The war of words between Scarlett Johansson and the Walt Disney Company over the distribution strategy of her latest film Black Widow escalated on Friday. Creative Artists Agency, the talent management firm that represents Johansson, defended the Hollywood star against Disney’s bitter response to her lawsuit against the studio and its disclosure of her $20 million acting fee.

According to a Deadline report, CAA co-chairperson Bryan Lourd, who is also Johansson’s agent, said in a statement, “Scarlett has been Disney’s partner on nine movies, which have earned Disney and its shareholders billions. The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of.”

In a lawsuit filed on Thursday, Johansson accused Disney of a breach of contract. Johansson said that the Disney company Marvel had promised her that Black Widow would be a theatrical release. Johansson added that she assumed that Disney would respect the conventional 90-day window between a movie’s release in cinemas and its premiere on the streamer Disney+. Instead, Black Widow was released on the same day, July 9, in theatres and on Disney+.

Although Black Widow earned roughly $218 million internationally, it is estimated to have underperformed for a Marvel superhero title.

Disney bristled at Johansson’s lawsuit, stating on Thursday that she had shown “callous disregard” for the effects of the pandemic on distribution. In an uncharacteristic move, Disney revealed Johansson’s acting fee for Black Widow.

“Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20M she has received to date,” Disney said in its statement.

Black Widow (2021).

Black Widow is a standalone film about Avengers superhero Natasha Romanoff. Directed by Cate Shortland, the critically acclaimed movie examines Romanoff’s childhood and her relationship with her sister, played by Florence Pugh, and her parents, played by Rachel Weisz and David Harbour. Black Widow died in Avengers: Endgame (2019), marking the end of Johansson’s association with Marvel.

The closure of cinemas across the world in 2020 following the coronavirus outbreak promoted Hollywood studios to release titles directly on streamers. As cinemas reopened in parts of the world, studios such as Disney and Warner Bros opted for a simultaneous release approach.

In December 2020, Warner Bros announced that it would release its entire 2021 slate, which includes such biggies as Dune, The Matrix 4 and Godzilla vs Kong, on HBO Max at the same time as these films are released in theatres. Disney recently opted for a simultaneous release for Cruella, starring Emma Stone, and Jungle Cruise, featuring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.

The argument that this strategy addresses the reduction in footfalls caused by ongoing health concerns and lockdowns because of the pandemic has angered cinema chains and filmmakers. Among the directors who slammed the decision was Christopher Nolan, who has worked closely with Warner Bros. “Their decision makes no economic sense and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction,” Nolan told Hollywood Reporter at the time.

Universal chose to keep a gap of a little over a month between the June 25 release of F9, the latest film in its moneyspinning Fast and Furious franchise, and its appearance on US streamers on July 30. In India, F9 will be released in cinemas on August 19, in anticipation of cinemas opening in most parts of the country.

Disney has “very deliberately moved the revenue stream and profits to the Disney+ side of the company leaving artistic and financial partners out of their new equation”, CAA’s Bryan Lourd said in his statement.

Jungle Cruise (2021).

Johansson’s lawsuit could create a “cascading effect”, Variety said in its analysis. “For decades, the top salary for movie stars has largely stalled out at $20 million,” Brett Lang and Gene Maddaus wrote in Variety. “Streaming has the potential to raise those prices, because companies like Netflix and Amazon have been willing to pay out 100% of actors’ backends in order to land stars like Ryan Reynolds or Dwayne Johnson for their projects. But as more traditional companies have moved aggressively into the streaming space, launching services like HBO Max, Disney Plus, and Paramount Plus, they have yet to establish their own compensation models. This deficiency was exposed during COVID-19, when studios had no choice but to explore alternative ways of releasing their movies with theaters closed or operating at limited capacity.”

Screen Daily editor Matt Mueller told BBC, “Disney’s ultimate boss is its shareholders and they want Disney+ to be hugely successful. But it might make the top talent think twice if they don’t think they can score the mega-paydays that theatrical releases have been able to generate for stars in the past.”