Never cross a super-assassin: Scarlett Johansson, who has played the Marvel character Black Widow in eight blockbuster films, sued the Walt Disney Company on Thursday over its pandemic-era streaming strategy. The lawsuit marked a sharp escalation in a festering standoff between movie actors and media companies over compensation in the streaming age.
The complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, claims that Disney breached her contract when it released “Black Widow” simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ earlier this month. Ms. Johansson’s suit said that Disney had promised that “Black Widow” would receive an exclusive release in theaters for approximately 90 to 120 days and that her compensation — based largely on bonuses tied to ticket sales — was gutted as a result of the hybrid release. Simultaneous availability on Disney+, where subscribers could watch the film instantly (and have permanent access to it) for a $30 surcharge, “dramatically decreased box office revenue,” Ms. Johansson said in the suit.
“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing,” Disney said in a statement.
Over its first three days in theaters, “Black Widow” collected $158 million at theaters worldwide and took in about $60 million on Disney+ Premier Access. Total ticket sales now stand at $327 million, the lowest total for a Marvel Studios release since 2008, when “The Incredible Hulk” collected $265 million (or $341 million in today’s dollars). Disney has not given a running total for Disney+ sales of “Black Widow.”
Making “Black Widow” available on Disney+ could cost Ms. Johansson more than $50 million, according to two people briefed on her contract, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private agreement. That is how much Ms. Johansson would have made if “Black Widow” had approached $1 billion in global ticket sales; “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther” both exceeded that threshold in prepandemic release.
Films released during the pandemic — including those that have received exclusive theatrical releases — have largely disappointed at the box office, with many consumers demonstrating a reluctance to return to theaters. The entire film ecosystem has been hurt as a result: cinema chains, stars, studios.
“First, Disney wanted to lure the picture’s audience away from movie theaters and towards its own streaming service, where it could keep the revenues for itself while simultaneously growing the Disney+ subscriber base, a proven way to boost Disney’s stock price,” the suit, which was first reported on by The Wall Street Journal, claimed. “Second, Disney wanted to substantially devalue Ms. Johansson’s agreement and thereby enrich itself.”
Disney’s statement called the lawsuit “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.” The company added, “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 $20 million she has received to date.”
“Black Widow” was initially scheduled for exclusive theatrical release in May of last year. Disney ended up postponing the film’s release three times as the pandemic dragged on.
Disney, citing the ongoing coronavirus threat, ultimately decided to release several major movies simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access. It used the strategy in May for “Cruella,” which starred Emma Stone and took in $221 million worldwide. (Disney has kept Disney+ revenue for “Cruella” a secret.) On Friday, Disney will give the same treatment to “The Jungle Cruise,” a comedic adventure that stars Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson. It is not known if Ms. Stone, Ms. Blunt or Mr. Johnson renegotiated their contracts with Disney as a result.
In December, WarnerMedia kicked a hornet’s nest by abruptly announcing that more than a dozen Warner Bros. movies — the studio’s entire 2021 slate — would each arrive in theaters and on HBO Max. The decision prompted an outcry from major stars and their agents over the potential loss of box office-related compensation, forcing Warner Bros. to make new deals. It ultimately paid roughly $200 million to thwart the rebellion.
The deeper question is this: If old-line studios are no longer trying to maximize the box office for each film but instead shifting to a hybrid model where success is judged partly by ticket sales and partly by the number of streaming subscriptions sold, what does that mean for how stars are paid — and where they make their movies?
The traditional model, the one that studios have used for decades to make high-profile film deals, involves paying small fees upfront and then sharing a portion of the revenue from ticket sales. The bigger the hit, the bigger the “back end” paydays for certain actors, directors and producers.
The streaming giants have done it differently. They pay more upfront — usually much, much more — in lieu of any back-end payments, which gives them complete control over future revenue. It means that people get paid as if their projects are hits before they are released (or even made).
Ms. Johansson’s suit also took direct aim at Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, and Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chairman, by citing the stock grants given to them as rewards for building Disney+, which has more than 100 million subscribers worldwide. “Disney’s financial disclosures make clear that the very Disney executives who orchestrated this strategy will personally benefit from their and Disney’s misconduct,” the complaint said.
According to the suit, Ms. Johansson’s representatives approached Disney and Marvel in recent months with a request to renegotiate her contract. “Disney and Marvel largely ignored Ms. Johansson,” the suit said.
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