Scarlet & Mouse Game: Inside the Scarlett Johansson-Disney tussle

OTT Top News

The recent news of Scarlett Johansson’s breach of contract lawsuit against Disney, the TVoD segment of the OTT sector and Hollywood at large are both on high alert about the outcome of this situation. While the lawsuit is fairly straightforward, the situation at large is quite nuanced and could have interesting, long-term repercussions on the future of cinematic releases. So, let’s take a look at the facts, the variety of responses from all parties involved, and the implications of this case.

The facts

Last week, representatives of actress Scarlett Johansson filed the breach of contract suit against Disney citing the company’s dual launch of Black Widow as having violated the terms of Johansson’s contract with Marvel Studios.

Disney had previously adopted a dual launch model to make use of its Disney+ streaming service as an alternative platform for the pandemic-affected theatre industry. The approach was intended to offset box office losses while making Disney+ more valuable to consumers.

Understandably, through five movies launched on Premiere Access, Disney has received two streams of revenue – one from Disney+ and the other from box office earnings. Black Widow has turned out to be the most successful pandemic-time release, earning Disney $158 million from the opening weekend box office; and an additional $60 million through Premiere Access.

In the suit, Johansson stated that her contract with Marvel Studios guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release for Black Widow; with her salary depending on the movie’s box office earnings. Johansson claims Disney’s Premiere Access launch violated these terms, and deprived her of potential additional earnings for her work.

The response

Understandably, Disney did not take too kindly to the suit, claiming that Black Widow’s dual launch “significantly enhanced [Johansson’s] ability to earn additional compensation on top of $20m she has received to date”. They also stated that Johansson’s move was “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Through these statements, Disney has clearly expressed its displeasure at the situation; but the nature of their response incited an even stronger response from Johansson’s agent, who accused Disney of “shamelessly” trying to discredit his client. He stated, “[Johansson] has been Disney’s partner on nine movies, which have earned Disney and its shareholders billions. The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponise her success…”.

IGN also reported that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has sided with Johansson’s camp behind the scenes, having expressed feelings of “anger and embarrassment” towards Disney. There are unconfirmed reports that Feige corroborated Johansson’s claim about the contractual clause stipulating Black Widow’s exclusive theatrical release plan.

The implications

While this case is still a way off from being resolved, people exposed to the situation believe that this matter will be settled out of court. Regardless, Johansson’s action has set an interesting precedent for both artists and studios. In an evolving world of entertainment, Disney’s adoption of the dual-launch approach has been viewed as an innovative move, and it is unlikely that this lawsuit will change the model. However, in future, Disney will clearly have to be more prudent at agreeing upon terms with complete transparency about its distribution and revenue plans.

Disney is not the first company to have been lambasted by partnered artists due to its business models. As early as a year ago (in 2020), Warner Bros came under criticism from several of the industry’s leading personalities due to its decision to shift its theatrical releases to HBO Max. While the move was initially unpopular, WB renegotiated contracts with all of their partners to accommodate the new business plan, thereby preventing the situation that Disney has fallen into. The precedent exists, and Disney will most likely replicate it for future projects.

What’s more convoluted is the nature of Disney’s response to Johansson. The company has been condemned by several advocacy organisations (including Women in Film and Reframe) for responding with “a gendered attack” against Johansson by attempting to “characterise Johansson as insensitive or selfish for defending her contractual rights”. This, along with the fact that the company inappropriately revealed Johansson’s earnings, further contributing to the wave of pressure falling on Disney presently.

In conclusion, the business angle of this case is fairly straightforward. Regardless of whether it requires a judicial settlement or not, it has created a precedent that will influence future contractual agreements. The remainder of the situation, including the cultural angle of Disney’s response, is far more complicated. Either way, only time will tell how this lawsuit will progress and eventually be resolved.