Disney Releases Non-Boffo Response to Johansson Suit
Actress Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company is turning out to be a blockbuster. Yet, the company’s response has elicited mostly thumbs down, giving us an example of some bad litigation communications. Disney seems to have not thought through the narrative arc.
Johansson sued the film giant July 30 in Los Angeles Superior Court over its decision to release its Black Widow movie, in which she stars (pictured), not only in theaters but over its Disney+ streaming service for $30 a pop.
Johansson claims this has cost her millions of dollars because her contract calls for a theatrical release only and for her to get part of the box-office take, which she’s now losing due to home-based couch potatoes. Predictions are that Johansson’s suit is a bellwether and that others will follow as the rift between talent and management over streaming deepens.
Unusually, Disney responded to the suit publicly. “There is no merit whatsoever to this filing,” its statement said. “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20M she has received to date.”
Two things really stand out about that response. The first is its invocation of the pandemic as a defense against a possible contract breach. This didn’t go over well. One commenter to The Wall Street Journal article on the suit wrote: “Disney’s response is obsoletely [sic] repulsive. Disney is using the pandemic to protect its greed.” WSJ columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. wrote, “If you weren’t on Ms. Johansson’s side before, you were now.”
The other notable aspect was Disney’s mention of the $20 million the actress had allegedly already made from the film. That got attention from Johansson’s Hollywood agency, which felt compelled to release its own statement. “The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of,” Creative Artists Agency Co-Chair Bryan Lourd said in the statement.
The whiff of sexism got response from others. Women in Film, ReFrame Project and Time’s Up tweeted out a joint statement decrying “this gendered character attack.”
The only substantive points Disney made in its statement were its contentions that the streaming didn’t violate her contract and that she was set to make even more money because of it. The company would have been well-advised to elaborate on these points rather than taking cheap shots about the pandemic and Johansson’s income.
Photo Credit: Disney
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter on crisis communications. Each week we highlight a crisis story in the news or a survey or study with an eye toward the type of best practices and strategies you can put to work each day. Click here to subscribe.