Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over hybrid Black Widow release

Scarlett Johansson is suing the Walt Disney Co. over its streaming release of Black Widow, which she said breached her contract and deprived her of potential earnings.

Actress says her contract guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release for the Marvel flick

Since 2010, the character of Natasha Romanoff — better known by her alias, Black Widow — has been portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. (Marvel Studios)

Scarlett Johansson is suing the Walt Disney Co. over its streaming release of Black Widow, which she said breached her contract and deprived her of potential earnings.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday morning in Los Angeles Superior Court, the Black Widow star and executive producer said her contract guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release. The Wall Street Journal first reported the news of the lawsuit.

Johansson's potential earnings were tied to the box office performance of the film, which the company released simultaneously in theatres and on its streaming service Disney+ for a $30 US rental.

"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 said. "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."

Disney said the lawsuit has "no merit whatsoever."

"The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic," the company said in a statement.

"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 [$20 million] she has received to date."

Johansson, left, and Florence Pugh star in Black Widow. Johansson is suing Disney for its handling of the film's release. (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios-Disney/The Associated Press)

After its release was delayed more than a year because of COVID-19, Black Widow debuted three weeks ago to a pandemic-best of $80 million US in North America and $78 million US from international theatres, but theatrical grosses declined sharply after that.

Hybrid releases common during the pandemic

In its second weekend in release, the National Association of Theater Owners issued a rare statement criticizing the strategy, asserting that simultaneous release lends itself only to lost profits and higher-quality piracy.

Once taboo, hybrid theatrical and streaming releases have become more normal for many of the biggest studios during the pandemic, with each adopting its own unique strategy. This weekend, Disney is employing the same strategy with Jungle Cruise, and next weekend, Warner Bros. big budget film The Suicide Squad opens both in theatres and on HBO Max.

The revised hybrid-release strategies over the past 16 months have occasionally led to public spats from not just theatre owners, but stars, filmmakers and financiers who are unhappy with the potential lost revenues and the alleged unilateral decision-making involved.

The WSJ said Warner Media, for instance, paid over $200 million US in "amended agreements" with talent over its decision to release its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max.

But none have been as public as Johansson's lawsuit. The actor, who has been in nine Marvel movies going back to 2010's Iron Man 2, quickly became a trending topic on Twitter on Thursday after news of the suit broke.

WATCH | Black Widow director Cate Shortland discusses the film earlier this month:

Black Widow director Cate Shortland chats about the new Marvel film

1 year ago
Duration 2:08
Cate Shortland, director of Black Widow, tells CBC News about her first conversation with star Scarlett Johansson, how she feels about heading back to movie theatres and what it was like to work with David Harbour.