In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, attorneys for Johansson allege that the star’s contract was breached when the studio opted not to debut the film exclusively in theaters, a move they claim depressed ticket sales for the Avengers spinoff. Much of Johansson’s compensation was tied to the box office performance of “Black Widow” — if it hit certain benchmarks, bonuses would kick in.
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“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,” the suit reads.
Disney announced in March that “Black Widow,” among several of its 2021 films, would premiere simultaneously on the studio’s subscription-based streaming service, for a premium $30 price, and on the big screen as the movie theater industry rebounded from COVID-19. On July 9, “Black Widow” set to pandemic-era box office record with its $80 million in North America and earned an additional $60 million on Disney Plus. With ticket sales currently at $319 million globally, it stands to be one of the lowest-grossing Marvel movies of all time. However, the suit notes that Disney’s stock rose after the company disclosed the rental figures.
“Disney chose to placate Wall Street investors and pad its bottom line, rather than allow its subsidiary Marvel to comply with the agreement,” the suit reads. “To know one’s surprise Disney breach of the agreement successfully pulled millions of fans away from the theatres and toward its Disney + streaming service.”
The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of the lawsuit, reports that sources close to Johansson estimate that the decision to release the film concurrently on Disney Plus resulted in $50 million in lost bonuses.
Johansson’s legal salvo comes as new distribution paradigms and the COVID-19 pandemic are reshaping the way that A-list actors are paid for their work. Many top actors include backend profit participation as part of their contracts. But the rise of streaming services, such as Netflix, has removed those forms of compensation and the decision by traditional movie studios, like Warner Bros. and Disney, to release films on their own in-house subscription services has further upended these old ways of doing business. When Warner Bros. opted to send its entire film slate to HBO Max, realizing that movie theaters were only operating at limited capacity for much of the year, the studio had to pay tens of millions of dollars to the stars of those films. That resulted in actors such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Keanu Reeves earning their full back-end on the movies that Warner Bros. released on its new service. If successful, Johansson’s suit could embolden more actors to seek additional compensation for films that migrated to streaming services and may lead to agents including stricter language in contracts regarding compensation if an exclusive theatrical release is compromised or bypassed.
Johansson legal team said that representatives for the actress were worried that “Black Widow” would debut on Disney Plus even before coronavirus brought life to a standstill. As part of the suit, they share emails from the star’s management group that asked the studio to guarantee that “Black Widow” would premiere exclusively in cinemas. In response, Marvel Chief Counsel Dave Galluzzi promised a traditional theatrical bow, while adding “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.”
Neither Disney nor John Berlinski, an attorney for Johansson, immediately responded to a request for comment.
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