Scarlett Johansson is suing Walt Disney.
The Marvel star filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday, alleging that her contract was breached when the company released “Black Widow” on its streaming service Disney+ at the same time it debuted in theaters.
Johansson claims her agreement with Disney’s Marvel Entertainment guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release for her solo film, and her salary was based in large part on box office performance.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the news.
“It’s no secret that Disney is releasing movies like ‘Black Widow’ directly on Disney+ to increase subscriber numbers and thereby boost the company’s stock price — and that it’s hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so” , said John Berlinski, a lawyer at Kasowitz Benson Torres, who represents Johansson, to CNBC.
“But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of his films to promote this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving this in court,” he said via email. “This certainly won’t be the last case where Hollywood talent takes on Disney and makes it clear that whatever the company does, it’s legally bound to honor its contracts.”
According to the filing, Johansson’s representatives had already requested guarantees back in 2019, when Disney+ was preparing for launch and Disney executives suggested that Marvel Cinematic Universe content would be available exclusively on the service.
The lawsuit includes a response from Marvel’s lead attorney, who confirmed that “Black Widow” would be released like other MCU movies.
“We understand that if the plan changes, we will need to discuss this with you and come to an agreement as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses,” the reply reads.
When Johansson learned that “Black Widow” would be streaming and in theaters on the same day, she tried to negotiate with Marvel. Disney and Marvel have not responded, the lawsuit alleges.
“This application has no merit,” Disney said in a statement on Thursday. “The lawsuit is especially sad and disturbing in its callous disregard for the horrific and long-lasting global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and, in addition, has announced the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access significantly improved her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20 [million] she has gotten so far.”
Similar contract issues have cropped up over the past year as studios shifted their release strategies during the pandemic.
Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins were reportedly paid $10 million each after Warner Bros. had decided to release “Wonder Woman 1984” in theaters and on HBO Max in December. It was rumored that Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake were also seeking bonuses after Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” was released on video-on-demand rather than in theaters in early 2020.
Disney has long delayed releasing big titles like “Black Widow” after the pandemic decimated the cinema industry. Theaters around the world were temporarily closed to curb the spread of Covid-19. But as coronavirus restrictions eased, vaccination rates rose and the industry began to bounce back, Disney chose to debut new blockbusters in theaters and through Disney+ for $30 at a time.
Disney said this hybrid release model was a temporary pandemic solution, and after Friday’s “Jungle Cruise,” it plans to release the rest of its 2021 slate exclusively in theaters in late summer and early fall.
Johansson, who has become a staple in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, negotiated her contract to take a percentage of Black Widow’s theatrical gross. Before the pandemic, the film was expected to bring in a hefty amount at the box office.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on ticket sales as the number of cases continues to rise, and the film’s additional availability in the home video market meant it raked in just $80 million during its opening weekend. While that figure pales in comparison to other Marvel features, it remains the highest opening figure of any film released after March 2020.
Domestically, the film has collected just over $150 million in its first three weeks in theaters. Disney reported that “Black Widow” had $60 million in sales on Disney+ during its opening weekend, but did not share additional information about its digital performance.
Previous Marvel films have grossed more than $100 million in ticket sales during their opening weekends and nearly $1 billion during their theatrical run.
“Black Widow” may have fallen on the lower end of this spectrum because the movie is set in the middle of the MCU timeline, but in a non-pandemic time it would certainly have performed on par with its peers.
Remarkably, only eight of Marvel’s 24 theatrical releases have grossed less than $700 million at the global box office. And only three have secured less than $400 million.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of ‘Trolls World Tour’.