At the end of July, star of the new film Black Widow Scarlett Johansson sued Walt Disney Entertainment for breaching her contract after a change in Black Widow’s release strategy. While few of us may have a case that impacts worldwide product distribution in the same way as Johansson’s does, her lawsuit is an important reminder of a fundamental issue that should be a factor in every intellectual property contract.
At the center of the lawsuit is that Disney decided to make Black Widow available through paid access within its streaming service, Disney+, at the same time as they released the movie in theatres. According to the Wall Street Journal, Johansson claims that her contract prohibited Disney from this simultaneous distribution. Instead, Johansson maintains Disney was required to have an initial theatrical release. Only after it was finished could the company move the film to its streaming service.
In response, Disney says that the streaming release was warranted due to the circumstances of the Covid pandemic. Basically, the company is arguing that Johansson is being hard-hearted towards her fans, and she fails to see the bigger picture: Since Johansson will profit from the new source of revenue (from those who paid to stream the film), Disney believes she has nothing to complain about.
In early October, Disney and Johansson came to an agreement on the dispute bringing the months-long legal battle between the media giant and one of Hollywood’s leading stars to an end.
This case is a good reminder that every contract needs to specify how the end product of a project (e.g., a film) will be distributed in the marketplace—what platforms are included in the approval and the timeframe for their use. The contract should clarify the expectations of the parties so there are no surprise outcomes.
It also reminds us that those who distribute the end product of a project in a manner outside the scope of what the parties agreed to in their contract do so at their peril. Having a business imperative to disregard contractual limitations—even a global pandemic—will not protect someone from a lawsuit.
If you have questions about intellectual property contracts, contact Earp Cohn’s Carrie Ward to discuss your options.