Disney execs will be breathing a sight of relief that Emma Stone has chosen to sign up to Cruella 2 rather than follow Scarlett Johansson‘s lead in suing them over the Disney+ Premier Access – but they shouldn’t chalk this one up as a win. The coronavirus pandemic has had an unpredictable effect on Hollywood, accelerating studios’ move to streaming. Disney was taken aback when Scarlett Johansson responded to their decision to release Black Widow on Disney+ by suing them for loss of earnings, a case that will hurt Disney – even if they win.
As is common in the industry, Johansson’s contracts specified she would be paid bonuses based on Black Widow‘s box office performance. The Disney+ Premier Access release undoubtedly cut into that, and Johansson is claiming she has lost out on up to $50 million. Disney’s response to the lawsuit has been surprisingly aggressive, raising eyebrows across the film industry. Meanwhile, other actors considered following Johansson’s lead; there were reports Emma Stone was deciding whether to sue Disney over Cruella, which also had a Premier Access release on Disney+. She has ultimately chosen not to, instead signing up for Cruella 2, and on the face of it this looks like a Disney win in preventing another reputation-damaging lawsuit.
That assessment would be too simplistic, however. According to insider Matthew Belloni, Stone was emboldened in her negotiations with Disney, and she forced the House of Mouse to rewrite parts of the contract for the streaming era. She has earned an eight-figure payment that she will receive regardless of whether Cruella 2 actually gets made, a further sum if production does indeed go ahead, and even a back-end payment “that includes a royalty on each at-home sale on streaming” in place of tiered bonuses. While Disney will no doubt be pleased to have avoided another court case, Stone has clearly played her hand well.
While it’s tempting to focus on the astronomical sums involved in this case, at heart it is a power struggle. Disney is not the only studio to release their films on streaming during the pandemic, but rivals such as Warner Bros. have avoided similar court cases by renegotiating contracts. Disney chose to push ahead with Premier Access regardless of the potential financial costs for their stars, and Johansson’s lawsuit is essentially pushing back on that, with the actress insisting she should not lose out because Disney changed its distribution strategy. Stone’s successful negotiations for Cruella 2 should be seen as an implicit concession on this point from Disney; indeed, it’s striking that Belloni reports Stone forced Disney to admit they should have bought back the contracts like Warner Bros. The power dynamic has shifted a little bit towards the actors.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Johansson case will end up in court – or even in arbitration. Disney’s initial response to the lawsuit was overly aggressive, but their concessions to Stone may hint at a change in approach. That may well be what Johansson herself hopes for, the ultimate plot twist in the surprising story of Black Widow‘s post-release.