And just like that the blockbuster streaming era got a lot more complicated.
Black Widow star and longtime Marvel Cinematic Universe actress Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney on Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court. The claim alleges that her contract was breached when Disney released Black Widow on Disney+ in addition to its theatrical release.
According to Johansson’s representation, her contract guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release for Black Widow, which would be advantageous to the star given that she was set to receive a certain percentage of the film’s theatrical gross. The suit argues that by making the film available on Disney+, Disney was cutting her out of that opportunity.
“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,” the suit reads, in part.
Black Widow is the first Marvel film to receive a simultaneous streaming and theatrical release. The Natasha Romanoff-centered movie was first slated for a May 1, 2020 debut before being delayed to July 9, 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The film’s availability in two different mediums combined with lingering COVID-19 concerns in North America did seem to have an appreciable effect on its box office performance.
While Black Widow opened to a pandemic era record $80 million during its first weekend of release, it quickly sank in its second, dropping a staggering 70%. As of now, it appears to be in line to match the grosses of early Marvel films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor rather than the studio’s more recent hits like Spider-Man: Far From Home.
As far as streaming numbers go, most data is provided by the streamer or studios themselves and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. But per Disney, the film earned around $60 million in Disney+ “Premier Access” purchases. If Johansson’s contract didn’t factor in streaming income, then that is indeed a big chunk of money to miss out on. In fact, a source close to Johansson reportedly told the Wall Street Journal that Disney’s decision to launch the film on streaming cost Johansson more than $50 million. The complaint indicates that Johansson’s representatives reached out to Disney to amend the contract after learning of the dual release strategy, but received no response.
This lawsuit is the first bit of major litigation to arise from studio’s dipping their toes into the streaming waters but it almost certainly won’t be the last. The pandemic hastened a move to dual releases on streaming that was likely on its way anyway. Some studios, however, seem a bit better prepared than others. When WarnerMedia (at the time owned by AT&T, now on its way to combining with Discovery, Inc.) announced its intentions to release Warner Bros. entire 2021 slate of movies on streaming service HBO Max, they re-negotiated deals with its actors to cut them in on the new stream of income. Ultimately, WarnerMedia paid more than $200 million to talent as part of the new deals. While Disney didn’t endeavor to do the same is anyone’s guess.
Currently Disney does not have plans to release future Marvel Phase 4 films on Disney+ at the same time as theatrical. September 3’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is slated for 45-day exclusive theatrical access. By the time Eternals rolls around on November 5, however, the Marvel Studios may have to face the decision to launch on Disney+ again if infection rates continue to rise.
As for Scarlett Johansson’s relationship with the MCU – this is likely the bitter conclusion to it. The actress has been a major part of Marvel’s Avengers team since Iron Man 2 in 2010. Though Natasha Romanoff died in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the character was able to return just two films later as part of a prequel. The events of Disney+ series Loki also introduced the multiversal possibilities of Marvel character variants, so no actor is ever truly ruled out for a future film. Until now probably…depending on how the Mouse Empire feels about being sued.