Explained: Why Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney and what it means for Hollywood’s future

Scarlett Johansson and Disney are embroiled in a legal battle which could very well decide the future of movie release in a post-pandemic world and how actors engage with the big studios.

Disney is the owner of Marvel Studios, the company behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), by far the highest-grossing film franchise in history. The company has employed Johansson since 2008, playing the role of Russian spy turned Avenger Natasha Romanoff or Black Widow in MCU movies.


When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in late 2019 and early 2020, governments around the world closed theaters to curb the spread of the virus. Global theatrical affairs collapsed as the blockades were put in place. Many Hollywood movies destined for theaters have shifted to streaming services instead.

In December, Warner Bros. moved all of its 2021 films into the hybrid release model – releasing the films in theaters and on its HBO Max streaming service on the same day. Movies include The Suicide Squad, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Matrix Resurrections, Dune, and more.

Unsurprisingly, the move caused an uproar in the filmmaking community and among creators, actors and exhibitors. Christopher Nolan, who has worked with Warners since Insomnia in 2002, was scathing. “Some of the greatest filmmakers in our industry and the most important movie stars went to bed the night before they thought they were working for the biggest movie studio and woke up to find they were working for the worst service. streaming, ”he told The Hollywood Reporter.

But Warner held on, signaling a sea change in Hollywood distribution strategy.

Black Widow is streaming on Disney Plus Hotstar.

Disney had tried out the same-day model with the live-action Mulan remake in September 2020, and it hadn’t really worked wonders for them. He later implemented the same strategy for Raya and the Last Dragon, Cruella, and Jungle Cruise outside of Black Widow.

The contracts of top actors like Scarlett Johansson hinge on the box office performance of their films. Before the pandemic, there was a certain time gap (typically 30 days out of 45 days) between theatrical and streaming releases. Since the theaters, at least the few that opened, were running at half capacity, the model didn’t exactly work.

Why did Scarlett Johansson sue Disney?

Black Widow was released on July 9 in most markets. In the United States and a few other select countries, the film has also been released on Disney + ‘s PVOD service called Premier Access. On July 29, Johansson sued Disney saying that his hybrid release strategy for Black Widow, the first standalone superhero film and possibly the last with her, violated the terms of his contract. The lawsuit further claimed that the move allowed the studio to increase Disney + subscriptions while saving on the box office bonuses to which Johansson is rightfully owed.

“Disney intentionally tricked Marvel into breaking the deal, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from fully profiting from her deal with Marvel,” the lawsuit said.

Johansson also alleged that Disney’s decision to release the film in the current environment robbed him of $ 50 million in box office bonuses. As the simultaneous release diminished the film’s box office returns, its bonuses which depended on the film’s theatrical profits also suffered negatively.

What was Disney’s response?

Disney’s response came the same day, and it was incredibly aggressive. “There is no merit in this deposit. The lawsuit is particularly sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Disney has fully lived up to Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney + with Premier Access has dramatically improved its ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $ 20 million it has received to date ” , we read. The answer suggests that Scarlett could get more compensation on top of her salary, trial or not.

The war of words continues

Disney’s statement sparked a war of words. Johansson’s agent Bryan Lourd of Creative Arts Agency (CAA) criticized Disney’s response on July 30. He accused Disney in a statement of attacking the actor’s character and revealing his $ 20 million salary for the superhero film “in an effort to arm his success.” as an artist and businesswoman.

On August 21, Scarlett, through her lawyer, arrested Disney for his “misogynist attack” and for fighting by trying to “hide his misconduct in confidential arbitration”.

“Why is Disney so afraid to argue this case in public? Because he knows that Marvel’s promises to give Black Widow a typical theatrical release “like his other films” had everything to do with ensuring that Disney wouldn’t cannibalize box office revenue in order to boost Disney + subscriptions. Yet that is exactly what happened – and we look forward to presenting the overwhelming evidence to prove it, ”the statement added.

What did Scarlett Johansson’s MCU co-stars say about the trial?

Very little. So far only three MCU actors have commented, and one of them was a joke. Doctor Strange star Benedict Cumberbatch’s response was the very definition of diplomacy. He told The Hollywood Reporter: “It’s sad what’s going on between the lawyers. Just the verbiage and accusations of “Put it in the context of a global pandemic”. Everything is just a bit of a mess. He added, “It’s a new paradigm, and it’s very complex. No one saw it coming, and no one should use hindsight to say, “Well, it should have been done. “

Dave Bautista, who plays Drax the Destroyer in MCU, joked on Twitter, “They told them they should have made a #Drax movie but noooooo! (sic) ”.

Only Elizabeth Olsen, Wanda Maximoff in MCU, openly supported Johansson. “I think she’s so tough and literally when I read I was like ‘good for you Scarlett’,” she told Vanity Fair.

What does the future hold?

The lawsuit is not limited to Johansson or Disney. This is affecting the entire entertainment industry and is just the latest phase in the global debate between theater and streaming. Many have expressed fears that the theatrical model, not robust before the pandemic, is now dying a slow and persistent death from the pandemic.

Warners assured investors that it will not repeat the experience on the same day for its 2022 roster. Disney has yet to announce any plans that follow the hybrid release model.

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