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Scarlett Johansson sues Disney, claims 'Black Widow' streaming cut into box office profits

The actress, whose pay was tied to theatrical ticket sales, claims she was misled about the Marvel blockbuster's simultaneous release on Disney+.

Scarlett Johansson sued the Walt Disney Co. on Thursday, claiming the entertainment giant deprived her of untold "Black Widow" box office profits by offering the Marvel blockbuster on its streaming service.

Johansson said a significant part of her compensation is based on box office receipts, and she claimed that Disney promised to make the picture initially available exclusively in traditional movie theaters.

But when Disney instead made "Black Widow" simultaneously available on its streaming service, Disney+, it took a chunk of a box office profits and wrongly denied Johansson a cut of ticket sales, according to a complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

A spokesperson for the Walt Disney Company described the lawsuit as having “no merit whatsoever," blasting it as "especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic."

"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 $20M she has received to date,” the spokesperson said.

Bryan Lourd, co-chairman for Creative Artists Agency and Johansson's agent, fired back at Disney on Friday, saying the company "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."

"Disney’s direct attack on her character and all else they implied is beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades," Lourd added.

In the lawsuit, Johansson's side accused Disney of blatantly rigging revenue streams away from the box office and to the company's new subscription service.

"Disney saw the opportunity to promote its flagship subscription streaming service ... and establishing Disney+ as a must-have service in an increasingly competitive market," her attorney attorney John Berlinski wrote.

And all the while, Johansson dutifully hyped the movie without knowing that Disney was going to short-change her at the box office, according to Berlinski.

"Adding insult to injury, Ms. Johansson has spend the last several months fulfilling her own obligation under the agreement to promote the picture — and therefore, by association, its release on Disney+," Berlinski wrote.

"In other words, Disney has enjoyed the benefits of having one of Hollywood's top actresses promote its wholly owned subscription service at no additional cost to Disney, and with the intended effect of taking money out of that actress' own pocket," he wrote.

The lawsuit did not name a figure in damages or suggest what cut of box office sales is due to Johansson.

Key terms in Johansson's 2017 "Black Widow" deal with Disney are "theatrical release" and "wide theatrical release," which she insisted is well-known Hollywood language for traditional movie theaters, according to the lawsuit.

"Both parties ... understood this meant that the picture would initially be released exclusively in movie theaters and that it would remain exclusively in movie theaters for a period of between approximately 90 and 120 days," the lawsuit said.

In the entertainment business, the language cited by Johansson's lawyers was well-accepted and known throughout Hollywood, Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said.

"A 'theatrical release' is indeed in theaters," Dergarabedian said. "Pre-pandemic, pretty much every big studio movie that was conceived for the big screen had a theatrical-first release with about a 90-day window to eventual streaming or video-on-demand release."

Johansson's attorneys said that when word spread that Disney+ could get first-run access to "Black Widow," they got multiple written assurances from Disney that movie theaters only would have first crack at showing the action adventure.

"Black Widow" debuted July 9 and brought in $80 million in ticket sales that first weekend. At the same time, Disney offered "Black Widow" on its streaming service for $30, allowing viewers to watch it as many times as they'd like, and took in $60 million.

The movie enjoyed a respectable third weekend in theaters, spinning $11.6 million in ticket sales, bringing its global total to more than $314.9 million.

Forbes box office analyst Scott Mendelson said that because the coronavirus pandemic has been shifting so many movie dollars from theaters to home screens, he's amazed that the dispute made it so far without a resolution.

"It blows my mind that Disney didn't have conversations of how streaming revenue would be allocated versus box office revenue long before today," Mendelson said.

"Or you think they'd make an effort to come to the players who they think might sue them and say: 'Hey we're changing our strategy. What can we do to make you whole?'"