LOS ANGELES — Add one more person unhappy with Walt Disney Co.'s release plan for “Black Widow” — its star.
Scarlett Johansson has sued Disney over its controversial release strategy for the Marvel Studios film accusing the company of breaching its contract with her by debuting the superhero movie on Disney+ and in theaters at the same time, a move that her representatives say hurt her compensation.
Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, could be a watershed moment for talent who feel they have been cheated out of compensation by studios that decide to release their films simultaneously on streaming services and in theaters, a practice that upended the way Hollywood’s biggest names are paid.
Stars and directors have pushed back on media companies that placed their films on streaming services during the pandemic, instead of giving them a months-long exclusive release in theaters, which is typical for big Hollywood movies.
Directors and actors were furious, for example, at Warner Bros. and WarnerMedia for funneling their 2021 movies to HBO Max at no extra cost for consumers but such disputes have largely been resolved out of court. WarnerMedia paid millions of dollars up front to compensate for filmmakers’ loss of traditional profit participation, known as “back end.”
Johansson’s compensation for the Marvel movies is based largely on the box office performance of the films, according to the actress’ complaint. Before the pandemic, blockbusters like Marvel movies usually are released in theaters exclusively for about 90 days before they’re available for home viewing, a strategy meant to maximize box office receipts.
But with the pandemic still ongoing, Disney decided to release “Black Widow” both in theaters and on Disney+ for $30 for subscribers. Disney is using movies and TV shows from its biggest brands to boost subscribers for Disney+. The success of the streaming service helped keep Disney’s stock price at high levels, even as the company suffered financially from closures and capacity limits at multiplexes and theme parks.
The film opened respectably with $80 million in domestic box office grosses during its first weekend in theaters, but fell off quickly later weeks. Movie theater owners blamed the same day release for spurring piracy and cannibalizing box office sales. Disney said the movie generated $60 million in grosses from Disney+.
“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,” said John Berlinski, an attorney for Scarlett Johansson, in a statement. “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.”
Berlinski continued, “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.”
It remains to be seen whether other filmmakers and actors will file similar suits or keep their pay disputes private.
Bloomberg News in May reported that “A Quiet Place II” director John Krasinki and star Emily Blunt wanted more money from Paramount Pictures after parent company ViacomCBS decided to put the film on Paramount+ 45 days after its theatrical release. However, they have not filed a lawsuit. The film was a box office hit despite the shorter window.
Disney’s next big-budget movies “Jungle Cruise,” starring Dwayne Johnson and Blunt, is being released in theaters and on Disney+ for $30 this weekend.
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