As businesses shutter, excluded workers lose their homes and livelihoods, the pingdemic decimates food supplies and millions of families bury loved ones, won’t somebody please think of the A-list movie stars? Scarlett Johansson has been hit particularly hard by COVID, having to settle for a measly $20million for her appearance in Black Widow and lose out on a potential further $50million due to Disney’s decision to release films to cinemas and streaming simultaneously during the pandemic.
$20million? That’s not going to get her even part way to space. And while there were reportedly attempts to renegotiate the small-print when plans changed, a compromise hasn’t been reached. So Johansson is suing Disney over loss of earnings, with many other stars in a similar situation keeping a close eye on proceedings. Emily Blunt was said to be monitoring figures from the similar release of her new Disney film Jungle Cruise, while Emma Stone was “weighing her options” in regard to suing over the lost earnings she might have suffered from the dual release of Cruella in cinemas and on demand in May.
In more normal circumstances we’d be championing Johansson for taking on the might of the manipulative major studios in the name of women getting what they’re owed in cinema. But these are far from normal circumstances. Releasing in the pandemic has been a risky business all round: both Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984, sure-fire box office behemoths in any normal year, are facing significant losses, sacrificed in order to keep cinema’s pulse pumping, however faintly. Now I’m not privy to Johansson’s contractual arrangements, but no doubt her drop in earnings is a reflection of the reduced income that Disney took on the film as a result of a release plan put in place to minimise risk during a global health emergency. If you were really looking to put the boot in, you could argue Johansson is suing over Disney’s failure to encourage people to put their lungs on the line to watch her battle a villain called Taskmaster and potentially leave disappointed that, in more than two hours, she never once had to make a self-portrait out of pineapple while being timed by “Little” Alex Horne.
Disney hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory in the matter, of course. With Disney+ breaking box office records and bringing in billions before COVID, they’re better placed to cover lockdown losses than most. And having left the only female Avenger ‘til last for a solo movie, only to wage-shame her in an official statement the minute she starts complaining about her treatment… well, there are worse looks for a movie studio, but they’d probably involve commissioning a superhero franchise starring the cast of GB News.
Still, for Scarlett Johansson, there seem better hills to die on in terms of fair treatment of talent in cinema. In an unpredictable global crisis, where huge numbers of people and industries have taken devastating hits and even major Hollywood studios have had to downgrade expectations and rethink their release models, perhaps it’s best to count your 20million blessings this time and rejig any future contracts to take best advantage of the continuing practice of media-wide releases.
If we’ve learned anything over the past 18 months it’s that life’s normal practices – and the profits to be made from it – aren’t to be relied upon, society’s goalposts can quickly move, staying in can become the new going out virtually overnight. A Johansson win in this case might well set a worrying pandemic precedent: forcing studios to press for cinema-led releases despite any resurgence of a new variant, for example. And how might the industry be impacted if actors or directors start suing over unsuccessful studio cuts or unexpected turkeys?
Once main players begin legally demanding the top end of what they think they deserve over whatever the market has awarded them, studios could be brought to their knees by a couple of Cats in a row. And while it’s appealing to see the talent wrestle the money men for their fair dues, could it lead to a glut of unrealistic artist entitlement? Bands suing for the maximum potential profits from gigs that failed to sell out – or crap records that sank without trace? For a start, I should be getting at least a pound a word for this col (That’s enough words – Ed)