The Walt Disney Co. has made quite a few iffy decisions lately with releasing their films directly to their streaming service, and it seems as though this latest one might have finally pushed things a little too far.
Marvel’s Black Widow, released simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus, didn’t rake in nearly as much earnings as it was projected to, and most signs point to the dual release as the cause of this. Scarlett Johansson, star of Black Widow and one of the leading faces of Marvel, seems to have realized this, and she has since filed a lawsuit against the studio in late July regarding the loss.
Disney, it seems, has made quite the formidable enemy.
According to Johansson, Disney breached a promise explicitly understood between the two parties by releasing the film as they did. Her salary for her work was to be mainly based on the movie’s box office earnings—which, the suit alleges, were negatively affected by Black Widow’s release on Disney Plus.
“To maximize these receipts, and thereby protect her financial interests,” the suit states, “Ms. Johansson extracted a promise from Marvel that the release of the picture would be a ‘theatrical release.’ As Ms. Johansson, Disney, Marvel, and most everyone else in Hollywood knows, a ‘theatrical release’ is a release that is exclusive to movie theatres. Disney was well aware of this promise, but nonetheless directed Marvel to violate its pledge and instead release the picture on the Disney+ streaming service the very same day it was released in movie theatres.”
Black Widow is only the latest of several would-be box office hits to be released through streaming. The effects of this new trend, which were already in question, have certainly not been supported by Johansson’s complaints. Movies released for an extra charge on streaming services have not been doing as well as they supposedly should— between lost numbers and this new lawsuit, it’s safe to say many viewers and actors alike don’t care for these types of releases to continue.
While formerly citing the pandemic as reason enough for their same-day streaming decisions (such as they did for 2020’s Mulan), Disney’s argument no longer stands given Black Widow’s simultaneous release in in-person theaters. Not that they didn’t try and use it, though:
“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing,” Disney told The Independent. “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,” the response continues, “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 (£14.3m) she has received to date.”
Disney’s statement was received by many with shock, Johansson and onlookers reportedly expressing disgust with the studio’s supposed callousness—the same sentiment, it serves to note, that Disney seemed to feel toward Johansson’s lawsuit. Between outright calling the actress callous and implying that she has made enough money as-is, responses to the studio’s statement have not been kind.
“The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of,” said Johansson’s agent, Bryan Lourd, in his own statement.
“If Disney can do this to Scarlett Johansson – a Big Name – imagine what they’re able to do to creators/actors with a lot less power and money,” said NPR journalist Mallory Yu in a Tweet. “Demand for streaming options isn’t going away, so what effects will this case have on future/current contract negotiations?”
As Yu hints at, the lawsuit certainly brings up problems with hybrid movie releases, asking questions we simply don’t have answers to yet. For instance, how do studios protect themselves from cases like this in the future? How are actors supposed to secure their contracts in ways that don’t cause them loss? Will offering releases through streaming services ever even be worth it?
The Los Angeles Superior Court, through whom Johansson filed her lawsuit, has yet to release a final decision on the case. It’s safe to say, though, that no matter the outcome it’s not looking good for Disney—or, for that matter, the future of hybrid releases.