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Contracts rarely make headline news. But when it was revealed that Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney for an alleged breach of contract over the streaming release of Black Widow, movie fans did an understandable double-take. It was an unexpected development, and one that will undoubtedly shape the future of film releases for years to come.
To recap: Disney released Black Widow, a Marvel blockbuster centering around Johansson’s character in the Avengers franchise, on July 9 in the US. That American release took place simultaneously in movie theaters and on the streaming platform Disney+.
Streaming releases became more common during the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down cinemas for months. Now that they have started to reopen, studios will have to decide how much they want to prioritize theatrical releases and how badly they want to hold on to streaming releases. Not everyone is going to agree on which way is best. Cue Johansson’s lawsuit.
The suit, filed on Thursday in Los Angeles, alleges that Johansson’s earnings for Black Widow were “based largely” on the movie’s box office performance. “To maximize these receipts, and thereby protect her financial interests, Ms Johansson extracted a promise from Marvel that the release of the Picture would be a ‘theatrical release,’” the lawsuit reads in part. “As Ms Johansson, Disney, Marvel, and most everyone else in Hollywood knows, a ‘theatrical release’ is a release that is exclusive to movie theaters.”
It continues: “Disney was well aware of this promise, but nonetheless directed Marvel to violate its pledge and instead release the Picture on the Disney+ streaming service the very same day it was released in movie theaters.” In other words, Johansson is alleging that Disney violated her contract and went against her financial interests in releasing the film on its streaming platform and in cinemas on the same day, since her earnings were tied specifically to the success of Black Widow’s theatrical release.
Disney’s response to the suit came late Thursday and was strident: “There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. 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.” Johansson’s lawyer, John Berlinski, gave an equally forceful statement in response, saying: “It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like Black Widow directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company’s stock price – and that it’s hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so.”
It’s clear the Cinemas v Streaming face-off has begun, and it’s going to rage for a long time. Much like Zoom meetings and ring lights, streaming releases became staples during the pandemic, when few alternative options existed. Disney chose to unveil one of its biggest releases of 2020, the Mulan live-action remake, on Disney+ for a premium fee. It came out in late March last year, not long after most of the US went into lockdown, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who found sitting down to watch a new film with my family a welcome, simple comfort during a difficult time.
But what began as a contingency measure has turned into a long-term investment for some studios. Warner Bros, for example (which is separate from Disney and isn’t involved in the Black Widow dispute) has brokered an agreement with HBO Max to release all of its 2021 films online on the same day they come out in cinemas across the US. This includes such highly anticipated releases as Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, The Matrix 4, and the Sopranos sequel The Many Saints of Newark.
I’m not privy to Johansson’s contract, and so I have no opinion on her specific situation. It’s the broader conversation on whether streaming releases are the future or the source of all evil that I find captivating. I love movie theaters dearly and I don’t plan on staying away from them forever. I love the big screen. I love sitting in the dark. I love snacks. But realistically, I don’t think streaming releases are going anywhere. Like face masks and ubiquitous hand sanitizer, this is most likely part of a new normal.
The way the conversation has played out so far is reminiscent of the chatter a few years ago about whether streaming companies like Netflix should be allowed to compete for the Oscars. The debate raged on, and guess what: Netflix is now a staple on the Academy Awards nominations list. Alfonso Cuarón even won Best Director for his film Roma, which was released in 2018 on the streaming platform.
This isn’t necessarily an either/or situation. I doubt streaming releases will hail the end of movie theaters any more than e-readers hailed the end of physical books (they didn’t). Recent history shows that when given a choice between two formats, consumers will pick the one that best suits their particular requirements, but rarely will they stick exclusively to one option. I read as much as I can in a given week. I have an e-reader. I also have bookshelves buckling under the weight of the many hardcovers and paperbacks I apparently can’t resist purchasing whenever I find myself within a two-mile radius of a bookstore.
And this isn’t just about studios and audiences. As Johansson’s lawsuit makes clear, this is new territory for actors too. They’re having to deal with this brave new world and the myriad of consequences it may have on their careers. Clearly, there are going to be bumps along the way.
Now that going to the movies is an option again, Hollywood has choices to make. Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney will serve as a crucial barometer for the industry. This is a movie — and a cultural debate — I know I’ll be watching.