In the past few months, Disney and star Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) have been deadlocked in a legal battle over the decision to release the Black Widow film simultaneously in theaters and the Disney+ streaming service. But it appears the two parties have decided to settle the dispute out of court, with the actress and her legal team agreeing to a settlement with the Walt Disney Company.
What are the details of the settlement between Disney and Johansson? How will this affect their future business relationship? And what are the repercussions of this unprecedented situation for day-and-date releases for the streaming industry, as a whole? Read on for the full coverage.
Where it began
The Marvel Cinematic Universe film Black Widow had long been in development. Ever since Scarlett Johansson debuted in Iron Man 2 in the role of former Russian spy and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff, talks of a solo outing had been spreading, both among MCU fans and within the movie industry.
However, the wheels of development for the film did not truly begin turning until 2014, after the massive success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, wherein Johansson reprised her role as the Black Widow.
Although Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios president and chief creative officer, intended for Black Widow to be the first female-led MCU superhero film, delays and roadblocks to the movie’s development led to Captain Marvel (2019) with star Brie Larson getting that plum title. In addition, the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019) where Natasha sacrifices herself in order to acquire the Soul Stone from the planet Vormir complicated the timeline where the solo Black Widow film would take place. It was settled to have the events occur during the gap between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018).
During the development, casting for roles went to Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov (aka The Red Guardian), Olga Kurylenko as Antonia Dreykov (also revealed to be the MCU’s Taskmaster), and Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff. The cast was rounded out by Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle, and William Hurt (reprising his role as Defense Secretary Thaddeus Ross). Julia Louis-Dreyfus was added for a post credit scene to connect with her role as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine from the Disney+ show The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Principal filming for Black Widow took place from May to October 2019.
Where it went
Black Widow was intended to be the first Marvel Phase Four film (with the last Phase Three film being Spider-Man: Far From Home released in July 2019). However, the film’s release was delayed multiple times due to the COVID-19 situation. From an initial target of May 1, 2020, Black Widow was pushed back to November 6, 2020 and again to May 7, 2021. The final decision was made to release it as a hybrid day-and-date availability for theaters and the new Disney+ streaming service.
The Disney+ release of Black Widow came with the Premier Access package for $30. During the theatrical run of Black Widow, the film had a domestic $183,602,321 box office take and a worldwide total of $378,785,955 (as of September 2021 per Box Office Mojo).
However, this does not factor the profits garnered from the Disney+ release. According to estimates, the Premier Access revenues of Black Widow are around $60 million for the opening weekend gross. And here is where the issues arise, as Scarlett Johansson and her legal team argued that Disney committed a breach of contract by releasing Black Widow as a hybrid model, instead of the original agreed theatrical only release.
Johansson was not only the star but also the producer of the film. In both capacities, she would have theoretically received a bigger income, through achieving box office capstones and bonuses, backend profits that are not factored into the Disney+ Premier Access release. It was stated that Johansson and her production suffered a loss of at least $50 million in revenues due to Disney’s breach of contract. This was the staging ground for what led to the actress filing for a lawsuit against Disney on July 30, 2021.
The company says that the star has already received $20 million for her work and argued that “…the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation.” https://t.co/r52aUVsE6L pic.twitter.com/U0BNDkeCib
— Variety (@Variety) July 29, 2021
Disney countered that Johansson was paid to cover the potential losses, with the company stating that:
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.
As the news broke out and the development of the suit progressed, the situation escalated. According to sources, Johansson and her camp reached out to compromise by asking for $100 million from Disney. Disney refused this offer and it appeared the legal issue would be settled in court.
Moreover, other stars such as Emma Stone and Emily Blunt who also had projects affected by the day-and-date release of their Disney projects were rumored to be considering following Johansson’s lead. Many high-profile figures also came to Johansson’s defense, including fellow Marvel Studios mainstay Elizabeth Olsen (WandaVision) and Kevin Feige himself.
Another repercussion of the legal debacle is how the viability of theatrical-only release (the key point in Johansson's lawsuit) was going to be tested through following that model with 2021 projects, as in the case of the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the upcoming Eternals. Although the box office numbers for Shang-Chi were noteworthy, the sum total was lower than Black Widow's hybrid release.
Regardless of the ethical and legal discussion, the situation painted a bad light on both the company and Scarlett Johansson in terms of public perception. It also placed a dark cloud on the industry, as the burgeoning streaming section of the entertainment industry was opening new grounds of uncharted territory, particularly in the wake of the prolonged global pandemic.
Where things are
The court proceedings for the lawsuit filed against the Walt Disney Company were nominally scheduled to be conducted some time in 2022. However, that will no longer happen.
Disney and Johansson’s legal camp have come to an accord and settled the lawsuit out of court. On September 30, the two parties released joint statements regarding the resolution of their legal disputes.
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 1, 2021
In a statement by Disney Studios chairman Alan Bergman regarding the conclusion of the legal battle between the actress and the company:
I’m very pleased that we have been able to come to a mutual agreement with Scarlett Johansson regarding 'Black Widow'. We appreciate her contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and look forward to working together on a number of upcoming projects, including Disney’s 'Tower of Terror'.
In addition, Scarlett Johansson issued this statement after the deal was concluded:
I am happy to have resolved our differences with Disney. I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done together over the years and have greatly enjoyed my creative relationship with the team. I look forward to continuing our collaboration in years to come.
Although there are no details revealed as to the terms of the settlement, industry insiders such as Grace Randolph (Beyond the Trailer on YouTube) are stating that while Disney likely did not pay the initial $100 million demand, the amount paid to Johansson is likely in the ballpark of "tens of millions".
— Grace Randolph (@GraceRandolph) October 1, 2021
Where it’s going
With the matter of the Black Widow lawsuit drawing to a close, there are still ripples within the entertainment industry that will be felt for some time.
One of these is that the precedent has been set regarding the creative forces (such as the actors, producers, directors, crew, etc.) and their possible concerns with how deals are negotiated, particularly with hybrid releases. As there are still many projects already developed or are under development prior to this hybrid model, there will likely be discussions and changes made in terms of revenues and how distributions will be decided.
Another point is how future streaming projects will be arranged from now on. Aside from Disney+, streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, and the rest will more than likely make considerations and long-lasting decisions to avoid a similar situation as with the Disney vs. Scarlett Johansson debacle. How this will ultimately change the current landscape is anyone’s guess.
Finally, with Disney and Scarlett Johansson coming to terms on the lawsuit, it appears that the actress’s exclusive project Disney’s Tower of Terror (which she will be producing) will be moving forward. But will Johansson be starring in the film now that the legal issue with the company has been smoothed out?
And what about a potential return to her role as Black Widow? Would that be in the horizon, now that the multiverse of the MCU is being explored in projects such as What If…?, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Spider-Man: No Way Home? In addition, the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ series with Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld is rumored to be directly connected to the events of the Black Widow film. Would Johansson's Natasha Romanoff be making an appearance, even as a flashback? We will certainly keep an eye on further development.
Marvel's Black Widow will be streaming for free on Disney+ beginning October 6, 2021.