Scarlett Johansson's agent calls Disney response to 'Black Widow' suit 'a direct attack on her character'
Disney has a bigger problem than Thanos to deal with now.
Scarlett Johansson, longtime Marvel actress and star of the new superhero hit "Black Widow," filed a lawsuit against the movie studio in Los Angeles Superior Court Thursday. In documents obtained by USA TODAY, the suit alleges that her contract was breached when "Black Widow" was released on the Disney+ streaming service at the same time as its theatrical debut.
In the lawsuit, Johansson said her agreement with Marvel Studios guaranteed an exclusive release in movie theaters and her salary was based in large part on box-office performance.
The suit alleges that “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." In addition, the actress' representatives wanted to renegotiate her contract after learning of the Disney+ release strategy for “Black Widow" but the suit said that Disney and Marvel were unresponsive to the request.
A war of words with Disney begins
In a statement to USA TODAY, a spokesperson for Disney said there is "no merit whatsoever" to the filing and called the suit "especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic."
The company insists it "fully complied with Ms. Johansson's contract" and also pointed out that the Premier Access release "has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20 million she has received to date."
On Friday, Bryan Lourd, co-chairman of the Creative Artists Agency and Johansson’s agent, issued a response, saying Disney "shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn’t." He also called it "a direct attack on her character" that's "beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades."
Lourd added that Johansson and Disney have been partners on nine Marvel movies, "which have earned Disney and its shareholders billions," and that the company used her "Black Widow" salary in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of.
"Scarlett is extremely proud of the work that she, and all of the actors, writers, directors, producers, and the Marvel creative team have been a part of for well over a decade."
Advocacy groups Women In Film (WIF), ReFrame and Time's Up agreed that Disney's "gendered character attack has no place in a business dispute."
"While we take no position on the business issues in the litigation between Scarlett Johansson and The Walt Disney Company, we stand firmly against Disney's recent statement which attempts to characterize Johansson as insensitive or selfish for defending her contractual business rights," the groups said in a joint statement to USA TODAY Friday.
WIF, ReFrame and Time's Up said the narrative Disney is perpetuating "contributes to an environment in which women and girls are perceived as less able than men to protect their own interests without facing ad hominem criticism."
Marvel email revealed in lawsuit
Johansson's suit includes a March 2019 email where Marvel Chief Counsel Dave Galluzzi said the release would go according to a traditional theatrical model: "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.”
“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," Johansson's attorney John Berlinski said in a statement to USA TODAY.
"But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of its films in furtherance of this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving as much in court. This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts.”
Because of the pandemic, Disney – as well as other studios – has had to rethink its strategy for releasing movies. This year, for major releases like "Raya and the Last Dragon," "Cruella" and most recently "Black Widow," the company offered Disney+ subscribers the films the same day as in theaters for an extra $29.99 Premier Access fee.
The Marvel movie set a pandemic box-office record earlier this month with an $80 million opening weekend in domestic theaters. Disney announced that the film also initially made $60 million additionally globally via Disney+ but has declined to release streaming numbers since.
Gal Gadot, 'Wonder Woman: 1984' comparisons
Negotiating talent contracts around changing release plans is tricky territory. When Warner Bros. announced "Wonder Woman: 1984" would simultaneously stream on HBO Max over Christmas – while also shuffling its entire 2021 slate to a theater-and-streaming model, to major uproar – star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins renegotiated an extra $10 million each to get on board, according to the New York Times.
“It's OK to demand or to ask what you're worth (and) we shouldn't be shy about it," Gadot told USA TODAY last December.
Johansson's lawsuit name-checks the evolving "Wonder Woman: 1984" deal structure.
"In the months leading up to this lawsuit, Ms. Johansson gave Disney and Marvel every opportunity to right their wrong and make good on Marvel’s promise," the lawsuit reads. "Unlike numerous other movie studios, however – including Warner Brothers who, on information and belief, settled with its talent on films such as Wonder Woman after it released those films 'day-and-date' to its streaming service HBO Max last year – Disney and Marvel largely ignored Ms. Johansson, essentially forcing her to file this action."
Since first appearing as Black Widow in 2010's "Iron Man 2," Johansson has appeared in nine Marvel projects including all four blockbuster "Avengers" movies and was an executive producer on the new film.
Johansson skipped the "Black Widow" premiere and red-carpet events but she did do press interviews for the movie. In a discussion with USA TODAY, Johansson praised Disney for letting the "Black Widow" filmmakers tackle issues on screen such as child trauma and reproductive rights for women.
“It’s very brave in a lot of ways that Marvel let us go there," she said. “They understand the importance of their massive reach and that you can actually try to provoke some sort of collective consciousness about these very serious subjects.”
Contributing: Andrea Mandell