Scarlett Johansson Lawsuit Exposes Disconnect in Movie Industry

By Josh McClain

Hollywood legal battles don’t always bring industry-wide change, but this one just might. Actress Scarlett Johansson made waves in the movie industry on July 29 when she filed a lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company over the release of her feature movie “Black Widow,” as first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Johansson claimed that Disney violated the terms of her contract by releasing the film in theaters and on Disney+ at the same time, thereby limiting the number of theater-goers and substantially lowering the film’s box office earnings. This lessened Johansson’s overall profit since part of her salary included royalties calculated from the box office gross. In a statement, Disney denied that they disregarded the stipulations of Johansson’s contract and cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a warrant for the film’s concurrent release. However, Disney also benefited from the streamed release, which boosted Disney+ subscribers as well as their company stock value. Courts have yet to determine whether they crossed any lines they shouldn’t have.

This isn’t the first time movie company employees have publicly expressed their discontent over contract issues. In late 2007, the Writers’ Guild of America staged a nationwide strike against hundreds of America’s film and television producers. The protest regarded several disputes, one of which concerned the impact of the growing DVD industry on employee compensation. Essentially, movie employees didn’t like that their salary calculations weren’t being updated to match shifts in the market. The strike lasted multiple months and cost both parties millions of dollars without ever leading to a firm resolution.

Just as in 2007, several implications hinge on the legal outcome of Johansson’s case. If her claim proves to be legitimate, then the welfare of the movie industry comes into question. Is Disney abusing their contractual power? Are other major filmmakers playing fair? Will employers amend contracts to account for the popularization of streaming services, or will more actors need to speak out first?

If courts rule in Disney’s favor, Johansson will likely fall into a mockery. Mainstream media has portrayed her as a victim of an overpowered corporation, an image that she has willfully encouraged. In pleading her case, she risks becoming known as simply another greedy Hollywood star looking for whatever she can add to her $20 million guaranteed salaries. For fans, that’s quite an upsetting disconnect from her fiery, selfless persona as Natasha Romanoff.
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in “Black Widow,” released back in July

Apparently, movie corporations either haven’t learned their lesson from the mid-2000s or, at this point, simply don’t care. Even if Johansson doesn’t win this case, this lawsuit uncovers the same issue left unaddressed less than two decades ago: the lethargy of film companies to arrange salaries in keeping with modern trends.

Professor Sean O’Connor, an assistant professor of broadcasting, digital media, and journalism at Cedarville University, spoke on the issue and stressed the importance of communication in moviemaking. “You can go back into the past year-plus and see this kind of thing happening,” he said. “Film industry is driven by collaboration between people, and when something doesn’t get communicated, a lot of people can be insulted and hurt… I would like to think that somewhere in the middle of the start of the pandemic, Marvel said [to Johansson’s agent]… ‘can we make an amended contract of some kind?’ It kind of sounds like that didn’t happen.”

On a smaller scale, some Marvel fans perceive this lawsuit as an intrusive reminder that actors’ contracts with moviemakers will inevitably end, limiting the lasting power of major film series. “More people are going to be leaving Disney,” said Cedarville University student Jonathan Nasif. “The Marvel universe is going to change drastically… we aren’t going to be able to enjoy them the same way that we used to.”

However, this departure doesn’t bother all Marvel enthusiasts. “I’m not a big fan of Disney as a company, but they make good movies,” said fellow student Timothy Ward. “I’m excited for [the next stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe], even without the main characters they used to have.”

Whether the star of “Black Widow” will inspire an industry-wide strike depends on the judgment of U.S. court officials. For now, all movie consumers can do is await the judge’s gavel while enjoying Marvel’s current film lineup, which will soon be joined by “The Eternals” on November 5 and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” on December 17.

Josh McClain is a freshman Professional Writing and Information Design student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys writing stories, reading YA novels, and playing spike ball and soccer with friends.

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