As expected, the legal confrontation comes down to money, or the amount of money that Scarlett Johansson believes she would have received if the movie was a theater-only play. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court against Disney claims that Johansson’s contract was breached once Walt Disney Co. made the decision to release Black Widow on its streaming service.
Johansson’s agreement with Marvel Entertainment, owned by Disney, guarantees an exclusive theatrical release, More important, the actress’s salary ends up being based, in large part, on the amount of money that the film earns at the box office. Because Black Widow didn’t do quite as well at the box office as Johansson likely hoped -- and probably because the contract she signed made no stipulation to include streaming revenue (because that wouldn’t have been a major issue back when she agreed to star in Black Widow) -- the actress is now taking the parent company to court.
Here’s where things start to get really complicated. This suit could be the first of many that emerge due to the fact that motion picture studios are weathering the storm of the pandemic by putting theatrical features on their streaming services at the same time. The availability of movies like Black Widow, Cruella and Jungle Cruise on Disney+ absolutely is cutting into the profits those movies would earn at the box office, and several actors tie their ultimate salaries to the performance of the film, courtesy of back-end deals.
However, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, Warner Bros. is another studio that has experimented with the day-and-date releases for movies such as In the Heights and Space Jam: A New Legacy, dropping them on HBO Max on the same day that they reach theaters. However, WSJ says Warner renegotiated the deals of its talent, and paid in excess of $200 million to account for movies going to HBO Max. Scarlett Johansson, in her suit, states that she tried to renegotiate ahead of Black Widow opening, and the studio was unresponsive.
Depending on how this plays out, it has the potential to be a massive barometer-setter for the industry moving forward. Especially over at Marvel, several performers are balancing their time between feature films and Disney+ shows. You know those deals have to be getting more complicated as the MCU expands. At the very least, stars (and the agents for those stars) will be paying attention to the result, because if the salaries remain tied to box-office performance, but performance is hindered by a movie being available on streaming, that will have to be ironed out long before cameras begin to roll on the blockbusters we love. It is called show “business,” after all.