Disney CEO defends release strategy amidst Black Widow controversy

Disney CEO Bob Chapek defends the same-day theatrical and Disney+ release strategy amidst Black Widow controversy.

Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson's controversial lawsuit continues to send ripples in the entertainment industry, and the legal battle appears to have only just begun.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek and Chairman of the Board Bob Iger (Images: Disney)

But in a recent earnings call with Disney investors, the CEO of the company himself attempted to downplay the situation, citing the industry giant’s generous compensation and the difficulties created by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

What were the details of the discussion and how does it affect Johansson’s suit? What will it mean for the future of the Walt Disney Company’s ongoing projects and films in development? Read on for more.

Tale of the tape

Earlier in July 2021, Scarlett Johansson and her legal team filed a lawsuit against Marvel Studios’ parent company, Disney. It was in relation to an apparent breach of contract stemming from the company’s decision to deploy the Marvel Studios superhero film, Black Widow, using a combined strategy of a theatrical distribution and simultaneous release on the Disney+ streaming service. The latter is through the Disney+ Premier Access, priced at $29.99.

Johansson’s assertion is that this decision led to a severe financial loss on her part. As both the lead actress and executive producer of Black Widow, Johansson would receive bonuses and backend profits based on the film’s theatrical performance.

On the other hand, Disney has countered by stating Johansson has received commensurate salary and compensation. The company has stated on record that the star received $20 million, plus the theatrical bonuses and a percentage from the Premier Access sales. This, however, is likely to be lower than the potential profits had there been a higher number of box office returns, if the film been only available in theaters.

Johansson’s legal team fired back, stating that Disney is painting the Black Widow star in a bad light. As Bryan Lourd, Creative Arts Agency co-chairman which represents Scarlett Johansson stated:

Disney’s direct attack on her character and all else they implied is beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades.

While the legal battle between the Walt Disney Company and Scarlett Johansson is far from over, it has generated much discussion and speculation related to the situation. Other than Black Widow, other recent projects were also released using this hybrid model, notably Cruella starring Emma Stone and Jungle Cruise, headlined by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.

There had been rumors that the stars of these other projects may file a similar lawsuit as Johansson. However, that appears not to be the case.

Emma Stone has finalized a deal with Disney for a sequel to Cruella. Meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson is reportedly happy with the release strategy Disney has come up with. Moreover, Johnson is satisfied with the box office and Disney+ performance of Jungle Cruise. And like Emma Stone, Johnson has already discussed sequel plans for development.

Despite this, it is also true that Johansson’s lawsuit has drawn the attention of other concerned parties. Blumhouse founder Jason Blum and SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris have voiced their support for Johansson’s suit. In addition, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has also expressed displeasure with how Johansson’s business relationship with Disney turned out.

How does the controversial lawsuit affect the future of the Phase Four Marvel films?

It should be noted that Disney’s main competitor, Warner Bros. and HBO have adopted a similar hybrid approach. Warner Bros. had reached agreements to buy out the prior contracts with stars and production, as a compromise for the lower box office returns.

Disney Wall Street investor talk

During a Q3 earnings call and meet with company investors, Disney CEO Bob Chapek took the opportunity to clarify the situation with regard to the controversies surrounding the same-day release strategy that has been applied to films, with theatrical and Disney+ releases (the latter using the Premier Access premium option and a short period before becoming free to subscribers of the streaming platform).

Speaking to Wall Street analysts, Chapek had this to say about the decision to run with a hybrid release, with the theatrical and Disney+ Premier Access:

These films were conceived during a time when... we certainly didn’t know about COVID. 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.

Chapek continued, revealing that the Walt Disney Company has "entered into hundreds of talent arrangements" which have apparently "by and large gone very smoothly". Although the specifics of these arrangements were not fully detailed during the talk, the Disney CEO asserts that they have provided due compensation for their production and talent pool that is fair and justified, given the pandemic situation.

Furthermore, Disney’s top executive shared how this decision was also agreed to by his predecessor and Disney Chairman Bob Iger:

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.

Immediate future

Although it is not clearly stated, the current legal issues between Disney and Scarlett Johansson may have prompted the decision to adjust at least two upcoming film releases.

Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds and Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will both be released in theaters only. In fact, Free Guy’s release schedule was moved up to August 10 (previously August 31). These films will, however, have a short theatrical run of 45 days.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek has gone on to state that the release for these two films will be "an interesting experiment" for the company, and will likely influence their release decisions, depending on their performances in the box office.

The comment by Chapek has earned a response from Shang-Chi star Simu Liu, and the actor took to social media:

We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year. We are the surprise. I’m fired the f**k up to make history on September 3rd; JOIN US.

Will the efforts of Disney to comply with a theatrical release meet with success? Or will the hybrid model prove to be the correct decision now that new variants of the Coronavirus are hampering the global recovery? Only time will tell.

Free Guy is now running in theaters. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are scheduled for a theatrical release on September 3, 2021.

Geoff Borgonia
Geoffrey "Borgy" Borgonia is a veteran writer, artist, journalist, gamer, and entrepreneur based in the Philippines. When not contributing to some of the top pop culture sites on the planet, he spends the rest of his time running his business, practicing martial arts, working on and developing books, comics, and games. In his man-cave, his only luxury is sleep. Borgy on Linkedin.
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