Scarlett Johansson's Lawyer Says Disney Is 'Trying to Hide Its Misconduct' by Seeking Arbitration

"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," the actress' lawyer John Berlinkski said in a statement

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson. Photo: Karwai Tang/Getty

Disney is pushing back following Scarlett Johansson's lawsuit against the company for alleged breach of contract over the release of Black Widow.

The company filed a motion with the Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday evening to move the lawsuit to binding arbitration in New York, according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE.

Arbitration is a confidential process "where disputing parties agree that one or several individuals can make a decision about the dispute after receiving evidence and hearing arguments," per the American Bar Association.

In response to Friday's filing, Johansson's attorney John Berlinski said in a statement, "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."

"Why is Disney so afraid of litigating this case in public?" he continued. "Because it knows that Marvel's promises to give Black Widow a typical theatrical release 'like its other films' had everything to do with guaranteeing that Disney wouldn't cannibalize box office receipts in order to boost Disney+ subscriptions. Yet that is exactly what happened — and we look forward to presenting the overwhelming evidence that proves it."

In the lawsuit obtained by PEOPLE in July, Johansson said her Black Widow contract with Disney's Marvel Entertainment was for a guaranteed exclusive movie-theater release — with the bulk of her salary depending in large part on the film's box-office performance.

"Disney intentionally induced Marvel's breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel," the lawsuit read.

Disney's latest filing disputes that claim and questions Johansson's Periwinkle Entertainment Inc. for deciding not to name Marvel as a defendant in the lawsuit.

"In a futile effort to evade this unavoidable result (and generate publicity through a public filing), Periwinkle excluded Marvel as a party to this lawsuit — substituting instead its parent company Disney under contract-interference theories. But longstanding principles do not permit such gamesmanship," Disney said in the filing.

Scarlett Johansson Iron Man 2
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Marvel/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

They continued, "The contract does not mandate theatrical distribution — let alone require that any such distribution be exclusive. Moreover, the contract expressly provides that any theatrical-distribution obligations are satisfied by distribution on 'no less than 1500 screens.' And even though Black Widow's release coincided with a global public-health crisis, Marvel made good on its promises. After shifting the original May 2020 release date several times — including at Johansson's request — the Picture ultimately debuted on July 9, 2021 on more than 30,000 screens."

The defendant also stated, "Marvel discussed the hybrid-release-pattern decision with Johansson in spring 2021, as the parties were conferring regarding the Picture's release date. Marvel has assured Johansson that she will be credited with 100% of the Premier Access and PEHV receipts for purposes of the box-office thresholds used to calculate any additional compensation — even though Marvel has no obligation under the Agreement to do so."

The company also made a pointed remark that Black Widow's box-office opening weekend grossed more than $135 million, noting it was "more than that of many other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, including Thor: The Dark World; Ant-Man; Ant-Man and the Wasp; and Guardians of the Galaxy."

Opening the curtain behind the film's success, Disney said that as of Aug. 15, the movie "grossed more than $367 million in worldwide box-office receipts and more than $125 million in streaming and download retail receipts."

Scarlett Johansson attending the 73rd British Academy Film Awards held at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Scarlett Johansson. Getty

After Johansson's lawsuit was made public, a Disney spokesperson for the company said, "There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. 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," the statement continued.

Disney faced backlash from Johansson's agent Bryan Lourd as well as multiple women's groups in Hollywood, such as Time's Up, ReFrame and Women in Film, who called the company's response to the actress's lawsuit "a gendered character attack."

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE at the time, Berlinski also said, "It's no secret that Disney is releasing films like Black Widow directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company's stock price — and that it's hiding behind COVID-19 as a pretext to do so. But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of its films in furtherance of this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving as much in court."

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Two weeks later, Disney CEO Bob Chapek stated that he supports the company's hybrid movie release model.

During an earnings call on Aug. 12, Chapek spoke about the dual releases of films in movie theaters and on Disney+, telling Wall Street analysts, "We value flexibility in being able to make last-minute calls," according to Deadline.

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Chapek, who did not mention Johansson or Black Widow by name, also said, "Certainly when we planned we didn't anticipate the resurgence of COVID."

He added that he and former CEO Bob Iger, who now serves as chairman of the board at Disney, "determined" the dual release plan for several of this year's movies "was the right strategy to enable us to reach the broadest possible audience."

Chapek also reiterated that "distribution decisions are made on a film-by-film basis. We will continue to utilize all options going forward."

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