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Scarlett Johansson vs Disney: Why she sued the studio, and how much she lost due to Black Widow’s OTT release

Scarlett Johansson sued Disney, the parent company of Marvel Studios, for breach of her Black Widow contract. We answer every question you may have about the case.

Written by Kshitij Rawat | New Delhi |
Updated: August 3, 2021 9:26:38 am
scarlett johansson, black widowHere is everything you should know about the Scarlett Johansson's lawsuit against Disney. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Scarlett Johansson sued Disney, the parent company of Marvel Studios, over a breach of contract for her Marvel Cinematic Universe standalone movie, Black Widow. The film was released simultaneously in theatres and on Disney+’s streaming service, Premier Access, in the US.

Here is everything you should know about the case:

What is the reason behind Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit?

As per the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Johansson alleges the hybrid release model breached her Black Widow contract. She claims the streaming release took away potential theatergoers and cost her compensation that was tied to the box office revenue.

Why did Disney choose a hybrid release for Black Widow?

Studios initiated the hybrid release model in response to the pandemic as theatres were closed. Disney employed the strategy successfully for the release of Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon.

The lawsuit claims a hybrid release for Black Widow allowed the studio to increase Disney+ subscriptions and take on Netflix on its own turf. Disney’s rival Warner Bros announced in December 2020 that its entire 2021 slate will have a concurrent theatrical and HBO Max release.

What is Disney’s response?

Disney fired back at the lawsuit, claiming there was ‘no merit’ to it. “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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,” it said.

How much money did Scarlett Johansson lose?

Disney’s statement says the actor’s salary for Black Widow amounted to $20 million. The MCU film after a huge global opening (biggest during the pandemic) slowed down considerably. It collected $319.45 million globally after its July 9 release date.

The Wall Street Journal report quotes sources close to Johansson saying that the hybrid release cost her about $50 million (approx. Rs 370 crore) in lost bonuses. “Why would Disney forgo hundreds of millions of dollars in box office receipts by releasing the Picture in theatres at a time when it knew the theatrical market was ‘weak,’ rather than waiting a few months for that market to recover? On information and belief, the decision to do so was made at least in part because Disney saw the opportunity to promote its flagship subscription service using the Picture and Ms. Johansson, thereby attracting new paying monthly subscribers, retaining existing ones, and establishing Disney+ as a must-have service in an increasingly competitive marketplace,” says the lawsuit as quoted by The Hollywood Reporter.

Disney’s statement, despite its aggressive nature, does suggest that Scarlett stood to gain more compensation on top of her salary, “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.”

Warner Bros, as per THR, had to pay about $200 million to actors and directors like Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins, and Will Smith as compensation for Wonder Woman sequel.

What is the significance of the lawsuit?

The lawsuit is not limited to Johansson or Disney. It affects the whole entertainment business and the overarching theatrical vs streaming debate. Many filmmakers have expressed fears that the theatrical model, not robust to begin with, is now dying a slow, lingering death due to the pandemic. After the WB’s decision, Christopher Nolan had reacted with disbelief and shock. He told ETOnline, “In 2021, they’ve got some of the top filmmakers in the world, they’ve got some of the biggest stars in the world who worked for years in some cases on these projects very close to their hearts that are meant to be big-screen experiences. They’re meant to be out there for the widest possible audiences… and now they’re being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service — for the fledgling streaming service — without any consultation.”

Are there any upcoming Marvel movies that will go a similar route?

The upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will have a 45-day theatrical release window, after which it will go to Disney+. Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home are also expected to follow the same model. The latest Disney movie to have a hybrid release was Jungle Cruise, which released on Friday.

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