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Scarlett Johansson lawsuit shows stars are caught in industry transition

Scarlett Johansson’s decision to sue Walt Disney Co alleging a breach of contract highlights how some Hollywood stars are caught in the middle of a transition where studios are increasingly opting for dual theatrical and streaming releases, according to a film industry observer.

Johansson, star of the Marvel superhero movie “Black Widow,” surprised Hollywood on Thursday (July 29) by taking legal action against Disney, alleging the company breached her contract when it offered the movie on streaming at the same time it played in theaters.

Disney said there was “no merit” to the lawsuit, saying it had complied with her contract. It added in a statement that the release of the movie on its streaming platform had “significantly enhanced her (Johansson’s) ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20 million she has received to date.”

“Given the nature of contracts with very, very big stars where …. big stars get a small percentage of the global box office of the films that they’re in, that creates a very difficult issue for a lot of the big studios,” Scott Roxborough, Hollywood Reporter’s Europe bureau chief, told Reuters in an interview on Friday (July 30).

“We’re in a transition period where they are maybe changing the way they release movies to changing sort of the way the financing and the profits work on films. And a lot of these big stars are being in some ways in the middle of this.”

Johansson’s complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, argued that the dual release strategy of “Black Widow” had reduced her compensation, which was based partly on box office receipts from what was supposed to be an exclusive run in cinemas.

“Black Widow” debuted on July 9 in theaters and for a $30 charge on the Disney+ streaming service. Disney has been testing the hybrid pattern for some films during the coronavirus pandemic as the company tried to boost its streaming service while many movie theaters around the world were closed.

“I think we’re in this sort of transition moment and what happens with the suit will go a long way to determining sort of who benefits out of this new sort of world we’re in and what sort of these type of financial structures will look like for films in the future,” Roxborough said.

“Potentially, there could be significant financial loss for Disney.”

Johansson’s lawsuit claims that Disney wanted to steer audiences toward Disney+, “where it could keep the revenues for itself while simultaneously growing the Disney+ subscriber base, a proven way to boost Disney’s stock price.”

The suit seeks unspecified damages to be determined at trial.

The Disney statement said the lawsuit was “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Black Widow,” the story of the Russian assassin turned Avenger, pulled in $80 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices over its debut weekend. The movie also generated $60 million through Disney+ purchases, Disney said.

Johansson has played the character in nine Marvel films.

“Going forward for new movies, I think we’re going to see a new sort of contract structures where the bigger stars will probably end up getting … (a) sort of a broader sort of profit based on the … profit (made) through direct sales, through online or through streaming,” Roxborough said.

“However they measure that.”

Disney also is offering a same-day streaming release starting Friday for “Jungle Cruise,” an action-adventure movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.

(Production: Mindy Burrows, Marie-Louise Gumuchian)

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