Several weeks ago, Scarlett Johansson decided to sue Disney. Her suit claims that Disney breached her contract when they decided to release Black Widow on Disney+ streaming at the same time they released the movie in theaters. Her lawsuit is claiming that her contract promised a movie theater exclusive release in no fewer than 1,500 theaters. Disney is saying that they did release in that many theaters, just not exclusively, and that her contract didn’t specify exclusivity. It’s been said that prior to the lawsuit, the actress and producer attempted to speak to the company to have her contract renegotiated, and they ignored her. The studio then issued a public statement addressing the lawsuit, which many considered to be a sexist attack. Their statement called the lawsuit sad and distressing and also implied that the actress was being greedy and insensitive to the needs of the pandemic. Media outlets have called this attack sexist. Now, her lawyer is doing the same.
“After initially responding to this litigation with a misogynistic attack against Scarlett Johansson, Disney is now, predictably, trying to hide its misconduct in a confidential arbitration,” said John Berlinski, the main lawyer speaking for Johansson during this legal endeavor. Basically, what’s happening right now is that the actress wants to make the Black Widow lawsuit public. That was never likely to happen, but by filing to do so, the Black Widow legal team gets to point out that Disney is secretive and draw more attention to what’s happening. This is a big move and a powerful one. Not only does it speak to how she feels about her case, but if she were able to make the case public, it could have major ramifications for future contracts with talent at Disney and other companies. Even keeping the lawsuit as private as possible, there are bound to be ramifications in the industry from this case.
Right now, the film industry is changing, especially in terms of big-budget blockbusters. A Marvel movie is always hoping to earn back hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Many of them climb near (or even past) the billion-dollar mark. When talent signs a contract, they do so with the expectation that they will receive an initial payment, but a lot of their paycheck will come to them once that movie reaches certain payday heights at the box office. When Disney chose to release a movie to streaming at the same time, they cut off the realistic expectation that Scarlett Johansson’s movie would reach those heights in the movie theaters. Meanwhile, Disney saw their subscription numbers rise and earned income on their $30 a pop Premier Access tickets to see the film online, something that Scarlett Johansson’s contract would not have been likely to include. When they changed the release plans, Scarlett Johansson wanted an updated contract that would include the new plan.
Proving just how interesting it could be for the entire Scarlett Johansson lawsuit to be made public, some Disney+ figures were revealed during the lawsuit so far. This is something usually kept quite secret. About Black Widow’s release, the studio’s lawyers revealed, “As of August 15, 2021, the Picture has grossed more than $367 million in worldwide box-office receipts and more than $125 million in streaming and download retail receipts.”
For some movie math here, this means that the Scarlett Johansson movie made a little under $80 million during its opening weekend at the domestic box office, and $55 million on Disney+ with Premier Access, meaning that this movie made more than Guardian’s of the Galaxy and several other Marvel movies did during their openings, pre-pandemic.
Disney and Marvel are famously private companies. When it comes to their contracts, the finer points that will come out during the Black Widow lawsuit with Scarlett Johansson may change the future of how these contracts are handled at Disney and other studios. That’s the kind of information that will empower stars like Johansson when making these contracts that include streaming in the future. It gives talent an edge and takes away some of the power the studio has. Clearly, that’s not in the studio’s best interest.
There are other reasons Disney may want to keep this private as well. Scarlett Johansson’s lawyers seem to be implying that they want to hide as much of their alleged misconduct as possible. By keeping the case private, they also keep the only statements out there the ones Disney have already publicly made, which Johansson’s lawyers (and many in the media) have called sexist. How will this all end? It’s going to be months before we really find out. For now, it seems that Disney is furious with Johansson for many reasons, cutting ties with her, and that the star is moving on to new deals in Hollywood while her lawyers sort this case out.