ScarJo’s ‘Black Widow’ Lawsuit Against Disney Catches Pandemic Hollywood In Its Web

Disney/Marvel's 'Black Widow'
(Image credit: Disney)

So, Scarlett Johansson sez she wuz robbed when Disney debuted her Marvel movie on Disney Plus the same day that Black Widow unspooled in 4,160 theaters around the country.

“Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel,” reads the lawsuit just filed by ScarJo’s lawyers

The suit’s basic contention is that Johansson signed a deal way back when, based on her making a lot of money from a lengthy theatrical release, much the way Marvel stars have been doing for the past decade. That deal was created in a different era of moviemaking, signed well before the pandemic, and certainly before Disney came up with its Premier Access program to extract additional cash from home releases on Disney Plus, at a time when many theaters were closed.

Never mind that, though. The spider wants her full helping of the juice she expected to get from a standalone Marvel movie. 

That it’s come to this isn’t wholly surprising, but also speaks to the radical rewriting of business structures, talent contracts, success metrics and much else that’s been underway since the pandemic tossed out most of Hollywood’s formerly eternal verities.

Expect more suits, and more bruised feelings, as the industry tries to right-size compensation packages amid yet another pandemic surge, broad adoption of streaming services, and still more questions about the health of the movie theater business. 

That this latest Infinity War started with a Marvel movie is kind of perfect, from a screenwriting standpoint at least. 

Black Widow opened promisingly on July 9, grossing a solid $80.3 million domestically in its first weekend in theaters. And the home release did so well that Disney put out a news release crowing about “more than $60 million” from Premier Access purchases. At $30 a pop, that’s 2 million households. 

Then came week two, when Black Widow got all tangled up. Theatrical grosses plunged two-thirds, and The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) issued a release blaming Premier Access for the disappointing second week (the film has now grossed $318 million worldwide).

That’s a release (and a potential set of expert witnesses) that ScarJo’s lawyers surely read. NATO also ran ads during the Olympics proclaiming, “the big screen is back at your local theater.” That the Olympics and theater-going are both once again getting hammered by COVID-19 didn’t seem to diminish the vehemence of NATO’s ad. 

Should it ever get to trial, there will be plenty of what-if questions to hash over, to wit: 

> Did a simultaneous release really cannibalize theater going? Or given the resurgent pandemic, were lots of folks likely to stay home anyway, rather than spend two hours watching explosions in a dark room with a bunch of strangers of uncertain health status?

> Was the movie any good? Reviews were strong (81% Rotten Tomatoes critics, 92% audience members), but then the question becomes was the story line compelling enough to get people out of their houses and into theaters? After all, SPOILER ALERT, ScarJo’s character is on a farewell tour, handing the narrative reins over to Florence Pugh, as the MCU moves on without Black Widow or a bunch of other dead characters from the last story cycle. 

> Are people getting tired of Marvel movies in general? With the lockdown, those 100-million-plus Disney Plus subscribers had plenty of time to watch and rewatch the entire story cycle. Maybe folks are getting a little tired of this stuff? The possibility of a declining franchise is, of course, the stuff of nightmares for Bob Chapek and Kevin Feige. Good news: we don’t have to wait long for another Marvel movie to test the hypothesis. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings debuts Labor Day Weekend, in theaters only. Instant test case for the lawyers

> Was the film ever going to have a long run in theaters? All the studios have now set up much shorter theatrical windows, even for their theater-only movies, as they hurry to get their movies onto their much more lucrative streaming services. And they’re making more and more movies that will never go to theaters, like the 10 streaming-only features next year that WarnerMedia announced last week. Intriguingly, that includes potential awards contenders, which will get only a limited, Oscar-qualifying run in theaters. 

Should it come to actual trial, all these questions and more will be kicked around. It’s hardly the first time a creative talent has sued a studio. Such battles seem to break out whenever the business evolves into new money-making opportunities, but prefers to pay talent under older, less lucrative deal structures. 

I’ve long joked that America’s greatest fiction writers are Hollywood accountants, who can mystifyingly create an ever-receding profit horizon for any net-profit participants. It’s a gift, if rather evil, but also one long celebrated in Hollywood executive suites. 

What’s likely to unfold in coming months, however, won’t be a trial (especially given the condition of Los Angeles County’s overburdened court system, which can take years to move through). 

It will be part of a broader full-employment program for lawyers, however .Talent in plenty of projects are negotiate for a piece of the new pie amid the studios’ frustrating, increasingly problematic lack of transparency about the revenues they’re generating there. At some point, the guilds will need to force better visibility on project success, so top-line talent knows what they actually should be making.. 

For now, consider this lawsuit Johansson’s effort to get a quick shot of cash she anticipated back in 2018 or 2019 that she would get from a long, lucrative run in theaters. 

What will make this and other cases all go away is a hefty sprinkling of cash over the heads of disappointed profit participants, much as WarnerMedia had to do last winter after its startling announcement to put its whole 2021 slate on day-and-date HBO Max release. That decision bruised a lot of sensitive creative egos (and wallets), but also recognized the reality of what has indeed come since with the pandemic.

So consider Johansson’s lawsuit, and similar lawyer-filled conversations in recent months, the shakeout cruise on our way to our streaming future. 

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.