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In a dramatic turn with implications for major Hollywood studios, Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against The Walt Disney Co. on Thursday alleging that her contract was breached when Black Widow was released on Disney+.
Marvel’s Black Widow is among numerous event movies that have debuted simultaneously on streaming and in theaters because of the pandemic. Johansson’s complaint says Disney sacrificed the movie’s box office potential in order to grow its streaming service.
In a statement, a Disney spokesperson responded, “There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. 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.”
Black Widow — whose release was delayed more than a year amid the COVID-19 crisis — debuted earlier in 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.
The lawsuit, filed 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.
“Why would Disney forgo hundreds of millions of dollars in box office receipts by releasing the Picture in theatres at a time when it knew the theatrical market was ‘weak,’ rather than waiting a few months for that market to recover?” the complaint asks. “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 adds that Disney’s actions “not only increased the value of Disney+, but it also intentionally saved Marvel (and thereby itself) what Marvel itself referred to as ‘very large box office bonuses’ that Marvel otherwise would have been obligated to pay Ms. Johansson.”
The complaint further states that Disney made no attempt to redo her deal once the decision was made to send Black Widow to streaming. “Disney and Marvel largely ingored Ms. Johansson, essentially forcing her to file this action,” the action states.
WarnerMedia and Warner Bros. have reportedly shelled out as much as $200 million to pay a parade of talent whose films have opened, or are scheduled to open, at the same time on the big screen and on HBO Max, including Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and Will Smith (Johansson’s complaint even references that practice). Warners’ entire 2021 slate is going day-and-date.
Through her suit, the actress also alleges that Disney knew that streaming the blockbuster would dissuade attendance from moviegoers, including repeat moviegoers, and it did so anyway, knowingly and intentionally.
The bombshell news comes on the eve of the release of another Disney event pic, Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, both in theaters and on Premier Access.
Johansson is being represented by Kasowitz partner John Berlinski, who formerly worked in-house at NBCU and was one of the lead attorneys in a high-profile case over hit show Bones‘ distribution on Hulu. That litigation, which entailed claims of self-dealing by a Fox studio that was later acquired by Disney, resulted in a $179 million arbitration ruling, where the arbitrator slammed “reprehensible fraud” on the part of Fox. The award was later trimmed down to $51 million.
Johansson’s deal with Marvel likely has an arbitration clause, but she has no direct deal with Disney, so her hope is that a tortious interference claim will stick in open court.
Johansson goes on record in the lawsuit in saying Black Widow has underperformed at the global box office because of Disney+, earning just north of $318 million to date, according to Comscore. While it secured the biggest domestic debut of the pandemic era — $80 million — that was on the lower end for a Marvel Cinematic Universe title. And in its second weekend, the tentpole dropped off a huge 68 percent in North America.
“Just as these news outlets predicted and Ms. Johansson feared, the Picture’s box office receipts for its opening weekend were significantly below the opening-weekend performance of Marvel’s previous films and have ‘suffered [a] steeper-than-normal decline’ since then.’ In short, Disney’s strategy to lure viewers away from the theatres and toward Disney+ worked,” the lawsuit states.
Many other films have likewise seen huge drop-offs in recent weeks; some analysts attribute that to moviegoing being front-loaded, while others say it’s because of the availability in the home.
The Wall Street Journal first broke news of the lawsuit.
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