The legal case between Scarlett Johansson and Disney is an emblematic David vs. Goliath trial in which Johansson has become the first actor to publicly challenge a film studio on the dual-release strategy that has emerged during COVID. If this legal case, filed on 29th July, hadn’t rattled Disney, they wouldn’t have released the following response:
“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.”
“Women are not ‘callous’ when they stand up and fight for fair pay.”
It is rare for a company to respond to an ongoing legal proceeding at all, let alone with a statement like this. By doing so, Disney has received a backlash of complaints by industry professionals who believe that this kind of narrative is an attempt to remove business from the equation and replace it with gender.
Gabrielle Carteris, President of the Screen Actors Guild, is just one of the professionals to have picked up on the adjective “callous”, which diverges from the stereotype of women being associated with compassion. “Women are not ‘callous’ when they stand up and fight for fair pay.”
The financial aspect of Disney’s statement is interesting because instead of dealing with the legalities it vilifies Johansson – trying to shame her for bringing up profits during COVID, despite them releasing both her earnings and that of the film during its opening weekend.
Yet traditional media forgets: money does not matter. What matters is that Disney carries out its contractual obligations. Other (male) Marvel actors have made significantly more money from their projects while Disney’s stock prices were lower, so it does beg the question of whether Disney would have dared to have tried the same manoeuvre were this was one of their actors rather than actresses.
While Disney CEO, Bob Chapek, continues to focus on the company’s “ways to fairly compensate our talent,” Scarlett Johansson’s case argues that a renegotiation should have taken place, as was requested, thus avoiding the need for compensation. The reason that compensation remains preferable for Disney is that when films are released in cinemas, actors may be eligible to earn extra money if box office sales eclipse a certain figure. By avoiding this form of release, Disney is attempting to get away with paying a large lump sum figure that suits the company’s desires rather than accurately reflects the audience figures.
A financial claim does not justify Disney focusing their statement around the 20 million dollars that Johansson has already made. Disney did this with the aim of making everyday people lose sympathy for the actress, therefore tarnishing her reputation.
Equally, earning compensation is questionable. The film has still been released, albeit in a different format; she should be earning the profits and not an estimated figure. As a corporation, Disney wants to reap as much of the profit as possible even if it means that they must strip it from their talent.
“This case can be summarised as one of workplace bullying: a company not allowing workers what is rightfully theirs”
Through mentioning COVID-19 in their statement, Disney may have shot themselves in the foot; Disney films, including Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, will now be released exclusively in cinemas despite the fact that COVID case numbers continue to rise across North America, where the company is based. Even though the company claims otherwise, the timing of this decision would suggest a link with the court case. If Scarlett Johansson was “callous” for bringing up profits, Disney must be reaching new heights by risking lives at cinemas.
But what could Disney possibly lose from this case? No single case could ever be significant enough to bring down such a company. And nor would Johansson winning the case guarantee justice for all actors. What it would mean is that Disney will be held accountable to their contractual obligations. Other than that, it is simply a loss of money from a business that is succeeding financially.
This case can be summarised as one of workplace bullying: a company not allowing workers what is rightfully theirs; and it affects every nameless figure who the audience will never realise was involved in the film’s production. Essentially, Disney is conveying that creative talents do not have the rights to dip into the 60 million dollars that Black Widow made in its opening weekend on Disney+, despite a contract meaning that it should have only been released in cinemas.
Announcing that they will renegotiate the terms of the contract would have shut down the case altogether. Not doing so suggests that they are confident of winning the case and making an example of Scarlett Johansson, thus ensuring that other stars who would be in the same position do not follow the same path.
Scarlett Johansson’s argument that the box office potential of the film was overlooked in favour of Disney’s potential to grow its streaming service does hold up. She wasn’t cruel to pursue this legally because when profit is being made elsewhere, it should be readjusted to be sent back to those who were involved with the production of the profit: film studios are nothing without their on-screen talent.
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