Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney over the streaming release of Black Widow on Disney+ Premiere Access could have a big impact on the industry. Thanks to the global pandemic, studios started releasing movies on streaming alongside their theatrical releases, a move that didn’t please many of the actors and directors involved, leading to Scarlett Johansson suing Disney over an alleged loss in box office residuals due to Black Widow being available on Disney+ at the same time as it was in theaters.
Johansson wasn’t the only one with harsh words for her studio, as Warner Bros. also got major backlash from its actors and directors after the announcement that every 2021 theatrical release from WB would also be released on HBO Max. The difference is Warner Bros. avoided any lawsuits like Johansson’s Black Widow suit by engaging the creatives involved to renegotiate the way they’d get paid since there would likely be a box office impact.
The timing of Johansson’s Black Widow lawsuit against Disney is important, as it happened during a much larger industry shift towards streaming, where actors and directors have been treated a little differently. The actor and studio reached a settlement instead of going to court, but the lawsuit could still set a major precedent for talent relationships with big studios in the streaming era.
Scarlett Johansson’s Suit Was A Product Of The Streaming Wars
Disney releasing Black Widow to streaming against the wishes of Johansson isn’t the first time the studio – or any studio – has thrown its weight around with actors or other talent. Studios have long held the upper hand when it comes to leverage in these situations, Johansson was just the first to sue over it recently, and her decision, just like Disney’s actions she was reacting to, was likely prompted by the industry’s changing landscape brought on by streaming.
Streaming isn’t exactly a new thing in 2021, but for a variety of reasons, it’s just now becoming a much more prominent part of Hollywood studios’ content strategy. At first, streaming was dominated by the new kids on the block like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon all of which were initially seen more a part of Hollywood’s home media distribution strategy than as actual competition; however, thanks to massive original content investments from the streamers in recent years, they’ve slowly gained prominence in the industry, especially thanks to the way they’ve attracted big-name talent. Amazon and Netflix especially sought out popular writers, directors, producers, showrunners, and actors, and in just a few years have become major awards contenders for both the big screen and the small screen.
The Hollywood playing field had been mostly set for decades and the well-entrenched big studios were able to set the rules, and everyone else had to play by their games if they wanted to play at all. After Netflix and others started opening their wallets in big ways to attract talent, the leverage began to shift, until the studios eventually threw their hats in the ring by starting their own platforms. Now, the existing streaming platforms were also direct competitors, marking the beginning of a new era, one at risk of absorbing the old Hollywood rules of the studios where talent had far less leverage.
Johansson’s Black Widow Lawsuit Makes Studios Play By New Rules
One of the fist major splashes from the big studios joining the streaming game came because of Warner Bros.’ unilateral decision to release their 2021 theatrical movies on HBO Max. The move was prompted by theater closures and movie delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also can’t be ignored that streaming is far more lucrative than box office, even when the numbers aren’t decimated by the pandemic. To Warner Bros. credit, they worked hard to renegotiate the contracts of its major talent, although it was in the face of massive pushback by disgruntled creatives, which otherwise could have erupted into a lawsuit such as Johansson’s. The move also had many long-term consequences, as a number of prominent directors are less than thrilled by the move, most notably Christopher Nolan, who ended a 19 year relationship with Warner Bros. to make his next movie at Universal.
It also can’t be ignored that Johansson’s lawsuit came at a time when CAA, Hollywood’s biggest talent agency, who represents Johansson and many other big names at Disney (and the rest of the industry), is making big moves, particularly the acquisition of rival agency ICM Partners, giving all the actors they represent even more leverage against studios like Disney. Like Johansson and other talent, CAA wouldn’t want this moment in history to pass without putting their stake in the ground to make sure the same issues from the old studio system don’t become the norm in the post-streaming industry, too.
One of the biggest issues with Disney’s handling of the Black Widow release goes back to an industry standard created shortly after the invention of the VCR, where studios would take 80 percent of home video revenue before paying actor residuals, meaning the actor pay is calculated as a percentage of only 20 percent of the total revenue. Taking advantage of this standard, Disney has been categorizing streaming revenue as “home video revenue,” which poses a major issue when the streaming release is simultaneous to the theatrical release, potentially cannibalizing a portion of theatrical revenue, but calculating residuals off of a much lower dollar amount than if the money were made at the box office. The Black Widow lawsuit aimed to establish a precedent that prevents the studio from turning this practice into a new industry standard.
Before the modern era of massive IP-driven franchises, where big properties like Star Wars and Marvel drive ticket sales, big-name actors were one of the industry’s top commodities, and studios fought to lock talent up. As the MCU exploded, it did so with mostly unknown talent, making actors like Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson household names. Around that same time, Warner Bros. was building a new era of relationships with talent, attracting actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and directors like Christopher Nolan, although that strategy shifted drastically after the departure of Warner Bros. chairman, Barry Meyer, who was surprisingly replaced by Kevin Tsujihara instead of Jeff Robinov, who as the president of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, was the main champion of WB’s talent relationship-focused strategy. With that, the two biggest studios shifted focus from talent to franchises.
The Black Widow Lawsuit Proves Talent Matters As Much As IP
Over the last decade, at least at Disney, IP was king, and the studio would bring in relatively unknown actors and directors on producer-driven franchises like Star Wars and Marvel. The use of fresh-faced actors and directors who were on the rise, usually after a smaller breakout hit, the company could both save money and maintain creative leverage, and the talent was happy to comply because it was the property (and the studio) that made them a star. The exception that proves the rule is Robert Downey Jr. who negotiated deals that famously saw him handsomely paid for his MCU roles, but that kind of deal is far from the norm for most big franchise stars.
Now, this dynamic has shifted again because of streaming because big platforms like Netflix had to find a way to compete without the content portfolios of the entrenched studios, and the only way to do so was to go by an older playbook and bring in the big guns creatively. One of the first big breakouts was bringing in David Fincher and Kevin Spacey for House of Cards, but it would only grow over time, growing to encompass some of the biggest stars in Hollywood along with top directors like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Michael Bay, and Zack Snyder. It also meant major producer deals like Adam Sandler or deals with massive TV icons like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. In many cases, these deals were also off the back of friction with their former employers. Because of this, Netflix and Amazon have gained a reputation for how much they’re willing to pay to acquire big-name talent. Netflix film chief Scott Stuber even wanted to bring Christopher Nolan on board.
This shift, and Johansson’s lawsuit, shows just how far back the pendulum has swung, and with studios like Disney trying to throw their weight around with streaming releases, talent actually has the leverage to fight back and make sure their contracts are respected. While studios once sought out lesser-known actors for big roles, those actors’ value rose along with the brand. Captain America wasn’t nearly such a hot commodity before he became the star of the MCU, and Chris Evans is known as Captain America. The same is true of Johansson and Black Widow. These roles can’t simply be recast or ignored now that the characters, and the actors portraying them, are all embraced by a passionate audience, and especially following Johansson’s lawsuit, studios will need to respect that.