The war of words is finally over: as of last week, Disney and Scarlett Johansson have reached a settlement over the Black Widow movie lawsuit filed back in July. Now, she’s being praised by the company and talk is in the headlines about her upcoming involvement in the potential Tower of Terror film.
A lot of outlets have opinions on what this means, with some speculating that Johansson’s agreement to star in Tower of Terror, should it enter production, being one part of the settlement. This speculation is telling, in the grand scheme of things, especially with regards to the implications of this lawsuit and how Disney handled themselves in the court of public opinion.
In the suit originally filed by Johansson’s legal team, they allege Disney breached their contract with Johansson by releasing Black Widow simultaneously in theaters and on the company’s streaming service, Disney+ via their Premier option. Given that Johansson’s contract contained what’s known as a ‘back end deal,’ entitling her to a portion of the theatrical box office as part of her salary, and that her contract specified that the film would be released exclusively in theaters, the suit cited breach of contract and monetary damages for the payment lost to poor box office numbers.
This sort of back end deal is common practice, as it allows movies to be made on more conservative budgets by paying talent a flat amount plus either a cut of the box office or bonuses based on certain earnings markers. A-list talent can be hired, paid fairly, and share in the success or failures of the film they work on. The end result of this dual release was that Johansson was cut out of her fair share of the profits as the option to rent the film at home undercut theater attendance numbers that would have made her more money.
Disney’s response was to publicly smear Johansson and decry her actions as callus due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s spokesmen called the lawsuit “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” and insisted that they “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.”
The fact is, if the personal attacks that flew back and forth in the public eye are laid aside, and even if Disney’s failed efforts to force the dispute into private arbitration are dismissed, this is not a billionaire’s dispute. There is a clear right and wrong in this situation, where on two different fronts, both legal and financial, Disney is trying to set a precedent for how contracts are honored, and how talent is paid – one that would have had critically damaging effects for smaller entities down the line.
For starters, a victory for Disney in a suit like this one would have dire consequences for many lesser known talents. Given that the MCU built its cash cow on the backs of many lesser known celebrities, a favorable ruling for Disney could have resulted in flat out robbery for future productions of this nature – for the lesser known talent themselves. It’s one thing if an A-list star receives tens of millions for a film and loses additional funds to this sort of situation, but less well known names have the potential to be flat out robbed in a world where Disney prevails in this suit, and this sort of contract breach become legally acceptable.
There is also, of course, the home video revenue – and by that, I mean Premier Access.
Since the dawn of the VCR, there has been precedent for studios taking eighty percent of home video revenue before paying residuals and other fees to talent, and in this day and age of the streaming wars, Disney has taken to using that long established model for counting streaming revenue. Given the greatly reduced distribution costs of streaming services, it already makes the practice questionable, however factor into that back end deals like the one Johansson had for Black Widow, and Disney is essentially cooking the books twice over. They are, to be blunt, not just in breach of contract, they are hiding box office funds in “home video” wrapping to avoid paying their fair share – and Bill Nye was already arguing the point in 2017 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
While the court ruled in favor of Disney during the initial decision, the fact remains that the world has changed, and rather than do what many others have in these unprecedented times by stepping up and doing the right thing, Disney has sought to abandon a struggling industry and enrich themselves as much as possible. In a present time, where entertainment labor unions are currently edging towards a strike that would shut Hollywood down, all in the name of something as basic as adequate meal breaks and time away from work to attend to family and self care, Disney would have you believe they’re victims, too.
It’s all a cash grab, and a calculating one at that. Yes, Disney, it is indeed – but that cookie jar is made of clear glass, and it’s a mouse’s hand inside, not a spider’s.
Liz Carlie, the Mad Woman with a Box, a regular book reviewer for SCIFI.radio and a regular guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. She has been in and around science fiction fandom for years, and works with the American Red Cross on blood drives at science fiction conventions all over Southern California.