Disney wants to move Scarlett Johansson lawsuit to private arbitration

Scarlett Johansson’s lawyers want their day in court.

The legal team responded over the weekend to a court filing from Disney seeking private arbitration of her “Black Widow” lawsuit.

“After initially responding to this litigation with a misogynistic attack against Scarlett Johansson, Disney is now, predictably, trying to hide its misconduct in a confidential arbitration,” said John Berlinski, an attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres who represents Johansson, in a statement Saturday.

“Why is Disney so afraid of litigating this case in public?” he asked.

Since July 29, when Johansson filed her lawsuit against the entertainment giant for breach of contract, lawyers on either side of the suit have traded barbs in the press. Disney claims it upheld its end of the deal by giving the film a wide theatrical release, while Johansson’s lawyers claim the company cut corners during the pandemic to boost its new streaming service and deny their client millions in backend payments.

Disney’s latest filing, which was submitted to the Los Angeles County Superior Court on Friday, seeks to keep future legal battles behind closed doors. The company claims that Periwinkle, the company representing Johansson, agreed that all claims “arising out of, in connection with, or relating to” Johansson’s “Black Widow” work would be submitted to confidential, binding arbitration in New York.

It also contested that Marvel was not named as a party in the lawsuit, suggesting that Johansson’s lawyers were using “gamesmanship” to generate publicity in targeting the studio’s parent company. Had Marvel been named, the suit alleges, the complaint would automatically have gone to private arbitration.

Disney’s main argument against Johansson is that it adhered to the “wide theatrical release” requirement of the contract that stipulated the film would not be placed on less than 1,500 screens.

“There is nothing in the agreement requiring that a ‘wide theatrical release’ also be an ‘exclusive’ theatrical release,” Disney’s filing states.

Disney also said that it assured the actor that 100% of the proceeds from streaming receipts would be used to calculate additional compensation.

On the other side of the suit, Johansson claims her agreement with Disney’s Marvel Entertainment guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release for her solo film. Her lawyers said the language of the contract indicated the Marvel film would get a typical theatrical release “like its other films.” No other Marvel film has been released on streaming at the same time as its theatrical release.

The actor’s initial contract was signed two years before the launch of Disney+. According to Johansson’s lawsuit, the actor contacted Marvel in early 2019 after Disney executives suggested that the new streaming service could be used to launch titles from its comic book franchise.

Her lawsuit includes a response from Marvel’s chief counsel.

“We understand that should the plan change, we would need to discuss this with you and come to an understanding as the deal is based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses,” the response reads.

While Disney says it did connect with Johansson about the hybrid-release model in spring 2021, her lawsuit contends that Disney and Marvel did not respond to her attempts to negotiate new terms.

Johansson’s team argues that it was Disney, not its subsidiary Marvel, that ultimately decided to release “Black Widow” in theaters and on Disney+ premier access on the same day, so it was Disney, not Marvel, that breached the actor’s contract. Therefore, the lawsuit does not need to go to private arbitration and can be argued in front of a jury.

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