With films well and truly back in theatres, it's easy to forget that time when Disney started to release its movies directly onto streaming during the pandemic. Marvel Studios' Black Widow was one of the first major blockbusters to attempt this and it resulted in an unexpected set of problems when starring actress Scarlett Johansson decided to sue Disney for its dual release strategy.
Johansson filed a lawsuit over a breach of contract which allegedly occurred when Disney opted to release Black Widow onto streaming at the same time as its theatrical premiere. The lawsuit claimed that this alternative release strategy prevented Johansson "from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel."
The issues were resolved in Fall 2021 when Disney and Johansson reached a mutual agreement for an undisclosed settlement amount, which was believed to be over $40 million in the actor's favor.
Almost a year on, Disney's new CEO has addressed the company's relationship with the Black Widow star.
Disney's Current Relationship With Scarlett Johansson
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke about the company's current relationship with Scarlett Johansson and revealed some context behind the controversial Disney+ release strategy.
When it came to Disney's current partnership with Johansson, Chapek said optimistically it has "never been better.":
"There were a lot of people that got a vote in how we handled that. And I was one voice, and I’ll just say that our relationship with her agency and her has never been better."
Chapek also gave some insight into the streaming release strategy that caused the whole ordeal, revealing that the company "dramatically underestimated" how much content Disney+ would require.
"It’s important to go back to when Disney+ was launched and what the hypothesis was about how much food you had to give that system for it to truly maximize its potential, and I would say we dramatically underestimated the hungry beast and how much content it needed to be fed."
The CEO said that when the pandemic occurred they became "completely constrained" and had to make a "very difficult decision" regarding their content:
"As we were realizing that, COVID hit and we were completely constrained in terms of making new things. So we had very precious few things that were trickling into our system, and we had to make the very difficult decision where to put those things. When the theatrical world was shut down because of COVID, it was kind of an easy decision. You either postpone it for a couple years — and we started postponing, as you remember — but we also had this sort of empty pipeline into this very important strategic initiative for the company, which was Disney+."
Chapek said it was this coupled with subscriber demand that lead to them "diverting content that was originally intended for theaters" whilst also putting a plan in place to "take advantage of the opportunities in theatrical:
"Our viewers, our subscribers were asking for more so we started diverting content that was originally intended for theaters before Disney+ was even envisioned. But at that very same time, we started a very methodical plan to try to determine how much content we as a company would need to fully take advantage of the opportunities in theatrical, because we love the theatrical business, and how much we would need to be able to feed the content pipes that were leading into Disney+ so that we can embrace that opportunity."
Now, a few years into Disney+'s lifecycle, Chapek said the company has a "full understanding of what's needed" and they'd no longer need to "steal content" for different release pipelines.
"Now that production is back fully and we have a full understanding of what’s needed, right about now — this fall — we’re in a position to fully program theatrical exhibition, without having to steal content from one place or another, as well as our streaming services."
Scarlett Johansson's Disney Future
Almost a year on from the Black Widow settlement agreement, it's positive to hear that Johansson's relationship with Disney has remained amicable.
The actress has a number of future projects in the works with the media giant, including starring in a Tower of Terror movie based on the Disneyland ride, and a producing role on a secret Marvel Studios title.
Black Widow's Disney+ release strategy, which also impacted films like Mulan and Jungle Cruise, seems to have been a learning curve for the company that came out of the evolving nature of streaming and the complications of the pandemic.
Former Disney CEO Bob Iger said in an interview earlier this year that "everything is changing really fast" and that the rise of digital media is rapidly impacting how things work in the film industry. Disney wasn't the only company to trial such a strategy during the pandemic, with the likes of WarnerMedia releasing many of its 2021 blockbusters straight onto HBO Max, which was met with similar controversy.
Hopefully, now that some time has passed, Disney is able to take these learnings from the Black Widow lawsuit and adjust its release strategies to meet the evolving realities of the digital world.