Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over 'Black Widow' streaming release

Key Points
  • Scarlett Johansson is suing the Walt Disney Company for releasing "Black Widow" on streaming and in theaters at the same time.
  • The Marvel star claims her agreement with the company guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release for her solo film, and her salary was based, in large part, on the box office performance.

In this article

Scarlett Johansson stars as Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, in Marvel's "Black Widow."
Disney | Marvel

Scarlett Johansson is suing Walt Disney.

The Marvel star filed a lawsuit Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging her contract was breached when the company released "Black Widow" on its streaming service Disney+ at the same time it debuted in theaters.

Johansson claims her agreement with Disney's Marvel Entertainment guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release for her solo film, and her salary was based, in large part, on the box-office performance.

The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the news.

Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over lost money from streaming
Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over lost money from streaming

"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," John Berlinski, an attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres who represents Johansson, told CNBC.

"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," he said via email. "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."

According to the filing, Johansson's representatives had sought assurances as far back as 2019, when Disney+ was preparing to launch and Disney executives suggested that Marvel Cinematic Universe content would be available exclusively on the service.

The lawsuit includes a response from Marvel's chief counsel, which confirmed "Black Widow" would be released like other MCU films.

"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," the response reads.

Once Johansson heard that "Black Widow" would be released on streaming and in theaters on the same day, she attempted to negotiate with Marvel. Disney and Marvel did not respond, the lawsuit claims.

"There is no merit whatsoever to this filing," Disney said in a statement Thursday. "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 $20 [million] she has received to date."

Similar contract issues have cropped up in the last year, as studios have shifted their release strategies during the pandemic.

Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins were reportedly each paid $10 million after Warner Bros. decided to release "Wonder Woman 1984" in theaters and on HBO Max in December. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake were also rumored to have been seeking bonuses after Universal's "Trolls World Tour" was released on video on demand in early 2020 instead of theatrically.

Disney long held off on releasing major titles like "Black Widow" after the pandemic decimated the movie theater industry. Theaters around the world were closed temporarily to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But as coronavirus restrictions eased, vaccination rates rose and the industry began to bounce back, Disney opted to debut new blockbusters in theaters and through Disney+ for $30 simultaneously.

Disney said this hybrid release model was a temporary pandemic fix and after Friday's "Jungle Cruise," it plans to release the rest of its 2021 slate exclusively in theaters in late summer and early fall.

Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over 'Black Widow' streaming release: Report
Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over 'Black Widow' streaming release: Report

Johansson, who has become a staple in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, negotiated her contract to include a percentage of "Black Widow's" theatrical gross. Before the pandemic, the film was expected to secure a hefty sum at the box office.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on ticket sales, as cases continue to surge, and the additional availability of the film in the home video market meant it only hauled in $80 million during its opening weekend. While that figure pales in comparison to other Marvel features, it remains the highest opening figure of any film released after March 2020.

Domestically, the film has garnered a little over $150 million during its first three weeks in theaters. Disney reported "Black Widow" tallied $60 million from sales on Disney+ during its opening weekend, but has not shared additional information about its digital performance.

Previous Marvel films have averaged more than $100 million in ticket sales during their opening weekends and nearly $1 billion over the course of their theatrical runs.

"Black Widow" may have fallen on the lower end of this spectrum because the film takes place in the middle of the MCU timeline, but in a nonpandemic time, it certainly would have performed on par with its peers.

Notably, only eight of Marvel's 24 theatrical releases have grossed less than $700 million at the global box office. And only three have secured less than $400 million.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of "Trolls World Tour."