On Thursday, Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against The Walt Disney Co. accusing the company of breaching her contract by releasing Black Widow on Disney+. The release of the Marvel film, which starred Johansson as the titular character, was delayed over a year due to the pandemic. When Black Widow was finally released in theaters and on the Disney+ streaming platform in early July 2021, Disney announced that the film had earned $60 million through streams alone.
Johansson’s lawsuit states that when she signed her deal with Marvel, Black Widow had been guaranteed a wide theatrical release, and alleges that Disney interfered with that deal by releasing the film on Disney+ both in order to draw new subscribers to its streaming service and to avoid paying Johansson the “very large box office bonuses” she would have been owed if it was released solely in theaters.
“Why would Disney forgo hundreds of millions of dollars in box office receipts by releasing the Picture in theatres at a time when it knew the theatrical market was ‘weak,’ rather than waiting a few months for that market to recover?” the complaint asks. “On information and belief, the decision to do so was made at least in part because Disney saw the opportunity to promote its flagship subscription service using the Picture and Ms. Johansson, thereby attracting new paying monthly subscribers, retaining existing ones, and establishing Disney+ as a must-have service in an increasingly competitive marketplace.”
The lawsuit also states that Disney made no attempt to redo Johansson’s deal after deciding to also release Black Widow on its streaming service. “Disney and Marvel largely ignored Ms. Johansson, essentially forcing her to file this action,” states the complaint.
In the lawsuit, Johansson goes on record to claim that Black Widow has underperformed in the global box office because of its simultaneous release on Disney+. Although its $80 million domestic box office debut was the biggest of the pandemic era so far, it was low for an MCU property—especially considering how highly anticipated Black Widow was among Marvel fans—and in its second weekend, it dropped off by 68%.
“Just as these news outlets predicted and Ms. Johansson feared, the Picture’s box office receipts for its opening weekend were significantly below the opening-weekend performance of Marvel’s previous films and have ‘suffered [a] steeper-than-normal decline’ since then.’ In short, Disney’s strategy to lure viewers away from the theatres and toward Disney+ worked,” the lawsuit states.
A Disney spokesperson issued this statement in response to Johansson’s lawsuit:
“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 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 $20M she has received to date.”
Now Scarlett Johansson is an easy celebrity to dislike—not only did she defend her choice to accept a role as a trans man, but she also continues to vocally support Woody Allen—but she’s not wrong in this situation. Despite Disney’s attempt to use a cheeky statement (and, likely, the internet’s valid preexisting dislike of Johansson) to distract from the actual content of her lawsuit, her claims have merit, especially in a time when more shows and movies are being released through streaming services than ever before.
Sure, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really need to be making bonuses on top of the $20 million she’s already making for Black Widow, but this lawsuit reflects a situation that is likely affecting plenty of other people in entertainment working for the mouse. If Disney is willing to allegedly violate the contract of one of their biggest stars in order to increase their profits, imagine how they’re likely treating lesser-known actors, crew members, and other workers who are getting similarly screwed over by the company’s choice to release projects on their streaming service instead of in theaters! Those workers are making much MUCH less than $20 million for their work, and they likely don’t have the financial means or broad name recognition to file a lawsuit against The Walt Disney Co. without immediately tanking their careers.
It’s particularly bold of Disney to invoke the global pandemic as justification for their choice to release Black Widow online—after all, it’s not like they’ve shown much concern for the health and safety, let alone the financial well-being, of their workers over the past year.