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Disney CEO Bob Chapek Dances Around ‘Black Widow’ Lawsuit, Gets Real About Theatrical Releases

Bob Iger Scarlett Johansson Bob Chapek
Iger & Johansson: AP; Chapek: Ty Popko/Disney

Disney CEO Bob Chapek is doubling down on his film studio’s decision to release Marvel’s “Black Widow” in theaters and on Disney Plus at the same time.

Speaking on a Thursday earnings call with investors, Chapek grazed the company’s ongoing salary drama with actor Scarlett Johansson. The on-screen superhero sued Disney last month, saying she was deprived of millions in compensation she would have earned if the film was given an exclusive theatrical run.

Bob Iger and I, along with the distribution team, determined this was the right strategy to enable us to reach the broadest possible audience,” Chapek said in his opening remarks, invoking his predecessor during a reverent speech about DIsney’s ongoing commitment to storytelling.

The newly minted Disney CEO also made a point of depicting the Johansson legal fight as an anomaly.

“Since COVID, we’ve entered into hundreds of arrangements with talent…by and large they’ve gone smoothly,” Chapek said.

He also suggested that when Disney has had to alter its release plans for movies, it has come up with ways to reward stars whose bonuses were tied to box office performance. That was a sticking point for Johansson, who claims the simultaneous release of “Black Widow” depressed ticket sales. But it was a conflict that Disney is believed to have avoided with “The Jungle Cruise” star Dwayne Johnson by changing his compensation structure when the film also bowed on the streaming service at the same time it debuted in theaters.

“We’ve figured out ways to fairly compensate our talent so that no matter what the business model … everybody feels satisfied,” Chapek said.

Chapek said decisions on release strategies will be “made on film by film basis based on global marketplace conditions and consumer behavior,” adding that his team will take a bespoke approach to each individual project to do “what’s best for the movie and our constituents.”

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While it’s unsurprising that Chapek would bring Disney elder statesman Iger into the conversation, given his decades-long relationships with top talent and ongoing role as executive chairman, this is the first time Iger has been mentioned since Johansson filed suit in late July. Earlier this summer, Variety reported that the once-warm relationship between Chapek and Iger had cooled in the days following a major reorganization that placed significant power in Disney’s media and entertainment distribution group.

“We’ve said from the very beginning that we value flexibility in being able to make as last minute calls as we can,” Chapek told one analyst when asked when all upcoming Disney releases will not see day-and-date premieres. Both Ryan Reynolds’ “Free Guy” and the latest Marvel title “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will exclusively premiere in theaters before heading to VOD.

Chapek said that planning in the age of COVID-19 has been challenging, especially as consumer confidence in returning to movie theaters has waned recently, upending distribution strategies executed only months ago.