Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow case: The forced evolution from cinema release to online streaming

Johansson’s lawsuit sparks controversy over pandemic income.

By Sumona Bose (VARSITY Contributor)

The pandemic has shifted many industry paradigms, including that of film sales and distribution. While the megascope of the entertainment industry has adapted to screening their destined blockbusters on streaming sites, some films have stuck to their timely theatrical releases to follow the phased re-opening to normalcy. There have been sensational movie drops and original premiers from streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime that have made digital media and entertainment all the more accessible and remotely enjoyable in times of great grief and uncertainty. Many studios have extended their sales through on-demand streaming services, such as Disney+ and HBO Max. Some have collaborative agreements, like MGM studio’s deal with Amazon. Ultimately, this has broadened the horizon for target audiences, constituting novel avenues for big-budget films to reach audiences.

However, with the blockbuster release of Scarlett Johansson’s long-anticipated solo project as the Black Widow, the movie drew criticism from the onset. Firstly, in recent years, Johansson’s growing discomfort over the sexualisation of Natasha Romanoff has fuelled multiple feminist discourse around the commercialisation of female bodies to garner sex appeal for the male gaze. Despite the criticism, this was only the beginning of Johansson’s grievances with mega-corporations. Recently, Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney Studios for breach of contract related to her earnings. The unexpected release of Black Widow on Disney+ prompted Johansson to take the famous film studio to court as a last resort.

Although streaming platforms have become crucial to reviving both media corporations and digital companies during the pandemic, Johansson’s bold step in suing Disney highlights how disagreeable methods of distribution can retain income disparity, especially ones that detour from contractual obligations. Actors rely on theatrical releases since they are guaranteed upfront payment, as well as an additional amount determined by box office earnings. As studios are focusing more on digital streaming for viewership, actors may experience large losses in income. 

Johansson is not the only star who has opposed a studio regarding distribution. Previously, Angelina Jolie, Keanu Reeves, Margot Robbie and Will Smith rallied to scramble up leftover deals with Warner Bros. after announcing their strategy to transition into online streaming. Even prominent directors like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve of the upcoming film Dune have expressed their disagreement with this new strategy. Warner Bros. managed to re-negotiate settlements with stars over creative adjustments, but there are still rumours of unhappy A-List stars over the precedent switch to digital streaming.

Johansson’s character, Natasha Romanoff, has been in the hands of throttling sexism for years. The latest lawsuit over the movie release has eclipsed a legendary superheroine whose legacy ought to outshine the narrative the character has endured. It also highlights the multiplicity of talent displayed during the pandemic where economic success is in direct battle with accountability for its stars. Only time will tell how the situation will unfold, but we might have just witnessed a real-life superheroine in Scarlett Johansson, inspiring others to follow suit and demand their dues.

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