Scarlett Johansson’s Disney lawsuit is the latest round of a difficult war

After heading up to the clouds to take down a nefarious brainwashing facility in the Marvel blockbuster Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson’s next target has been revealed and this time she’s striking much closer to home.

The actor Anunciado el jueves, via a court filing in Los Angeles, that she would be suing Disney over the release strategy of her first, and last, standalone adventure. The film had been intended for a theatrical-only debut, falling in line with her previous eight outings alongside fellow Avengers, but when Covid-19 shuttered cinemas, it jumped around the schedule before landing a now rather familiar hybrid release: simultaneously available on the big screen as well as on Disney+ for a $30 rental.

While she kept quiet during the press tour, Johansson has now revealed her, wholly understandable, frustration with the decision. What raises this from a personal to a legal issue is that her lawyers are claiming this to be a breach of contract, that the star signed on to the film believing it would be for cinemas exclusively and that despite alleged attempts to renegotiate when things changed, there remains a discrepancy between what’s in the small print and how it was released on the small screen. Its underwhelming theatrical showing (the film suffered a 67% decline in its second weekend stateside, the worst for any MCU movie) has been attributed directly to its availability at home and Johansson’s original contract guaranteed her a share of its box office receipts which are now far less than expected.

The news, which is still sending last act showdown-level shockwaves around the industry, is both surprising y inevitable. A star of her scale taking on a studio of an even bigger scale, potentially burning whatever bridges remain, is an unusual gambit but it’s a fight that’s been steadily brewing since the pandemic sped up the streaming wars last year. Studios saw their profits majorly hit by the pandemic while at the same time, streamers saw an uptick, the very nature of how we consumed film changing in front of us, and as release dates were cancelled, a shift started to take place. While some theatrical titles were either released with a higher rental charge (Antebellum, Love and Monsters) or sold to streamers (Enola Holmes, The Lovebirds) soon studios saw a third option.

The stratification of streaming services, which has seen studios launch their own in-house Netflix competitors, has led to an even more aggressive level of competition as Warners (HBO Max), Paramount (Paramount+), Universal (Peacock) and Fox/Disney (Hulu and Disney+) have tried to lure and secure their own specific fanbases. The pandemic was an opportunity for them to double down, as audiences needed more at-home entertainment than ever before, and they decided to offload their wares internally with films such as The Witches, Nomadland, Infinite and The Boss Baby 2 launched straight-to-service with some token theatrical releases added on top for some.

But the first crack in the new world order came after Warners bullishly announced it would put its big-budget Christmas bet Wonder Woman 1984 on to HBO Max as well as cinemas before announcing that the entirety of their 2021 slate would be following suit. Legal action was threatened (Legendary, the company behind Godzilla vs Kong, ultimately agreed to a settlement), auteurs were peeved (both Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan blasted the studio) and exhibitors saw red. While the studio claimed it would be a one-off, a year like no other, and that 2022 would go back to normal, the floodgates had been opened and it’s unclear if they will ever be able to close them.

Disney had tested the water with Mulan last September at a time when domestic cinemas were still closed but making the decision in March to give Black Widow the same hybrid release in July felt rooted more in greed than practicality (as the suit alleges, this is always been about increasing a subscriber base). At the time of Black Widow’s debut earlier this month, it was available on more than 4,000 US screens (only 300 fewer than Captain Marvel in 2019) and it brought in $80m on its opening weekend, the biggest debut of the pandemic. The studio bragged about the $60m it also made at home but as its box office fell fast (pirating was seen as a major reason and the complaint mentions that TorrentFreak named it the most ripped film of July), exhibitor tensions reared their head again. The steep drop-off in box office was also a problem for Warners’ Space Jam: A New Legacy, another film available at home on HBO Max. The problem seemed obvious: why go out for a burger when you can have a burger at home?

Disney has fired back and called the suit “sick and callous” as it fails to take Covid-19 into account (the company memorably reopened Disney World last July during a record spike in Florida) but it still seems that Johansson’s anger is not only legally sound, at least from a read of the court documents filed by her lawyers, but also speaks to a number of weightier issues that are concerning the industry at large.

Even before the pandemic, viewing habits had been shifting, not entirely away from the multiplex as feared but still, for many low-to-mid-budget films, their primary audience was now at home. Smaller hits still broke through but it was Disney’s titanic Marvel series that provided near-constant proof that millions of us still craved big-screen spectacle. So if even their films are now unsafe, if audiences become accustomed to the luxe ease of watching them at home, then how will this affect the industry at large?

There’s an added sting to Black Widow’s move from big to small screen. Johansson’s character, the only female member of the core Avengers team, had only ever been given a supporting role to play and while this might have graduated from a one-note sex kitten in Iron Man 2 (Johansson herself recently criticised the “hypersexualisation” of her character) to something more substantial and less rooted in sexist fantasy, it still took her 11 years and eight movies to get her own standalone entry, a delay that was frustrating given how many of her male peers were spearheading their own films y sequels. Marvel’s glacially paced crawl toward diversity has finally spawned a number of films led by women or people of colour but for their first female-led Avenger film to be given this lower form of release feels like a notable shame. The pandemic has affected many big movies but this impact has been most felt by films led by women or minorities.

Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan, Happiest Season, Cruella, Raya and the Last Dragon, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Antebellum, Enola Holmes, The Lovebirds, Spell, Run, The Craft: Legacy – all films that saw a downgraded release that denied major box office success, which for many of them could have taught the industry a vital lesson about how female characters, queer characters and characters of colour can open films. Disney will release its next film – the Ryan Reynolds-led comedy Free Guy – exclusively in cinemas next month.

The jolt of Johansson’s bold step, after fellow actors and directors had expressed similar concerns about the future of cinema, may be a wake-up call for some and one that might lead to other stars attempting similar legal action. At the very least it will surely lead to a change in contractual promises (the complaint notes that talent from Wonder Woman 1984 were all informed of its new release and problems were “settled”) and how box office percentages are factored into final earnings. Her financial loss, one that’s impossible to truly calculate at this stage, is an unfair send-off from a studio that spent years denying her a rightful place in an overwhelmingly male-led franchise and one that she seems within her rights to be challenging. It’s also one that she may well be able to scramble back (the complaint asks for monetary damages to be proven at trial) but the cost to the industry of the hybrid-release model is one that might be harder to figure out. The traditional 12-week release window has been irrevocably shattered (deals put into place in the last year are as plentiful as they are confusing) and it’s unclear if studios and exhibitors will be able to find a way to work together.

Allí tengo been box-office hits in the last 12 meses, with major caveats, which shows a willingness for some audiences to venture out but how will studios begin to truly measure a film’s success? By how many people pay for tickets or how many people sign up to a streaming service? The transformation of studios to all-encompassing brands is nothing new but the breadth of it feels more pronounced than ever before, sped up by an unprecedented period that’s changed the industry in ways that might be beyond repair. We might be deep into the war but the endgame remains a mystery.

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