Due to Black Widow’s simultaneous theatrical release and pay-for-stream release on Disney+, the MCU’s most deadly assassin has a new target: Disney itself. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, actor Scarlett Johansson has filed a lawsuit in California affirming that offering Black Widow on the Disney+ streaming service infringed her contract and cost her up to $50 million in box office bonuses.
The original contract stipulated that Black Widow would receive an exclusive theatrical release, according to the lawsuit. The movie’s box office performance was linked to a portion of her salary. Black Widow made $158 million in its opening weekend at the box office and another $60 million in pay-to-watch downloads on Disney+; Johansson’s lawsuit accuses Disney of failing to update Johansson’s contract and compensate her for streaming revenue.
The lawsuit also asserts that Disney was aware that Johansson’s contract would need to be renegotiated if Black Widow did not get a theatre-only release. Marvel’s chief counsel David Galluzzi even wrote in a 2019 email that “should the plan [for theatrical only release] 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.”
Johansson is far from the only party who has a problem with Disney’s simultaneous release strategy. The Atlantic announced that the National Association of Theater Owners released a statement on Black Widow after Disney published news of the $60 million in streaming income. A statement from the association argued that simultaneous streaming releases were a net loss for all parties, including Disney, due to password sharing, piracy, and the fact that the $30 fee to stream the film was less than the average family would pay to see it in a theater. According to the statement, “simultaneous release is a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the disease.”
The trend of streaming services like HBO Max and Disney+ releasing movies on their platforms at the same time they are released in theaters was controversial when first announced since many actors have similar theatrical release clauses in their contracts with these services. In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that WarnerMedia, which runs HBO Max, paid $200 million to talent in renegotiated contracts for movies set to be released on their streaming service – movies like Dune, The Suicide Squad, and The Matrix 4. Despite this, the unprecedented shift in power towards streaming services in the COVID-19 pandemic all but ensures that Johansson will be the most prominent lawsuit to be filed this early. Likely, she won’t be the last.
Disney has responded to Johansson’s lawsuit with a statement through a spokesperson. From The Hollywood Reporter: Disney has complied fully with Ms. Johansson’s contract and moreover, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has substantially enhanced her income potential on top of the $20M she has received thus far.”