With the pandemic continuing to result in cinemas suffering temporary closures all over the world, Hollywood studios have had the unenviable task of figuring out how to still deliver their tentpole titles to keen audiences — and also ensuring people have fresh entertainment to enjoy during extended lockdowns.
It was for this reason that Disney made the decision to release Marvel superhero standalone film Black Widow, simultaneously in theatres (where that was possible) and on its streaming platform Disney+.
The film subsequently generated $USD60 million through Disney+ purchases, according to the mega studio.
The move, however, resulted in a lawsuit being filed by lead actress Scarlett Johannson who is suing The Walt Disney Company for breach of contract, claiming that Disney sacrificed the movie’s box office potential in order to grow its streaming service — which affected her own backend profit.
According to Johannson’s complaint, Black Widow had been guaranteed a wide theatrical release when she signed her deal with Marvel, but Disney interfered with the deal for their own advantage — with the goal of “promoting its flagship subscription service.”
Meanwhile, Disney has retaliated saying, “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 outcome of Johansson’s lawsuit won’t be known for some time, but it seems it has influenced the way other performers elect to do business with the Hollywood studio.
Emma Stone, for example, has agreed to sign on for the sequel to Cruella but will be looking to structure a deal that is different from the first. Like Black Widow, Cruella also pulled in lower box office numbers from a simultaneous Disney+ streaming release which could have made Disney sitting duck for another lawsuit filed by the actress.
Instead, Stone is using Johansonn’s lawsuit as leverage to get a better deal with the studio with her talent agency CEO Mark Shapiro explaining that “we are getting the front end for our clients for movies and TV, like we always get, [and] increasingly, we are getting the backend bought out … the Netflix model” in order to mitigate the loss of box-office profits in a world increasingly dominated by streaming.
It has been reported that Stone received around USD$8 million for the first Cruella film, which was shot in 2019 meaning that Disney had to reevaluate its release plan when the pandemic hit in 2020. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Stone “scored a low eight-figure payday for the sequel to Cruella, but it remains unclear what the profit participation structure is for the second film.”
Of course, if Disney had not been eager to make Cruella 2 — thereby opening the door for Stone to negotiate a more lucrative deal the second time around — the actress could have decided to sue the company as Johannson did, who likely felt she had no other recourse her character’s run in the MCU had already come to a conclusion.
Stone’s decision to leverage Johannson’s lawsuit to negotiate a bigger payday for the Cruella sequel now also opens up the floor to other actors in the Disney stable (for example, Jungle Cruise‘s Emily Blunt) to do the same.
However, it is unlikely the trend will stop with Disney. With streaming services becoming so ubiquitous, we could be entering a new phase where performer contracts that cover only a film’s theatrical distribution are a thing of the past and legal agreements that incorporate revenue from subscription services become the new normal.