It’s a narrative so compelling maybe Scarlett Johansson could have played the part of the protagonist in the movie: A plucky heroine strikes back against an oppressive system … to fight the good fight … for the sake of her people.
Lo and behold, Johansson has found herself in a real-life variation on this overused Hollywood trope. The example par excellence: the 1979 classic “Norma Rae.”
But there’s just one problem with this script. The story isn’t quite that simple.
Here’s the conventional wisdom on what everyone in Hollywood can’t stop talking about right now: Johansson is leveraging her status as an A-list actor to hold Disney to account for reneging on a guarantee the studio made to put “Black Widow” exclusively in a theatrical wide release. Her legal battle, so it is said, is poised to be a milestone moment in showbiz history, ensuring that actors in the future get their fair share of proceeds from a studio system trying to cheat these important profit participants.
But talk to enough lawyers representing top talent in this town, and an alternative interpretation starts to take shape. And it’s a stark departure from the prevailing narrative, one worth considering if you’re trying to project what’s going to happen next here.
For starters, there’s the distinct possibility that Johansson really doesn’t have much of a case. Consider what is being seized on as the smoking gun of this conflict: an email from Marvel’s chief counsel. While her lawyers are holding it up as an example of an understanding that “Black Widow” would get a traditional release, the email is clearly ambiguous enough to give the studio room to say they met the minimum requirements for the wide release she was promised.
And even if the email contained more incriminating language, the relevance of those words is debatable. Though the entertainment industry had never reckoned with an external force like the pandemic, 2021 really isn’t the first time a studio has been forced to alter distribution plans for a movie due to unforeseen circumstances. In these instances, the basic legal concept of mitigation ensures companies will have the flexibility to take liberties with how they navigate a new marketplace reality in a way that protects their businesses.
Which isn’t to say Disney wasn’t sensitive to Johansson’s own business interests. Besides paying her an upfront fee for her starring and executive producer roles, the studio did give her an unspecified percentage of revenue that came from her movie’s performance on Disney+.
Was that percentage going to make her as much money as the $50 million in bonuses her representatives claimed she stood to make at the box office? Of course not. But see how sympathetic a jury is going to be — in the highly unlikely prospect this lawsuit ever makes it to trial — to the notion that she was entitled to all that money on top of a $20 million upfront salary for a movie that underperformed.
It’s also hard to believe a jury would look at the studio’s distribution strategy for “Black Widow” — charging consumers $30 a pop to stream a movie from home at a time when people are leery of entering theaters in a pandemic — as irresponsible.
Where you can find fault with Disney would be its public response to Johansson's suit. By disclosing how much she made upfront and characterizing her suit as "callous" in the COVID era, Disney wasn't bothering to hide its infuriation at the lawsuit, to the point where it has practically invited the kind of controversy that elicits condemnation not only from CAA but women's advocacy groups.
This is exactly what Johansson's reps want, of course — for this battle to play out in the court of public opinion, where a massive conglomerate is not going to look good pitted against a beloved actress no matter what the facts are on the ground. In that respect, Johansson has been successful so far, putting pressure on Disney to reach the kind of settlement that will make this PR headache go away.
Whatever that dollar amount is, it's probably more than she stood to get from the kind of closed-door negotiations that would have settled this matter 9 times out of 10. That's the basic bet behind the aggressive legal strategy Johansson is pursuing.
But while Johansson is being held up as this rare example of talent with the clout capable of taking on a studio, the opposite may be true. Her lawsuit here has been misread as an exercise in leverage, when in reality it reflects the lack thereof.
The ugly truth is the way Disney is conducting itself here is indicative of a studio that has made the calculation that it doesn't need to be in business with her anymore. And why should it? The Black Widow character is not central to the Marvel mythology, and regardless of whether the character is important or not, Disney has no interest in doing more with the "Black Widow" IP.
This is a key point because in a new world dominated by streaming services, the generous backend deals of yore are going away and never coming back. Netflix single-handedly steered the entire industry to capped backends. The day-and-date pivot Warner Bros. made to its film slate last year kicked off a transition phase for contracts that will be playing out for years.
However, there is one leverage point that still exists in this franchise-heavy world, and that is the ability of talent to command top dollars for participating in all-important sequels. With no future for "Black Widow," Johansson lacked the leverage to say, "Better make me whole now, or else I'm not coming back for 'Black Widow 2.' "
So what Johansson is doing here isn't some kind of demonstration of her clout but an act of desperation. With speculation rampant that Emma Stone ("Cruella") or Emily Blunt ("Jungle Cruise") could be among the next A-list talent to challenge Disney over divvying up the proceeds, they're probably going to be more circumspect about antagonizing the studio. The backend riches of yesteryear may be gone forever, but they still need to stay on good terms at Disney in the future.
It's understandable to see potential for the Johansson lawsuit to set some kind of dramatic precedent — optics are seductive that way. But look deeper than the classic "Norma Rae" premise, which can be irresistible to the press as framing for examining the lawsuit, and there's just not a lot of there there.