Following the conclusion of Marvel Studios' Infinity Saga, many fans and critics questioned whether the studio's success could continue into its next phase. In 2021, Marvel responded to those doubts with a string of successful event series on Disney+ and four feature films, with the last being the record-breaking Spider-Man: No Way Home. Still, that's not to say there haven't been issues, particularly when it comes to Disney and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow.
Marvel's first Phase 4 theatrical release was supposed to be Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson's long-awaited solo film. However, in July 2021 and amidst the uncertainty surrounding theater attendance, Disney decided to release the film in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access simultaneously.
In the weeks following Black Widow's debut, Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney over the profits handling of the dual release. Disney's response led to a bitter, public legal battle spanning several months.
While Disney and Johansson reached a settlement in October 2021, Hollywood remembers. After all, streaming isn't going away and the industry is changing; and now, as Disney's own leadership changes, the company's former CEO claimed that this change was the root of the legal war between Disney and the Marvel star.
Disney's Bob Iger Comments on Scarlett Johansson Lawsuit
When asked about the lawsuit between Disney and Black Widow's Scarlett Johansson, former Disney CEO Bob Iger explained to The New York Times that "everything is changing really fast" while also touching on how technology has disrupted "business practices, including how people get paid."
Bob Iger first became Disney's CEO in 2005 before stepping down from his position in early 2020. While Bob Chapek has been the CEO since February 2020, Iger only recently stepped down as the company chairman in December 2021.
During the heat of the controversy, Iger - known for his own strong relationships with talent and creatives - was reportedly embarrassed by Disney's approach to the Johansson suit. In fact, when asked about wanting to revisit the issue in the interview, Iger initially responded with "Not really."
When pressed on the issue again, as well as his thoughts on what's happening right now in Hollywood, Iger only had praise for Johansson before diving into how "we get to the point where digital media really transforms the movie business:"
"That's a very good question. Rather than be specific about her, who I like a lot personally, and I think she's really talented. Everything is changing really fast. It's incredible what technology is doing to disrupt existing businesses, business models, business practices, including how people get paid. All of a sudden, we get to a point where digital media really transforms the movie business."
However, in reality, Iger has played a significant role in transforming the movie business himself.
Throughout his tenure as Disney's CEO, Iger expanded the company's intellectual property, having spearheaded the acquisition of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox, as well as the creation of Disney+.
In regards to streaming, Iger admitted that - even if COVID-19 hadn't happened - the reckoning of digital media and streaming would've happened anyway:
"And many films, which at one point— and we can put Covid aside, but at one point would have just gone through that process. Go to the big theater first, and then they immediately go to streaming. They skip all those steps."
As to how this affects talent like Johansson, the former CEO acknowledged that "the whole industry right now is struggling to contend with how people are paid" and that the pandemic was "disrupting what already was a business that was being disrupted:"
"So there, the digital streamer— Netflix or Disney— typically is paying a flat fee for the film, right? And then, it stays on that platform sometimes forever, meaning it doesn’t have any other life. So the revenue that is associated with it, one, is very different in terms of where it comes from. But two, it’s not like there’s direct revenue attributed to that film... So the whole industry right now is struggling to contend with how people are paid in this new world order. And what was happening with Scarlett was that there was a— first of all, Covid was really disrupting what already was a business that was being disrupted."
As to the conflict between the company and the actress following Black Widow's hybrid release, Iger stated that the decision to go to Disney+ is what "created tension:"
"And so first, the decision was made to delay, delay, delay, then ultimately, the decision was made to skip the movie theaters, then go directly to service. And obviously, that created tension."
Bob Iger's Disney+ Role
Even though Bob Iger was the company chairman during 2021 and throughout Black Widow's controversial release, he wasn't the CEO.
Bob Chapek is the one responsible for Disney's handling of the lawsuit and who will be leading the company through this changing, and often uncertain, landscape. Still, considering Iger's role in acquiring Marvel Entertainment and creating Disney+, as well as his own reputation in terms of dealing with talent, his insight is important since his actions positioned Disney for this situation.
One of his most interesting comments was his admission that the traditional release model for films would've changed regardless of the pandemic; and while COVID-19 no doubt sped up the process, it would've been helpful to know if he and the company had begun planning for those contractual eventualities in advance.
However, considering what happened with Black Widow and Johansson, that doesn't appear to be the case; and due to Chapek's rather harsh response, it didn't sound like that was a concern the company was interested in addressing at all at the time.
In fact, the publicity of the lawsuit appears to have been the catalyst as other actors and actresses are now negotiating contracts with streaming considerations as opposed to basing their contracts on a now-antiquated system.
Granted, Iger wasn't wrong in saying COVID-19 disrupted "a business that was being disrupted." But what actually led to that "tension" was Disney's lack of willingness to disrupt its means of paying royalties while embracing a new business model.
Black Widow is available to stream on Disney+