In a surprising, almost shocking, turn of events, Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson has filed a lawsuit against Marvel Studios’ parent company, Disney. The suit stems from an apparent breach of contract regarding the release of the Black Widow film through both theaters and the Disney+ streaming service.
What does this potentially monumental case mean for the future of Marvel Studios projects, the Disney+ service, and the streaming service corner of the entertainment industry as a whole? Is Johansson suing the company that gave her the biggest breaks of her career without merit? Check out all the details that we know thus far.
Scarlett’s Black Widow road toward a solo film
It is a fact that Marvel’s Black Widow had one of the longest roads to getting made for a Marvel Cinematic Universe property. A Black Widow film had been proposed as early as 2004 through Lionsgate films, with David Hayter (Metal Gear Solid) set to write and direct.
Skip to 2006 and the Black Widow film remained unmade, with the rights reverting to Marvel Studios. Then, with Disney's acquisition of Marvel properties for $4 billion in 2009, the odds were suddenly in favor of such a project coming into fruition. Under Marvel Studios president and head producer Kevin Feige, Black Widow was set up to be a major player in the burgeoning cinematic universe being developed, beginning with Iron Man (2008).
Scarlett Johansson was cast in the role and would debut in the Iron Man sequel as an undercover spy and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent under Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After appearing in Iron Man 2 (2010), Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow quickly became a fan favorite of the MCU. Since that first appearance, there had already been rumors and discussions that the character and actress would headline their own solo big screen project.
Part of that set up is having Black Widow play key roles in other films. After Iron Man 2, the character would appear in Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019). In-between these films, talk about the solo Black Widow film would bounce around, but nothing came into fruition, for one reason or another.
Kevin Feige and company had already been working on development of the film as early as 2014, right after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with a script treatment by Nicole Perlman (co-writer of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy). By 2017, the Black Widow production began in earnest, adding Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson to the writing team. After a battery of discussions with as many as 49 directors, Cate Shortland (2012’s Lore) got the nod to helm the film.
While Black Widow was expected to be the first female superhero to headline a Marvel Studios/Disney film, delays and long-term plans led to Captain Marvel getting that honor in 2019. Moreover, the events of Avengers: Endgame pre-determined the character’s fate, which led to the Black Widow film being set at an earlier point in time (chronologically, just after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and prior to Avengers: Infinity War), although it would still be part of the Phase Four projects that would highlight future directions of the popular Marvel franchises.
Black Widow in theaters and Disney+
Intended for a theatrical release, Black Widow would be hampered by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Originally intended for a May 1, 2020 release, Disney decided to push the release to November 6, 2020. Then in September, the company pushed the release once again, out to May 7, 2021. In March 2021 the final decision was made to release Black Widow on July 9, 2021.
It was during this series of release date changes that it was also decided to have Black Widow be available through the Disney+ streaming service. As the pandemic had forced the global population to stay at home, streaming services experienced a huge boom starting in 2020.
At the time, Netflix had been enjoying a long period of success, being the largest streaming platform in the industry. However, major entertainment companies such as AT&T (which handles HBO and Warner Bros.), Amazon, CBS, NBC, Apple, and The Walt Disney Company itself began developing their own in-house streaming services. Disney had an ongoing agreement with Netflix before cutting ties and working on what would become Disney+.
Launched on November 12, 2019, Disney+ has since become the second largest streaming and video-on-demand platform in the world, with Netflix retaining the top spot. This success is in large part due to its near exclusive rights to much of the Disney library of content, including Marvel and Star Wars properties. Moreover, the Disney+ platform will have exclusive original films and shows of said properties, such as the massively successful Star Wars: The Mandalorian and MCU connected shows WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki.
With the movie theater business still far from recovering in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, Disney executives pitched the idea of releasing the already long-delayed Black Widow film exclusively for the Disney+ streaming service. But after a series of discussions and debates, the final decision was for it to be simultaneously released in theaters and on Disney+ (the latter through a Premier Access service).
As of this writing, Black Widow has earned $319 million in global box office ticket sales for theatrical returns. Furthermore, in the first 2 weeks on the Disney+ platform, the film raked in $60 million of revenue through its Premier Access release.
Although the global box office will put Black Widow as one of the lowest performing Marvel Studios films of all time, this must still be considered a financial success given the worldwide health crisis. It is also on par with other recent theatrical films such as F9: The Fast Saga and Godzilla vs. Kong.
Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit
In a lawsuit filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court on July 29, 2021, Scarlet Johansson’s legal team alleged that Disney breached their contract by choosing to release the film in both theaters and on the Disney+ streaming service.
According to the attorneys in Johansson’s team, the contract and agreement was for the film to be in theaters exclusively. By releasing it in Disney+ as well as theaters instead, the actress suffered a severe loss in potential income due to the contractual agreement of receiving bonuses and backend profits based on the film’s box office performance. Thus, they say actress suit against The Walt Disney Company is justified.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the move to release Black Widow in theaters and on Disney+ simultaneously apparently resulted in Scarlett Johansson losing $50 million in bonuses and backend returns.
Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney over the release of "“Black Widow,” saying that releasing the film simultaneously in theaters and on its Disney+ streaming service breached her contract https://t.co/0MdErV9dve
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) July 29, 2021
Disney strikes back
Soon after the news broke that Johansson is suing Disney, the latter's legal team struck back. Disney has disputed the claims of the actress’s lawsuit and issued a statement:
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 fired back at Scarlett Johansson after the ‘Black Widow’ actress filed a lawsuit alleging the company breached her contract when it offered the movie on streaming at the same time it played in theaters https://t.co/BraSQTSN4d pic.twitter.com/YjW2dW1cNk
— Reuters (@Reuters) July 30, 2021
Disney continued with its strike back at the lawsuit, pointing out the potential profit Johansson will gain from the Premier Access of Black Widow on Disney+ in addition to her already substantial $20 million payday:
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 $20 [million] she has received to date.
Effect on the industry
The lawsuit Johansson filed is not the first of its kind, in terms of creatives of the film industry seeking compensation for potential losses due to a hybrid release of their projects.
According to the New York Times, Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman 1984) and director Patty Jenkins were reported to have been compensated $10 million each for the hybrid release of their film in theaters and on HBO Max back in December 2020.
A very compelling companion piece to the 'Nolan bashes Warner' story going around. Interesting that both Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot received $10-million each to praise the #WonderWoman1984 arrival on HBO Max. https://t.co/NtEQTvuZIc
— 𝙺𝚎𝚗 𝙻𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚝𝚜𝚔𝚒 (@KennethLivitski) December 8, 2020
In light of the new legal battle between Scarlett Johansson and The Walt Disney Company, the controversy will reverberate across the entertainment and film industry. Digital distribution defies many of the old conventions on how creatives such as actors, directors, writers, and other production staff are compensated based on the performance of their work.
This current situation sheds a stark light on the potential issues that may arise, and may inevitably lead to new rules and agreements being stipulated once the dust settles, in order to avoid similar situations in the future.
Will Johansson have the last laugh? Or will Disney refuse to cave to the lawsuit and go the distance?
If Johansson wins or if Disney chooses to settle, there will certainly be a new precedent set. After all, streaming services have only just become fully established in recent years. While Netflix has set many of the default positions for this corner of the entertainment landscape, Johansson's lawsuit has the potential to open up previously unquestioned standards.
Regardless of the outcome, it is undeniable that this lawsuit will spark a major shakeup in the current status quo of the entertainment and film industry, as well as the streaming/on-demand service business model, at large.
Black Widow is currently streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access for $30. The film will become free to all Disney+ subscribers on October 6, 2021.