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Scarlett Johansson Sues Disney for Breach of Contract Over ‘Black Widow’ Release

Scarlett Johansson Sues Disney
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

After successfully infiltrating the Red Room, the Black Widow has set her sights on a new target: the Walt Disney Co.

Disney’s decision to release “Black Widow” on Disney Plus at the same time it hit theaters has sparked a legal battle with Scarlett Johansson, the actor who played the titular superhero.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday at the Los Angeles Superior Court, Johansson’s attorneys alleged that the star’s contract was breached when the studio opted not to debut the film exclusively in theaters, which they claim decreased ticket sales for the Avengers spinoff. 

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Disney’s Marvel Entertainment had allegedly guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release, and much of Johansson’s compensation was tied to the box office performance of “Black Widow.”

“Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel,” the suit reads. “To no one’s surprise, Disney’s breach of the agreement successfully pulled millions of fans away from the theatres and toward its Disney Plus streaming service.”

The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of the lawsuit, reported that sources close to Johansson estimate that the decision to release the film concurrently on Disney Plus resulted in $50 million in lost bonuses.

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Johansson’s legal team said that representatives for the actress were worried that “Black Widow” would debut on Disney Plus even before coronavirus brought life to a standstill. As part of the suit, they shared emails from the star’s management group that asked the studio to guarantee that “Black Widow” would premiere exclusively in cinemas. 

In response, Marvel Chief Counsel Dave Galluzzi promised that it would. Moreover, adding, “We understand that should the plan change, we would need to discuss this with you and come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses.”

The suit is indicative of trends already seen throughout the entertainment industry, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, with major media companies prioritizing their streaming services to pursue growth by putting their high-value content on those platforms. 

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When HBO Max moved to release the highly anticipated “Tenet” on both their platform and theatres, director Christopher Nolan responded with open criticism. He argued that box office revenue is used to pay everyone involved with making the film, and not bringing that revenue in would substantially impact how much people would be compensated for their work. 

“I’m not talking about me. I’m not talking about Ben Affleck or whoever. I’m talking about the grips, the electricians who depend on IA [the International Alliance union] and IA residuals for pension and health care. I’m talking about SAG [the Screen Actors Guild]. I’m talking about actors. I’m talking about when I come on the set and I’ve got to shoot a scene with a waiter or a lawyer who has two or three lines,” Nolan said. “They need to be earning a living in that profession, working maybe sometimes a couple of days a year. And that’s why the residuals structure is in place.”

Even high-ranked actors have had losses tied into these executive decisions.

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Many top actors include backend profit participation as part of their contracts. But the rise of streaming services has removed those forms of compensation and the decision by traditional movie studios.

When Warner Bros. opted to send its entire film slate to HBO Max, the studio had to pay tens of millions of dollars to the stars of those films. As a result, actors like Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves earned their full back-end on the movies Warner Bros. released on its new service.

If successful, Johansson’s suit could embolden more actors to seek additional compensation for films that migrated to streaming services and may lead to agents including stricter language in contracts regarding compensation if an exclusive theatrical release is compromised or bypassed.

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“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,” said John Berlinski, an attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP who represents Johansson.