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Hollywood actor, Scarlett Johansson, is suing Disney for breach of contract after they streamed her first standalone Marvel film, Black Widow, on their streaming service, Disney+, at the same time as the film was released in cinemas.

The claim brought by Johansson states that her salary was based on the box office performance of the film, which achieved a strong opening of $80 million in the US but then declined rapidly by 67% in what has been the steepest second week decline of any film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Johansson claims that Disney’s streaming of the film online was the cause of the steep drop in box office receipts.

The $200 million budget film was much anticipated and Disney announced in March that it would be aired in cinemas whilst also being available on Disney+ for a fee of $30. Johansson claims she was promised by Marvel Studios (which is owned by Disney) that the film would be released first in cinemas and then there would be a window of time that would pass before it would be streamed online.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of studios did not air their new releases in cinemas as many had been closed and instead, new movies were launching online via streaming services. Even though most cinemas have now opened, Disney has chosen to continue its hybrid strategy for its major film releases.

The claim, filed by Johansson’s lawyers on 29 July 2021, read:

‘Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel.’

Johansson’s legal representatives allegedly contacted Disney in 2019 to raise concerns about the multi-platform release of the film and tried to renegotiate Johansson’s contract in light of the hybrid release strategy. Johansson claims she was deprived of potential earnings, however Disney have responded by releasing a statement saying it had ‘fully complied’ with her contract and also stated the following:

‘There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.’

It will be interesting to see how Disney formally responds to the legal proceedings. At first blush, it does appear likely that Disney has breached the contract. However, it may argue that the contract contained a provision similar to a force majeure clause. Disney may seek to rely on such a clause to claim that the pandemic created a ‘force majeure event’ that allowed Disney to excuse itself from its contractual obligations.

In any event, Disney will undoubtedly face reputational damage as a result of this claim. The company is already coming under fire for its strongly worded statement to Johansson. In its statement, Disney also leaked Johansson’s salary and appears to be accusing her of being insensitive to the effect of the pandemic on the entertainment industry.

The legal and public relations battle looks set to continue.

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