Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over simultaneous streaming release of Black Widow, which debuted in theaters the same day and on Disney Plus through its Premier Access service.
The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday, alleging that Johansson’s contract with Disney-owned Marvel Entertainment ensured a “wide theatrical release” of the film. The suit says it is “well understood” that the agreement meant an exclusive release without streaming. Johansson’s salary was based in part on the film’s box office performance, the suit says, meaning the streaming offer could cut her salary significantly.
“Disney knew that the cannibalization of [box office receipts] Disney+ would save Marvel (and by extension Disney) “very large” sums it would otherwise owe Mrs. Johansson,” the lawsuit reads. “On information and persuasion, Disney has intentionally led Marvel’s breach of the Agreement, without justification, to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her agreement with Marvel.”
Johansson Could Lose $50 Million Under Changed Release Plans The Wall Street Journal, who first reported the lawsuit. A Disney spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.
The lawsuit alleges that Disney had two primary reasons for the hybrid release. First, it claims, Disney wanted to increase the subscriber base for its streaming service and boost its stock value. Second, the lawsuit states, “Disney wanted to significantly devalue Ms. Johansson’s deal and enrich itself with it.”
The lawsuit’s argument — that Disney promised an exclusive theatrical release before waiving that insurance — seems to depend on what constitutes a “theatrical release.” The lawsuit states that both Marvel and Johansson understood the contractual promise of a wide theater debut in the sense that the film “would initially be released exclusively in theaters and that it would remain exclusively in cinemas for a period of approximately 90 to 120 days . .” But it’s not stated whether those details are in her contract.
“As Ms. Johansson, Disney, Marvel and most others in Hollywood know, a ‘theatrical release’ is a release that is exclusive to cinemas,” the suit states. “Disney was well aware of this promise, but nevertheless instructed Marvel to break its promise and instead release the Picture on the Disney+ streaming service on the same day it was released in theaters.”
Disney seems to have understood that changing the release strategy would affect Johansson. Marvel’s Chief Counsel, David Galluzzi, wrote to Johansson’s representatives in 2019 to indicate that a discussion would arise if the release plan changed, according to the lawsuit. “We understand that if the plan changes, we’ll need to discuss this with you and come to an agreement as the deal is based on a series of (very large) cash register bonuses,” Galluzzi wrote.
Over the course of the pandemic, several Disney titles originally intended for exclusive theatrical releases instead debuted simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus via the Premier Access platform. Premier Access charges an additional $30 fee to stream these movies from home on Disney+ while they’re in theaters. Black Widow, Cruella, and the live-action remake of Mulan are among a handful of films released this way as theaters succumbed to pandemic lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions.
It is an important development in the release structure that emerged during the pandemic. Many major streamers have chosen to release movies this way, including HBO Max. The model has come under fire from major Hollywood directors such as Dune director Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan.
The lawsuit filed this week alleges that after Disney’s announcement that the photo would debut as a day-and-date title, Johansson and her team attempted to negotiate with Marvel over the film’s release. It claims that Marvel “ignored this range,” and the film debuted on Disney Plus under the hybrid release model anyway.