Scarlett Johansson's Lawsuit Might Be An Obstacle For The Russo Brothers' Next Marvel Movie

It's way more fun to talk about movies than it is to dive deep into the business side of the industry. Movie fans don't become movie fans because they're fascinated by executive moves or accounting trickery. We love the sausage and the more we know about how it's made, the less appealing the whole dang thing is.

I personally tend to focus on the craft of filmmaking and the final product itself, but there are times when you just cannot avoid pulling back the curtain because what's going on back there will have huge ramifications for the industry as a whole.

Our own Danielle Ryan wrote a great breakdown of the lawsuit Scarlett Johansson filed against Disney and the company's rather disgusting response to it and we now know a lot of what Ryan theorized is coming to pass thanks to a brand new deep dive into the behind-the-scenes of the lawsuit over at the Wall Street Journal.

There's lots to talk about in this story, but the big nugget pertaining to the future of the MCU is that the lawsuit may be responsible for a delay in Joe and Anthony Russo returning to the MCU.

An Uncertain Future

According to the article, the "Avengers" directors reached "an impasse in negotiations" while working out their deal for an as yet unknown MCU film, specifically because there's uncertainty about the future of distribution. 

That's the key here. Almost all tentpole feature film contracts with big stars don't pay the actors their full fee up front. They'll get a large sum of money up front, don't get me wrong, but in many cases that's just a fraction of what their total paycheck will be when you factor in profit participation and bonuses, most of which are tied directly to theatrical box office. Not streaming eyeballs, mind you, but dollars paid for tickets. 

With the future of theatrical distribution uncertain, filmmakers like the Russos or blockbuster stars like Emma Stone are hesitant to make traditional deals because it's totally possible that even if Covid goes away in another year, that the movie-watching habits of the audience has changed and box office grosses never reach the heights that they once did.

A Reckoning Is Coming

The studios can't depend on the previous way of doing things if they insist on jumping headfirst into new media. It feels like they know this is change is coming because they already worked out a deal with Emma Stone for a "Cruella" sequel that reportedly accounts for the possibility of a different bonus structure should the sequel suffer the same fate as the first and open in theaters and on demand simultaneously. 

According to that WSJ piece, whatever that similar stipulation was for the Russos, the studio seemed reluctant to meet it, to the point that they're all in a holding pattern instead of getting to work on whatever this mystery MCU project is.

There is an argument to be made that A-list actors and directors just flat out earn too much money under the old system and they need to readjust their expectations in this new world, but when you pull at that string even a little bit you see that argument doesn't make much sense.

Disney gets 100% of the proceeds of premium on-demand buys through Disney+ instead of having to split their money with theater owners. Not even counting the cash they rake in on the base subscription, the studio is theoretically poised to make more money with new media than they traditionally would theatrically.

The numbers aren't there yet, but that's the direction they're moving. People aren't watching Marvel content any less, whether it's at home or in a movie theater, so why shouldn't these bonuses be reflected in the new revenue stream? 

"We Need to Come to an Understanding..."

Listen, it's easy to dismiss already wealthy people wanting even more money with an eye roll, but the fact of the matter is we're talking about one of the biggest studios in the world trying to figure out a way to not pay one of their stars the money she was promised when she signed on the dotted line. The WSJ piece even goes so far as to quote Marvel's chief counsel, Dave Galluzzi, as telling Johansson early on that should they not do a traditional release of "Black Widow" that they would "need to come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses."

The shifting theatrical landscape is so uncertain right now that however this lawsuit plays out will have a massive impact on how Hollywood works going forward. They studios can't expect to change their whole distribution model without also changing their participation bonuses that keep their biggest stars and filmmakers paid for their services.

For the record, the WSJ piece goes into great detail on what Johansson is asking for and why, what went wrong with Disney's response and how everything got this far. If you want to know more about the nitty-gritty of this suit I highly recommend giving it a read. 

Spoiler alert: Disney CEO Bob Chapek doesn't come off all that great and Kevin Feige was one of the only people in power fighting for Johansson as all this was going down.