Emma Stone stared as Cruella de Vil in Disney’s Cruella. Photo / APThe Scarlett Johansson lawsuit against Disney might be stirring up more bad blood among Hollywood circles.
Hours after Johansson’s legal team filed a suit against the House of Mouse, alleging the company breached her contract by releasing Marvel movie Black Widow simultaneously on streaming and in cinemas, another marquee Disney is reportedly considering similar action.
Former The Hollywood Reporter editor Matt Belloni wrote in his newsletter What I’m Hearing that Emma Stone was “weighing her options” over the Cruella release, which was distributed through the same hybrid model.
Belloni also implied Emily Blunt may speak after the release of Jungle Cruise, which dropped on Disney+ and in cinemas yesterday.
Disney could be facing a huge fight if it has to scuffle with three A-list actors publicly rather than just Johansson, who was at the end of her run of Marvel movies.
Belloni also wrote that Marvel’s powerful boss Kevin Feige, who isn’t named, is “angry and embarrassed” at how Disney is treating Johansson, and that Feige was against releasing Black Widow on streaming.
As recently as two months prior to the announcement Black Widow would be released on Disney+, Feige reiterated that Marvel movies are made to be seen on the big screen while the company makes specific projects, such as TV shows WandaVision and Loki, for streaming.
Many high-profile actors have contracts in which their overall payday is dependent on the performance of movies at the box office, sometimes a combination of the percentage of the profits and also bonuses for hitting certain amounts.
Robert Downey Jr is said to have made off with US$75 million for his work on Avengers: Endgame, the majority of which was calculated from the “back-end” profits of the epic.
Johansson, who was also an executive producer on Black Widow, the first of any Marvel actors to pull double duty, negotiated a deal in which her compensation was tied into that traditional profit-sharing structure.
At the core of Johansson’s lawsuit is the question of whether she would’ve made more money if Black Widow had been released only in cinemas instead of on both platforms. Sources have told various US media outlets that Johansson’s team had estimated the shift in release cost the actor close to US$50m.
Disney hit back with a statement that it had fulfilled its contractual obligations, going on to accuse Johansson of being “callous” about the Covid pandemic.
Black Widow’s global box office to date is a touch under US$320m, which would make it one of the softest performers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In an unusual move, in the first weekend of release, Disney crowed that the film had generated US$60m in Disney+ Premier Access purchases (which is $34.99 in Australia). Disney’s stock price went up 4 per cent that day.
At the cinema, Black Widow suffered a massive drop in its second week, a result the US National Association of Theatre Owners blamed on the Disney+ release, which the organisation said cannibalised the box office.
The movie has also been widely distributed on piracy sites. Disney did not release streaming figures for the second week onwards.
Johansson’s lawsuit alleges that the company is prioritising growing its streaming subscriber base over traditional box office performance as an attempt to boost its stock price.
The lawsuit strikes at the heart of an ongoing battle in Hollywood between cinema releases and streaming releases, a trend that has accelerated due to the Covid pandemic. And talent compensation contracts are wrapped up in this battle.
While streaming only companies such as Netflix don’t pay out back-end profits, their deals are structured so that talent is rewarded handsomely upfront. But as traditional studios move aggressively into the streaming space, established practice has become contentious ground.
When Warner Bros moved Wonder Woman: 1984 and its entire slate of 2021 movie releases to a hybrid release model, it renegotiated deals with its talent partners to compensate for the shift.
Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot were reportedly paid out more than US$10m each on top of their upfront salaries.
Variety reported that Warner Bros’ calculations assumed that the hybrid release halved the box office and rewarded talent’s back-end deals based on that algorithm.