Over the years, Disney has provided the masses with endlessly entertaining tales of princesses, pirates and more. But in spite of boasting ownership of the so-called “Happiest Place On Earth,” some of the corporation's recent actions have reflected not its ability to inspire joy, but rather its reputation for creating controversy.
While the past year hasn’t seen any lack of newsworthy topics, contention surrounding the streaming site Disney+ has recently become a hot-button topic in the world of entertainment following a legal battle with a multimillion-dollar price tag.
In late July, actress Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit with the Los Angeles Superior Court centered around her headlining role in the recently released Marvel film “Black Widow.” Johansson alleged that Disney violated her contract by releasing the highly anticipated film in theaters and on the Disney+ site concurrently. The actor and her legal team claim that Johansson agreed to a “theatrical release,” meaning that the film would be initially screened solely in movie theaters.
Details of the sensationalized lawsuit reveal that the terms of Johansson’s highly anticipated “Black Widow” role were concreted in 2017. This was four years before the July 2021 release of the film and also nearly two years before the launch of Disney+ was announced in 2019, meaning that terms surrounding streaming were not even discussed at the time.
Significantly, no other Marvel film has ever been released in both theaters and streaming services simultaneously, and the unprecedented choice for a hybrid release likely costs the actor an enormous box- office bonus. This monetary loss is a big one, especially considering the exponential growth of streaming services like Disney+, Netflix and Hulu in recent years.
The Walt Disney Co. itself has been fairly tight-lipped about the issue, making all efforts to keep arbitration private, though Disney CEO Bob Chapek did speak about the controversial decision during the company’s third-quarter earnings call. Chapek stood behind the hybrid release in spite of Johansson’s complaints, stating clearly that the distribution tactic was intended to maximize viewership and broaden the film’s audience.
Chapek’s response may have some validity. Undoubtedly, the rise of streaming services has been mutually beneficial in many ways for viewers and those working in the movie and television industry. Streaming has become synonymous with access — for a small, periodical fee, subscribers have a diverse and constantly changing array of content at their fingertips. Furthermore, those behind the scenes gain a larger, more widespread audience than ever before.
This undeniable reality (coupled with the fact that actors in huge box office movies aren’t exactly hurting for cash) may make it easier to dismiss Johansson’s claims. It can be hard to pick a side, or to even care, about a “he said, she said” money war between an extremely wealthy corporation and one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses, especially coming out of an unprecedented year that pushed millions of Americans into poverty. However, the timely legal battle has cultural and ethical implications that are worth discussing and extend far beyond a paycheck.
For one thing, the lawsuit has once again proven that you really don’t want to know how the sausage gets made.
The entertainment industry is plagued with its fair share of greed and corruption, so it may be worth it to give value to Johansson’s case simply as a matter of principle. Regardless of the outcome, the battle has succeeded in further exposing some of the inconsistencies and questionable ethical behavior exhibited by some of Hollywood’s largest and wealthiest players.
Another important takeaway from the Johansson suit is what it suggests about the future of entertainment and viewership.
The shift to greater online consumption of movies and television has long seemed inevitable, but the trend skyrocketed due to restrictions brought about by pandemic lockdowns. And while Disney+ and others give viewers instant gratification and constant access to the next shiny new thing, there is a cost.
However well-intentioned, the price to pay for progress is the degradation of movie theaters, a long held cultural tradition that has been a keystone feature of American culture since its introduction more than a century ago.
Additionally, it could be argued that the popularity of streaming, while offering more opportunities for viewership, altogether cheapens the artistic value of films. Not only does the release of movies directly to online sites make industry norms more inconsistent and confusing, it can also make it more difficult to determine the success of a film, or to gauge public opinion regarding it.
Perhaps even more significantly, the increased usage of streaming makes it difficult for a film to be appropriately appreciated, interacted with or used as a tool for discourse and social progress.
Movies and art in general are still important, and a big part of what we get out of them is how we choose to view them. Regardless of the outcome of the Johansson case, the important thing is protecting the cultural and artistic value of the content being created, because, as Audrey Hepburn once said, “Everything I learned, I learned from the movies."