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Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson sues Disney for breach of contract, more on the allegations in her lawsuit

While the lawsuit alleges that Disney’s move has resulted in a huge financial loss for Johansson, the pandemic has hit movie theatres hard and induced several similar conflicts in India.

Hollywood actor Scarlett Johansson, popularly known for her roles in Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit, has filed a lawsuit against Marvel Studios and its parent company Disney for releasing the movie Black Widow on their streaming platform Disney+, according to a report by Deadline.

The report also pointed towards the piracy risk which Black Widow faced. According to TorrentFreak, Black Widow has become the number one pirated film since its release. 

Why it matters? The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit theatres hard on a global scale. For instance, several South Indian films last year went in for a direct release on OTT platforms like ZEE5 and Amazon Prime Video instead of a theatrical release, thus leading to multiplex owners bearing the brunt of financial losses. But there are piracy concerns as well attached to a direct OTT release. The producers of the recently released movie Mimi had to release the film before the scheduled date on Netflix because the movie was leaked online, as per a Hindustan Times report

What does the lawsuit say? 

  • According to the lawsuit filed by Johansson, Disney had promised a “theatrical release” for her movie, Black Widow, which implies that it was a release exclusive to movie theatres. However, in an alleged breach of the contract, the movie was released on its streaming service Disney+ on the same day as its theatrical release. 
  • The agreement between Scarlett Johansson and Marvel Studios was entered in 2019 wherein Marvel had apparently confirmed that:
    • The box office bonus component of Ms. Johansson’s Agreement represented the lion’s share of her expected compensation
    • The wide theatrical release that Marvel had promised would be “like our other pictures,” meaning the standard Marvel/MCU 90-120 days of theatrical exclusivity.
  • This move has resulted in a huge financial loss for Johansson at the expense of benefiting the company, the lawsuit said. While talking to Deadline, Johansson’s lawyers claimed that the movie premiere on Disney+ ate into its domestic opening during the weekend box office and even led to a jump in Disney’s stock price by 4% following the release.
  • The lawsuit stated that all previous Marvel studios’ films have had uninterrupted theatrical windows between 82-159 days, with an average uninterrupted window of 117 days.

Of the seven Marvel Studios’ films in which Ms. Johansson starred prior to the Picture—for which Ms. Johansson also received certain bonuses tied to box office receipts—none had a theatrical window shorter than 96 days. And none included “day-and-date” releases on streaming platforms as would come to pass with Black Widow; rather, in connection with those films, it took six to eight months before Marvel Studios’ films would be available for streaming on an SVOD service like Disney+ — Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit stated.

Disney has dismissed all the claims and stated that “the lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

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Similar profit-sharing agreements in India

What are profit-sharing agreements? It is an agreement in which anyone involved in the production or the financing of the film agrees to share a percentage of the net profits once the film breaks even. 

These agreements are a common practice in India as well, with male actors like Akshay Kumar, Shahrukh Khan, and Aamir Khan actively partaking a specific percentage of the film’s profits. As per a Livemint report, the percentage of their profits can range anywhere from 50% to 80% of the profits in addition to their flat upfront fee.  

While direct releases on OTT platforms have been criticised for not reaping profits, there have been a few exceptions. Akshay Kumar’s “Laxmii” had an OTT release on Disney+Hotstar and performed well despite no theatrical release. It broke records and was the biggest opener for Disney+Hostar. 

Salman Khan’s “Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai” witnessed a multi-platform release – a direct OTT release on ZEE5 as well as a theatrical release. 

OTT release or theatrical release

There have been concerns and conflicts emerging from direct-to-OTT releases in India as well.  

Last year, after the producers of two South Indian films announced that they would release their movies on Amazon Prime Video, Suriya who was producing one of the movies faced immediate backlash. The President of the Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners Association had said that the association’s members would not release any film by Suriya (only to retract their statement later). 

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There is also a revenue problem that is troubling filmmakers. 

Citing the example of Jahnvi Kapoor’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, trade expert and film critic Joginder Tuteja, in an article published by Moneycontrol, had explained that the film had the potential to earn Rs. 50-75 crore had it had a theatrical release. However, the COVID-19 induced release on Netflix allowed the film to earn a meager Rs. 40-50 crore, he said. 

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