'Black Widow' star Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over streaming strategy

The simultaneous theatrical and Disney+ release will reportedly cost Johansson over $50 million.

Mario Anzuoni / reuters

Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney over the company's decision to release the movie in theaters and on Disney+ simultaneously. Johansson claims that the move constituted a breach of contract, as The Wall Street Journal reports.

In the suit, Johansson says Black Widow was supposed to be released exclusively in theaters, per her deal with Marvel. As is often the case for movie stars, a large portion of Johansson's salary was tied to its box office success.

To watch Black Widow on Disney+, viewers need to fork over $30 for a Premier Access pass. Disney initially estimated that the film generated $60 million in revenue on Disney+ from its opening weekend earlier this month, along with $80 million in domestic and $78 million international theatrical revenue.

The move may have impacted Black Widow's performance in theaters (though it's worth bearing in mind that many cinemas around the globe are still closed amid the pandemic). The total worldwide box office tally is currently $319 million. As Variety points out, that puts it on track to become one of the lowest-grossing Marvel movies to date. Only one of the six other Marvel movies released since early 2018 has made less than $1 billion in theaters.

Johansson's representatives tried to re-negotiate her deal after news emerged about the new Black Widow release strategy, the suit says, but Disney and Marvel were allegedly unresponsive. Releasing Black Widow on Disney+ simultaneously could cost Johansson over $50 million, according to a WSJ source.

In 2019, before COVID-19 changed everything and with Disney+ on the horizon, Johansson and her team contacted Marvel for confirmation that Black Widow would still be a theatrical-only release. According to an email from March 2019 that's cited in the filing, Marvel's chief counsel Dave Galluzzi confirmed that. “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,” the email states.

Movie theaters around the world were forced to close their doors following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Distributors scrambled to revamp their release strategies. Warner Bros. has adopted a hybrid format this year, with its movies coming to both theaters and HBO Max on the same day (aka day-and-date releases). It will return to theater-first releases next year.

However, that approach was criticized by prominent directors, including Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. owner WarnerMedia reworked some deals and reportedly paid creative talent who were due a cut of box office revenue north of $200 million. NBCUniversal also released The Boss Baby: Family Business in theaters and on Peacock on the same day.

Disney adopted different tactics. Several of the movies it has released day-and-date (including Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella) were initially locked behind that $30 pass on Disney+. Artemis Fowl, and Pixar movies Soul and Luca skipped theaters entirely in many countries and went straight to Disney+ as part of the regular library.

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