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A Brief History of Scarlett Johansson Suing Disney

The ‘Black Widow’ star has accused Disney of a breach of contract.
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on July 30th, 2021

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at the history of Scarlett Johansson suing Disney over the release of Black Widow.

Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney.

The Black Widow star — who has appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, since 2010 — filed a lawsuit against Disney yesterday. Johansson’s suit alleges a breach of contract by Disney for releasing the film on their streaming platform, Disney+. According to the Wall Street Journalthe lawsuit says Disney had originally agreed to release the film, which premiered in the United States earlier this month, exclusively in theaters. The suit says Johansson’s salary was tied directly to the film’s box office success.

The suit has prompted a back and forth between Johansson and the media conglomerate, and may have a domino effect at Disney. Here’s a brief history of what we know (so far) about the suit and what the response has been.

Black Widow Gets Delayed

You won’t be shocked to learn that the catalyst for much of the lawsuit is COVID-19. Production for the film, directed by Cate Shortland, began in May of 2019 in Norway and then moved to London, where Marvel created buzz by inviting journalists onto the set of the film. Disney originally planned to release the film on May 1, 2020. But then, in March of that year, they delayed the release of the film indefinitely due to COVID.

As the pandemic only grew worse, Disney eventually announced in September that the film would instead shoot for a May 2021 release date. The delay of Black Widow made history, as 2020 became the first year since 2009 to not see a new feature film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Black Widow Returns

In March of this year, Disney moved the theatrical release for a final time, to July 9th in the United States. But there was a catch: the film would also be available to stream on Disney+ for an additional $29.99. A price that is way too rich for my blood. Disney adopted a similar model for the recently released Cruellaa spin-off of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, starring Emma Stone. 

The hybrid model is something that major production companies like Disney have experimented with throughout the pandemic. Other works, like the live stage recording of Hamilton and Pixar’s Lucawere made available to Disney+ subscribers at no additional cost. The recently released Space Jam: A New Legacy, a Warner Bros. film, debuted in theaters but was also made available to HBO Max subscribers at no additional charge.

The quick pivot to streaming raised many questions: Are studios releasing these works just to build their subscriber base during the pandemic and give fans a treat? Or will this become the new normal? Or both? Who knows what the future holds, but for now there is one incontrovertible fact: despite the easing of coronavirus restrictions throughout the United States, ticket sales, while stronger now than they were in 2020, remain down. And Black Widow is no exception.

Black Widow Debuts

During its opening weekend, Black Widow grossed $80.4 million, or about 8.8 million tickets sold. As FSR’s Christopher Campbell noted earlier this month, “[that number] is a bit more than half the attendance of the MCU’s previous solo superhero effort, Captain Marvel, which sold 16.8 million tickets two years ago. But slightly above the installment prior to that, Ant-Man and the Wasp, which sold 8.3 million tickets during its first weekend in 2018.”

Not bad! Especially when you consider that rentals on Disney+ brought in another $60 million. But then calamity struck. In its second weekend, Black Widow brought in only $23 million, or what Deadline referred to in their headline as the “steepest” second-weekend box office drop for a Disney MCU title. Yikes.

The second week’s numbers brought into question the wisdom of Disney’s hybrid model. “What initially seemed like the vindication of a dual-release strategy, then, turned out to be a neat example of the strategy’s financial foolishness,” wrote David Sims of The Atlantic. “After all, if everyone can access a new blockbuster at once, it’s unlikely to hold people’s attention for longer than a week.”

Black Widow Fights Back

After Johansson filed the suit, Disney released a statement that as Variety described it, “hit back in unusually personal terms.

“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing,” Disney said. “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

I’m not a lawyer, but that seems like an absurd reply. Here’s what an actual lawyer made of the response:

Disney, in another unusual move, disclosed that Johansson was paid $20 million for her work in the film. Johansson’s team did not parse words in their response “They have shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn’t,” Bryan Lourd, co-chairman of the Creative Artists Agency, said in a statement to Variety. “The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of.”

How Scarlett Johansson suing Disney may impact the Future of Streaming

The lawsuit may have a ripple effect throughout Disney, and perhaps the entire industry. According to Matt Belloni, former Hollywood Reporter editor and writer of the newsletter “What I’m Hearing” (via ScreenRant), Stone is “said to be weighing her options” and considering a lawsuit of her own. Belloni also mentions Emily Blunt, star of the recently released Jungle Cruiseas another performer who may enter the fray.

No matter what happens, the entertainment industry will undoubtedly change as a result of these new hybrid models of distribution and the general push towards streaming. As the original article from the Wall Street Journal reports:

The suit also notes that annual bonuses for Disney Chairman Robert Iger and Chief Executive Bob Chapek are tied to the performance of Disney+ and cites that as further motivation for putting Black Widow on the service.

One can only assume that more and more of the performers and creators of these works will want to get in on the action. And if they win these suits, I hope they’ll at least kick down a little extra cash to the rest of the cast and crew. But I won’t hold my breath.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.