Issue No. 8 | August 2021

Black Widow Sues Disney

By Austin W. Probst

“This is just like Budapest all over again.”[1] Scarlett Johansson has become a household name in relation to her portrayal of Natalia Alianovna (“Natasha Romanoff”) better known as Black Widow. Her role as a central character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“MCU”) began with her appearance in the 2010 film Iron Man 2. Just a year prior, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for a whopping $4 billion. When she began her portrayal of the character, direct to streaming releases of major motion pictures was not prevalent. However, given the rise of “cable cutting”, the cost of attending a premiere at the theater, and the challenges of COVID-19, direct to streaming platforms have become more widespread.[2] Johansson’s most recent film, Black Widow, was originally slated for theatrical release, but was then also released on Disney’s streaming platform, Disney+. This shift marked the beginning of a unique angle of the law, namely, the drafting, interpretation, and enforcement of talent contracts.

In late July, Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County alleging, among other things, that Disney breached the actress’ contract.[3] Johansson’s complaint alleges that her salary was partially based upon the box office performance of the film and that streaming necessarily harmed her bottom line. Johansson also argues that Disney released the film to Disney+ in an effort to bolster its stock prices and enrich itself to the detriment of Johansson’s agreement with the company. Disney’s representatives have responded that the claims are meritless. Additionally, on August 20, 2021, Disney filed a motion to compel arbitration and move the case from the LA County Court to Private Arbitration.[4]  Disney argues that the move from the court to private arbitration is favored by federal law, that the contract dictates the use of arbitration, and that the litigation should be stayed pending arbitration.

This matter is relatively new and has garnered the interests of actors and actresses[5], theater companies, legal analysts, and of course superhero fans. The case offers an interesting twist on contract law, and once again shows the continuing friction between traditional legal principles and the proliferation of advanced technology. We are watching how the court, actors and actresses, Disney, and perhaps an arbitrator will handle this matter as well as the effects the outcome and arguments made during its pendency may have on future talent contracts and the film industry.

[1] One of Black Widow’s more famous limes from the original Avengers, which has garnered speculation amongst fans about the conflict that Black Widow and Hawkeye took part in at some point in the past, a fitting quote for Johansson’s conflict with Disney.

[2] HBO has also adopted this structure as movies like Godzilla versus Kong, Mortal Kombat, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and The Suicide Squad, have all been released direct to streaming. 

[3] A copy of the 19 page Complaint can be found here: Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney over Black Widow’s streaming release – The Verge

[4] The motion can be found here: Disney motion to compel arbitration – DocumentCloud


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