money is nothing new, it is highly uncommon to see a celebrity that has been in so many of a studio’s films take issue with that studio while one of those movies is in release.

Johansson has appeared in nine Marvel movies as the Black Widow.

Her future with the Disney division was already in question given her recent comments that she was finished playing the character, but she had, before Thursday, said she “would love to be able to continue to collaborate with Marvel in other ways.”

The issue over star compensation was thrown to the fore during the pandemic when studios either released movies to their own exclusive digital platforms or flipped them to streamers.

Absent box office, those instances have often seen studios pay out stars under a generous assumption of what the theatrical take would have been.

But the “Black Widow” instance presents a particularly thorny case because it still allows for real-world box-office dollars - just, potentially, fewer of them.

When Warner Media enacted a similar simultaneous release plan for its 2021 movies, it renegotiated many deals with talent to take the lost box-office revenue into account.

This case is likely to be closely watched by studios and talent for the benchmarks it sets for Hollywood’s new Wall-Street-friendly hybrid models of release, in which box office is just one component of a film’s primary revenue stream.

While Disney has not scheduled any major films for such a rollout beyond this summer, it could still be a way for some studios to release mid-budget movies even after pandemic restrictions end.

Theaters, too, will be watching it keenly, as many celebrities have taken their side in pushing studios to maintain exclusivity, albeit with somewhat different motivations.

Johansson’s suit argues that Disney is prioritizing subscribers and Wall Street over stars.

“Over the past decade, Scarlett Johansson’s work has generated billions of dollars for Marvel Studios, and, by extension, its parent company, Disney,” the suit said.

But by undertaking the simultaneous release without involving Johansson in the decision or the profits, the company wished to “keep the revenues for itself while simultaneously growing the Disney+ subscriber base, a proven way to boost Disney’s stock price” and also “substantially devalue Ms. Johansson’s agreement and thereby enrich itself.”

The suit said Disney and Marvel “largely ignored Ms. Johansson” in the past several months as her representatives sought to renegotiate her deal.

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