Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson has settled her lawsuit with The Walt Disney Company (DIS) over her salary from the film. The case, which ignited a public war of words between the studio and the actress, was settled in private arbitration. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Key Takeaways

  • Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson has settled her suit with Disney.
  • Johansson had alleged breach of contract in the original suit, claiming that Disney's simultaneous strategy of releasing the movie across streaming and theaters cut into her earnings.
  • The case highlights changing business dynamics in Hollywood due to the growth of streaming.

Johansson said she was happy to have resolved differences with Disney. "I'm incredibly proud of the work we've done together over the years and have greatly enjoyed my creative relationship with the team. I look forward to continuing our collaboration in years to come," the actress stated.

Disney Studios Chairman Alan Bergman reciprocated the actress's sentiment. "I'm very pleased that we have been able to come to a mutual agreement with Scarlett Johansson regarding Black Widow. We appreciate her contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and look forward to working together on a number of upcoming projects, including Disney's Tower of Terror," he stated. 

The Streaming Effect on Actor Earnings

Johansson filed the lawsuit in response to Disney's release strategy for Black Widow, which is part of the studio's lucrative Marvel franchise. Disney released the movie simultaneously in theatres and on streaming.

The move had mixed results. Black Widow had this year’s biggest opening weekend for any movie, bringing in $80 million at the box office. The movie also raked in $60 million from the Disney Plus Premiere Access service, where viewers could rent it for $30. But it witnessed a steep 70% drop in theater collections—the second-biggest such decline in Marvel history—the next weekend. The movie has earned $379 million to date.

Johansson sued Disney for breach of contract, claiming that the company's release tactic had "lured" viewers away from theaters and cut into her earnings from the movie. Typically, actors get a percentage share of a movie's box office receipts.

The actor's complaint also charged Disney with purposely releasing the movie on streaming to benefit its coffers. According to the complaint, the release strategy "not only increased the value of Disney+, but it also intentionally saved Marvel (and thereby itself) what Marvel itself referred to as 'very large box office bonuses' that Marvel otherwise would have been obligated to pay Ms. Johansson."

For its part, Disney said it had not violated the terms of its contract with Johansson. The studio also countered that she had demonstrated "callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic" by filing the suit and disclosed that she had earned $20 million from the movie. An anonymous source told The Wall Street Journal that Johansson took home an additional $80 million from the movie's receipts.  

Many actors came out in support of Johansson. For example, actor Alec Baldwin took Johansson's side on Twitter and said that he was with #TeamScarlett. Bryan Lourd, chairman of CAA—Hollywood's biggest talent agency—said that Disney had "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."

A Changing Business Model 

More than the accusations and counter-accusations, however, the lawsuit highlighted the changing dynamics of the movie business due to the growth of streaming services. These services have not only upended distribution models for major studios but also changed the way that stars are compensated.

When Warner Media, which is owned by AT&T Inc. (T), announced a streaming-only release strategy for 2020, it spent more than $200 million on renegotiating individual contracts for actors in its releases. Johansson's lawsuit against Disney is also reported to have commenced a flurry of renegotiations with actors who are starring in the studio's forthcoming streaming releases.

At a Goldman Sachs investor conference in September, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said that talent deals were undergoing a "reset" after the pandemic shutdown. "We've got a deal that's conceived under a certain set of conditions that actually results in a movie that's being released in a completely different set, so there's a bit of a reset that's going on right now, and ultimately we'll think about that as we do our future talent deals and plan for that and make sure that that's incorporated," he said.

Disney said that the remaining movies on its 2021 slate will be released in theaters first, followed by streaming. Its latest release, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is another Marvel movie and became the year's biggest hit after a theater-only release earlier this month.