Scarlett Johansson Isn’t the First Actor to Sue a Studio—and She Won’t Be the Last

The ’Black Widow’s star’s lawsuit is the first of its kind in the streaming era, but Hollywood talent suing studios is a time-honored tradition

If Disney doesn’t try to avert more bad publicity with a quick settlement, Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against the Mouse House is sure to get juicy. The actor is just the latest in a long line of major talent who have chosen legal fights with studios—almost always over money.

From Elizabeth Taylor to Kevin Costner, Peter Jackson to Rob Reiner, Hollywood stars have for decades gone to the mat with studios to get paid their contractual due. But Johansson may well be kicking off a new moment of talent not willing to accept “Hollywood accounting” in the streaming era. The actor claims her contract guaranteed that the movie would get an exclusive theater release like every major Avengers flick before it.

According to journalist and former entertainment lawyer Matthew Beloni, one name being tossed around as a candidate to file a similar lawsuit is Emma Stone, who starred in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella. That movie’s initial release was held back due to the pandemic, then it was released earlier this year simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+, the company’s streaming service. Despite so far bringing in a reported $200 million, the movie’s performance is seen as a disappointment largely attributed to Disney’s release on streaming.

Essentially the same thing happened with Black Widow, Johansson’s star turn in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, movies from which tend to cross the $1 billion box office mark. Black Widow has currently made just over $319 million. But her contract for the movie, penned in 2017 with clear terms for a bonus based on box office performance, guarantees a “wide theatrical release.” That guarantee was reiterated by Marvel in 2019, when an executive admitted in an email “her whole deal is based on the premise that the film would be widely theatrically released,” according to the complaint filed Thursday in local Los Angeles court (and handed to the press seemingly simultaneously).

Johansson’s complaint also pointedly calls out Disney executives, including new CEO Bob Chapek and former CEO Bob Iger for valuing streaming over a theatrical release because any positive news about Disney+ drives up the company’s stock price. And stock is how these executives make most of their money. Disney stock rose 4 percent when it released news on streaming numbers for Black Widow.

John Berlinski, Johansson’s attorney, said in a statement: “It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like “Black Widow” directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company’s stock price—and that it’s hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so.”

Disney had its own public say with an unusually barbed statement that alluded to the pandemic and revealed for the first time that Johansson was paid $20 million up front for her work in the movie. The studio said the suit is without merit, claiming it complied with “all” of Johansson’s contractual stipulations, but called it “…sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Bryan Lourd, Johansson’s agent at CAA, responded to Disney’s attempt to recharacterize the lawsuit, saying Friday: “They have shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn’t.” He added that Disney’s public mention of her salary for the movie is “an attempt to weaponize her success… as if that were something she should be ashamed of.”

In all likelihood, the squabble will stop playing out in the press, but both sides kicking things off this way indicates communication broke down somewhere along the line. Disney has a reputation for being relatively hard-nosed with its talent and money in general, and Johansson claims in her lawsuit she tried to work this out for months before court, but was “largely ignored.” Disney has a few weeks to file a boilerplate reply to the suit, but it will likely be months before it files anything more detailed in court, if it ever does. Presumably, the lawsuit will find its way to an out-of-court settlement, like such cases nearly always do.

The whole thing is reminiscent of when Elizabeth Taylor in 1964 sued 20th Century Fox (ironically, now owned by Disney) for not paying her properly on box office from the movie Cleopatra. Fox then turned around and sued Taylor and then husband Richard Burton, claiming their relationship was so “scandalous” it damaged public appetite for the movie.

That case ultimately settled, with Taylor getting a reported payday of $7 million, equal to about $60 million when adjusted for modern inflation. Johansson claims she was stiffed of at least $50 million through Disney’s streaming-focused tactics.

A number of other Hollywood stars have sued studios, mainly over money—and many of them have walked away with big settlements:

Olivia de Havilland: In 1943 the actor sued Warner Bros. over its trapping talent in exclusive work contracts. She won on appeal in California and the case effectively put an end to the Studio System of Old Hollywood.

Burt Lancaster: In 1988 he sued Columbia for replacing him with Gregory Peck on The Old Gringo. The suit settled out of court.

Crispin Glover: In 1990 he sued Universal and Amblin Entertainment after the studios used a face mold to perpetuate his likeness in a sequel to Back to the Future Glover refused to be in. The suit settled with Crispin being paid nearly $800,000.

David Duchovny: In 1999 he sued Fox claiming he was not paid the correct amount of royalties for the hit TV show The X-Files. The suit settled out of court in 2000.

Kevin Costner: In 2012 he sued the production company behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, released in 1991, claiming he was not being paid royalties. The suit settled out of court in 2014.

Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Rob Reiner: In 2016 the group behind This is Spinal Tap sued StudioCanal, claiming they were intentionally underpaid on royalties. The suit settled out of court in 2020.

Sylvester Stallone: In 2017 he sued Warner Bros. over Demolition Man, claiming he was being stiffed on profits. The suit settled out of court in 2019.

Mel Gibson: In 2017 he sued the production company behind the The Professor and the Madman claiming various breaches of contract, including final cut provisions. The case was settled and the movie released in 2019.

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