With Scarlett Johansson’s time as an Avenger seemingly in the rearview, the “Black Widow” star has filed a breach of contract suit against Marvel-owner Disney. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court this week, alleges that the studio breached its agreement with the star when it released the film on Disney+ alongside its theatrical debut.
“As Ms. Johansson, Disney, Marvel, and most everyone else in Hollywood knows, a ‘theatrical release’ is a release that is exclusive to movie theatres,” the filing writes, matter of factly. “Disney was well aware of this promise, but nonetheless directed Marvel to violate its pledge and instead release the Picture on the Disney+ streaming service the very same day it was released in movie theatres.”
The pandemic has fundamentally transformed the way first-run movies are delivered and consumed — at least in the short term. In 2020, Disney and other studios opted to release films straight to streaming, rather than suffer perpetual delays and poor box office numbers as restrictions closed the non-essential business of movie theaters. More recently they’ve split the difference as movie theaters have reopened, offering same day streaming.
According to a copy of the suit obtained by TechCrunch, Johansson’s concerns about streaming services pre-date the pandemic. When Disney launched the streaming service Disney+, the suit claims, Johansson’s representatives sought assurances from Disney/Marvel that the Black Widow solo film would still get a theatrical release, in spite of the company’s bids to boost subscription numbers.
It cites an email with Marvel’s chief counsel from May of that year:
We totally understand that Scarlett’s willingness to do the film and her whole deal is based on the premise that the film would be widely theatrically released like our other pictures. 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.
“It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like “Black Widow” directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company’s stock price — and that it’s hiding behind COVID-19 as a pretext to do so,” the actress’s attorney John Berlinski said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of its films in furtherance of this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving as much in court. 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.”
The statement accuses Disney of “hiding behind COVID-19,” though certainly the studio wasn’t alone in rethinking its release strategy over the past year. The question remains whether the pandemic will serve as sufficient extenuating circumstances for its release decisions. The outcome of the trial, meanwhile, could well have a profound effect on how studios release blockbusters post-pandemic.
We’ve reached out to Disney for comment and will update accordingly.