Why is Scarlett Johansson suing Disney? ‘Black Widow’ star alleges 'breach of contract'

Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney, alleging Disney Plus caused 'substantial harm' with the release of 'Black Widow'

                            Why is Scarlett Johansson suing Disney? ‘Black Widow’ star alleges 'breach of contract'
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in 'Black Widow' (Marvel Studios)

Scarlett Johansson played Natasha Romanoff for 10 years, but never once got a solo film, unlike her 'Avengers' co-stars. All that changed in 2021, when Marvel finally released 'Black Widow', but it appears the drama is far from over. While the film has enjoyed immense success, there's one person who isn't too happy — Johansson herself. On July 29, the actress sued Disney in Los Angeles, alleging the company "wanted to devalue Ms Johansson’s agreement and thereby enrich itself".

Having taken so long to release aside, ScarJo's first solo Marvel outing has been repeatedly hit by setbacks since it was announced. First, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed back the release date by over a year. The delays also meant Marvel had to replace composer Alexandre Desplat with Lorne Balfe. When it did release, actor Stephen Dorff slammed the film as "a bad video game". 


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Dorff was, however, one of the few to criticize the film. Thanks to the pent-up demand, 'Black Widow' grossed $40M on opening day and hit $100M in six days at the US box office. That's a massively impressive amount. Overall, Marvel reportedly raked in $219M globally on 'Black Widow's opening weekend, thanks to the simultaneous Disney Plus Premier Access release. The idea does seem excellent, allowing Marvel to benefit both ways, but apparently, ScarJo didn't. In fact, the Disney Plus release is the key reason for her lawsuit. 

A still from 'Black Widow' (Marvel)

Why is Scarlett Johansson suing Disney?

The actress filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that the Disney Plus release is a "breach of contract". Reportedly, she was promised an exclusive theatrical release for the film. The simultaneous release "depressed sales" she claims, financially impacting her. According to The Wall Street Journal, Johansson could lose as much as $50M because of the simultaneous release plans. 

Like most major film stars, ScarJo was set to receive a certain percentage of the box office collections, with bonuses if the film crossed certain benchmarks. It's routine for big-ticket films to offer their stars such a deal. For example, RDJ earned around $55M from his 'back-end deal' for 'Avengers: Endgame', whereas his salary was just $20M. ScarJo was in for such a big paycheck, had things been normal, but then Disney altered their plans because of the pandemic. "As Ms Johansson, Disney, Marvel, and most everyone else in Hollywood knows, a ‘theatrical release’ is a release that is exclusive to movie theater. 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 suit says. 

Reportedly, Johansson was promised an "exclusive theatrical window" of 90-120 days, which is usually how long big blockbuster films are in theaters before hitting streaming services. Instead, Disney went straight to Disney Plus. "Disney knew that the cannibalization of (box office receipts) by Disney+ would save Marvel (and by extension, Disney) ‘very large' amounts of money that it would otherwise owe Ms Johansson," the lawsuit states. It alleged two reasons for the company to go for a hybrid release:
1) Disney wanted to boost subscriber numbers for its streaming service and inflate its stock value.
2) "Disney wanted to substantially devalue Ms Johansson’s agreement and thereby enrich itself."

Scarlett Johansson attends the world premiere of 'Avengers: Endgame' at the Los Angeles Convention Center on April 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Lawsuit significant for Hollywood

Thanks to the pandemic, several studios have opted to release their films on streaming services, but so far few stars have actively revolted against the plans. ScarJo is the first major individual to sue because of streaming, which "could embolden more actors to seek additional compensation for films that migrated to streaming services," Variety reported. So far, few actors actually have contracts that deal with streaming specifically, but the pandemic is changing that thinking.

HBO had to pay out millions to stars like Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Keanu Reeves when it decided to release all its films on HBO Max. Disney doesn't appear to have done so, even though it was aware a streaming release was a possibility. Reportedly, Johansson and her team attempted to negotiate with Marvel about altered release plans, but they claim Marvel "ignored" their efforts. In 2019, Marvel’s chief counsel, David Galluzzi wrote to Johansson’s representatives that, "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." 

A general view of Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War Screening at The Fox Theatre on April 26, 2018, in Atlanta, Georgia (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

However, it appears she wasn't consulted at all. Disney went ahead with the Disney Plus release, even though theaters were fully opened at the time. In response, Disney has slammed the lawsuit and said that there is "no merit whatsoever to this filing." A spokesperson said, "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 $20M she has received to date." 

Releasing a film on streaming hasn't always been a popular idea. Major directors such as Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan have panned the idea, but Covid-19 has accelerated the shift to streaming. It means studios, and actors have now had to rethink their contracts. As Johnson's own attornies have conceded, the suit could set a precedent for Hollywood, and change the way contracts are negotiated forever.