Black Widow has fared reasonably well in movie theaters, all things considered. It’s grossed about $157 million in the United States, and over $320 million worldwide. That does rank among the lowest box-office totals ever for a Marvel Cinematic Universe film (currently only The Incredible Hulk is lower). But given that movie theaters have barely recovered from extended closures due to the Covid pandemic — which is far from over —  those numbers are fairly impressive.

Still, there’s no question those numbers should have been higher — and would have been higher if Disney had not made the decision to simultaneously release Black Widow on their Disney+ streaming service, where customers could pay a “Premier Access” fee to watch Black Widow while it was in multiplexes. And now that decision and outcome has prompted a lawsuit from the film’s star, Scarlett Johansson.

She’s filed suit against Disney this week claiming that “her contract was breached when the media giant released the film on its Disney+ streaming service at the same time as its theatrical debut.” The lawsuit 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.”

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In other words, Scarlett Johansson’s pay for Black Widow largely hinged on the film’s box office performance. The more money the film made, the more money she made. Because Black Widow was intended as a theatrical release, her contract did not call for her to receive any profits from the film’s Disney+ revenues. (Disney claimed in a that the film made $60 million in Disney+ fees in its opening weekend alone.)

When Warner Bros. made the decision to release its entire 2021 theatrical slate on HBO Max as well, they renegotiated with many of their film’s stars, paying a reported $200 million to talents whose pay was based on their films’ theatrical performance. According to Johansson’s lawsuit, per Wall Street Journal, “Ms. Johansson’s representatives sought to renegotiate her contract after learning of the dual-release strategy for Black Widow,” but “Disney and Marvel were unresponsive.” Their sources claim that Johansson could lose “more than $50 million” over the decision to put Black Widow on streaming early. Hence the suit.

Disney could choose to settle the suit or fight in court. Whatever the outcome, it is likely to have an impact on the future of Hollywood, where other stars could file similar suits over other movies that have gotten pushed to streaming, costing them part of their compensation. And the longer the Covid pandemic continues, the more movies — and movie star salaries — that could be affected.

UPDATE: Disney responded to Johansson’s statement saying it has “no merit whatsoever” and claiming “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.” They also said Johansson’s lawsuit is “sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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