“Black Widow” star Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney, claiming that her contract was breached when the Mouse House released the superhero flick on its Disney+ streaming service at the same time it hit movie theaters.
Johansson’s lawsuit claims that her contract with Disney’s Marvel Entertainment guaranteed that the movie blockbuster would premiere exclusively in theaters and that her salary was based largely on how well the movie performed at the box office, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.
Citing anonymous sources, the Journal said the decision to put “Black Widow” on Disney+ is likely to cost Johansson more than $50 million.
“Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel,” said the suit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday.
Neither Disney nor Marvel responded to requests for comment.
Johansson’s legal case may signal larger issues in Hollywood as more studios opt to release their movies on streaming services around the time they premiere in cinemas.
During the pandemic, media giants like Comcast’s NBCUniversal and AT&T’s WarnerMedia began prioritizing streaming services over cinemas, putting some of their buzziest new releases onto their streaming platforms.
The shift has major financial implications for actors, producers, directors and the like who want to ensure that the growth in streaming doesn’t come at their expense, Johansson’s lawyer, John Berlinski of Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, told the Journal.
“This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts,” Berlinski said.
The lawsuit said Johansson’s deal with Marvel was tied to box-office performance, and her lawyers sought to renegotiate her contract after learning of Disney’s dual-release strategy for “Black Widow,” which is her ninth Marvel flick.
In today’s streaming-centric world, renegotiating contracts tied to box office sales is becoming more commonplace. According to the Journal, Warner Bros. paid more than $200 million to talent as part of the amended agreements.
Johansson’s suit claimed that Disney and Marvel have been unresponsive to her requests, but it noted that even before the pandemic, Marvel was aware of the actress’ fears that “Black Widow” would end up on Disney+ as part of its wide release.
In 2019, reps for the actress, who has also starred in Marvel hits like “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 2,” reached out to the studio for assurance that “Black Widow” would only have a theatrical release, the suit said.
In a March 2019 email included in court papers, Marvel chief counsel Dave Galluzzi wrote that the release would be according to a traditional theatrical model, adding, “We understand that should the plan change, we would need to discuss this with you and come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses.”
“Black Widow” grossed just over $80 million at the domestic box office during its July 9 opening weekend and $78 million overseas, ticket sales tracker Box Office Mojo said. At the time, the notoriously tight-lipped Disney reported that the flick garnered another $60 million from $30 at-home purchases on Disney+, which was a coup for the company.
Since then, “Black Widow’s” box office sales have slowed, and it has reeled in just under $158 million domestically and about $160 million overseas.
The National Association of Theatre Owners, a group that reps movie theaters, called the film’s performance to date “disappointing and anomalous,” and said it “demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release” is more profitable.
Even though the pandemic has changed the landscape, it’s hard for some media watchers to not be disappointed with “Black Widow’s” performance, as many of Marvel’s biggest flicks like “Black Panther,” “The Avengers” and “Captain Marvel” routinely reel in over in $1 billion in global ticket sales.