Black Widow

By: Nick Gambino

It looks like Black Widow has suited up for yet another battle, but this one is against a hundred-year-old mouse with a high-pitched voice and a goofy smile. The movie industry is ablaze with news of Scarlett Johansson filing a lawsuit against Disney for releasing Black Widow on Disney+ simultaneous with a theater rollout.

The layman unfamiliar with how A-list actors are paid, especially on big projects like a Marvel movie, might not see what the big deal is. You see, a lot of these actors get paid based on how well the movie performs in theaters. Later down the line, they’ll make a pretty penny on rentals and purchases.

In a world where streamers are clobbering theaters, there has been very little change to how actors make their money. Black Widow is the first major movie to be released that gives us a direct comparison on how much has shifted since the world was hit by Covid.

Johansson’s lawsuit accuses Disney of breach of contract when they didn’t ensure an exclusive theatrical release, something that was, in so many words, stipulated in her contract. Disney fired back with a statement earlier today.

“The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the house that Mickey built said in a statement. “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.”

Now $20m is a great payday for anyone no matter what you’re doing, but it’s not fair to simply chalk Johansson’s lawsuit up to greed. $20m is certainly a lot but consider how much money these movies make for the studio. We’re talking billions in not only direct viewing sales but merchandise and other tie-ins.

Black Widow is not an Avengers movie where the actress is part of an ensemble. She carries this film on her back as the titular character. She puts butts in seats and eyes on screens. I know, I was one of them, sitting in that darkened theater, enjoying every frame of that film. Johansson is arguably one of the finest actors working today. She’s not phoning it in for a large paycheck. She does the work and her contract should be honored.

“They have very deliberately moved the revenue stream and profits to the Disney+ side of the company, leaving artistic and financial partners out of their new equation,” Johansson’s agent Bryan Lourd said in a rebuttal statement.

This lawsuit is going to force the issue of how do you pay everyone in the film industry in a world where theaters essentially cease to exist. Streamers, both in music and film, notoriously pay little to the artists they’ve built their platform on.

Unfortunately, artists have little choice when they’re held hostage by the advances in tech that have made streaming and therefore piracy as easy as pressing the play button on any device with an internet connection. We are all still feeling the burn left by Napster taking a flamethrower to everything we ever knew. Scorched earth as they say.

The Black Widow lawsuit sets a precedent for other actors who are experiencing the same bait and switch to follow suit (pun) and demand their contracts are upheld and they get the money promised them.