What we (and Disney) can learn from the Scarlett Johansson case

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A few weeks ago, MCU star Scarlett Johansson made waves with the news of her breach of contract lawsuit against Disney after the dual release of her standalone film Black Widow in cinemas as well as on Disney+ Premier Access. While this case was both unprecedented and significant in the context of Hollywood’s post-pandemic launch surge, the outcome was unsurprising, and actually gives us a new understanding of the impact OTT streaming has had on the talent that stars in movies, as well as their remuneration.

With the launch of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Disney’s first Marvel project after Black Widow and the controversial lawsuit, the corporation announced that no further premieres would receive the dual launch treatment of the previous months. The latest announcement from Disney indicated that they intended to have Shang-Chi complete a 90-day theatre run before becoming available on Disney+ for open access to subscribers. While Disney made no statements about the lawsuit, it is as clear as day that the decision was driven by Johansson’s move, and the company’s desire to prevent any further controversy on this topic.

Stepping aside for a moment, Shang-Chi has been a pleasant surprise for MCU fans, and its box-office performance is astounding considering it generated barely a fraction of the pre-premiere hype MCU films of yesteryears did. Three weeks into its theatre run, the movie has grossed almost $325 million worldwide, despite most theatres running on a limited capacity. Disney has already garnered a significant profit from this film before their movie has even touched the OTT space.

The difference in finances between Black Widow and Shang-Chi tells us an interesting story. In the case of Black Widow, Disney’s dual release model generated a lot of revenue, especially when movie theatres were still hamstrung; but the film’s cast didn’t accrue any of the benefits that came along with the launch itself. With Shang-Chi, the box-office success of the film has given the likes of Simu Liu and co. certain contractually stipulated financial incentives – the precise ones that Johansson claims were lost due to Disney’s breach of her contract. With both movies, Disney received healthy returns on their projects, but one gave its cast a lot more remuneration than the other – and this is a situation that is not exclusive to Marvel Studios.

During 2019 and 2020, Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins were also on the precipice of a potential controversy, with Warner Bros reportedly interested in releasing WW84 exclusively on their streaming service HBO Max. Another big name, Mark Wahlberg, had already been a victim to this move with Infinite; and WB pre-emptively renegotiated Gadot’s and Jenkins’ contracts to replace the incentive clauses that were dependent on theatre releases; thereby netting them larger paydays than what was initially expected.

The gist of the story is straightforward enough. The availability and popularity of OTT services such as Disney+ and HBO Max as platforms for movie premieres makes them potential cash cows for their proprietors, even possibly at the expense of the talent itself. The Johansson vs Disney case has proved to be an effective turning point in altering this trend; and it appears as though Disney’s actors are set to accrue the benefits of OTT premieres from now on as well.

To audiences and viewers, these facts may seem inconsequential; but in a world where the lead actor/actress of a film is more important to the masses than the studio heads, empowering artists financially is a vital step. After all, it achieves a simple goal of creating a healthier industry, upon which the growth and the benefits of the OTT space can be successfully harnessed to give viewers the content they want, and actors the compensation they deserve.