On Thursday, Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney claiming that the company purposefully breached her contract by releasing the movie on Disney Plus alongside theaters, rather than the theatrical-exclusive release she had originally agreed to.
Johansson, like many Marvel stars, had sections of her contract built specifically to give her extra money and bonuses depending on the movie’s performance at the box office, which she and her lawyers said was undercut by Disney’s choice to release Black Widow in theaters and on Disney Plus Premier Access simultaneously.
The complaint also includes alleged communications between Disney and Johansson’s representatives, in which Disney states that it would consult with the star if any release plans changed from the originally planned theatrical-exclusive run, something her lawyers say didn’t happen.
These kinds of legal issues have been an ongoing problem for every studio that has adjusted its theatrical windowing practices because of the pandemic. A Quiet Place Part 2’s John Krasinski and Emily Blunt faced disagreements with Paramount over that movie’s shorter theatrical window, thanks to backend agreements. However, Paramount’s movie didn’t have day-and-date release, which likely made things slightly less complicated.
Warner Bros. was the first studio to announce day-and-date releases to all HBO Max subscribers for free for 30 days. This quickly rubbed directors the wrong way and forced Warner into an agreement to make up for backend losses for all of its 2020 releases. Even partner studios like Legendary Entertainment took issue with the new plan and how it was announced. However, directors like Christopher Nolan took issue with more than the money, complaining that Warner’s choice would undercut the theatrical experience. Warner will not continue this strategy into 2022.
Theater owners, it turns out, largely agree with Nolan. When Black Widow faced significant declines in its second weekend at the box office, exhibitors were quick to blame Disney’s simultaneous digital release for the fall off.
For its part in the day-and-date debate, Disney doesn’t seem particularly committed to the idea. While it’s done Premier Access for titles like Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, and a few Pixar movies, the studio won’t continue the practice all year — at least at this point. However, it’s possible that this plan could change as certain areas of the United States, and the rest of the world, experience a new increase in COVID-19 cases.
While Johansson isn’t the only actor or director to bring forward complaints, she has taken it the farthest by actually pursuing legal action. She’s also bringing it to the largest studio in Disney — which the complaint blames specifically, claiming that Marvel fought for exclusive theatrical distribution. Whether this complaint is resolved in court or out, it seems that changes for deals like this could soon be on the horizon, particularly if the day-and-date release strategy continues.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the lawsuit.