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Citing the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek on Thursday defended his company’s decision to release certain films — including Black Widow — simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.
He further revealed that the company has “entered into hundreds of talent arrangements” that have “by and large gone very smoothly.”
“These films were conceived during a time when…we certainly didn’t know about COVID,” Chapek told Wall Street analysts. “Just like what we’ve done many times before, we’ve found ways to fairly compensate our talent so that, no matter what, everyone feels satisfied.”
One person, however, who doesn’t feel satisfied is Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson. Chapek didn’t mention the movie, or Johansson, by name.
In a bombshell lawsuit filed in late July, the actress alleged that the Walt Disney Co. breached her contract when sending the Marvel superhero pic to Disney+ Premier Access at the same time it debuted in theaters.
Marvel’s Black Widow is among numerous event movies that have taken a “day-and-date” approach amid the COVID-19 pandemic, whether from Disney or Warner Bros. via HBO Max. (WarnerMedia has said publicly it has paid talent more than $200 million in lieu of box office backends.)
Disney’s slate of hybrid releases also includes Cruella, Raya and the Last Dragon and, most recently, Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.
The next two releases from Disney’s film studio are receiving an exclusive theatrical release for 45 days: Free Guy, which opens Friday, and Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Sept. 3).
Chapek said the studio is sticking to its plan for those two films, despite a dramatic resurgence of COVID-19 cases that are largely due to the Delta variant. Three months ago, he said, no one knew that the pandemic would grow worse again.
He’s hardly the only worried Hollywood executive as the box office recovery stalls. Earlier Thursday, Sony delayed the release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage from September to October (Venom might not be the last early fall event pic to move).
In general, he said the company values “flexibility” during uncertain times, and that making decisions on a film-by-film basis is the correct course.
“Both Bob Iger and I determined this was the right strategy. And, just to reiterate, distribution decisions are made on a film-by-film basis. We will continue to utilize all options going forward.”
Chapek added that a 45-day exclusive theatrical window for Free Guy — starring Ryan Reynolds — and Shang-Chi will be an interesting experiment. Disney inherited Free Guy when taking over 20th Century Fox. (Chapek said the company didn’t have the same freedom in terms of changing its release pattern.)
Johansson’s complaint says Disney sacrificed the movie’s box office potential in order to grow its streaming service, Disney+, which hit 116 million subscribers as of July 3.
Black Widow — whose release was delayed more than a year amid the COVID-19 crisis — opened in early July in theaters around the globe as well as on Disney+ Premier Access for an additional $30. Disney took the unusual step of announcing Disney+ revenue over the film’s opening weekend, saying it had earned $60 million.
Johansson’s lawsuit, filed July 29 in Los Angeles Superior Court, states that Black Widow had been guaranteed a wide theatrical release when Johansson signed her deal with Marvel. According to the complaint, Disney tortiously interfered with that deal for its own advantage.
“On information and belief, the decision to do so was made at least in part because Disney saw the opportunity to promote its flagship subscription service using the Picture and Ms. Johansson, thereby attracting new paying monthly subscribers, retaining existing ones, and establishing Disney+ as a must-have service in an increasingly competitive marketplace,” the complaint states.
Later on July 29, Disney blasted the complaint as having no merit: “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 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 she has received to date.”
“Obviously, this world has been disrupted by COVID and we are all reacting to a very fluid situation,” Chapek said Thursday on the earnings call.
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