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Olivia de Havilland, a star from Gone with the Wind, set Hollywood aflame in the 1940s with a lawsuit against the powerful studio Warner Bros.
De Havilland fought to escape an exclusive contract with Warner that she felt was limiting her to mediocre roles. She won the case in some style, dealing an axe blow to the binding big studio contracts of the time and giving actors a level of independence that has stuck to this day.
Similarly, Scarlett Johansson, a modern-day mega-actress, has taken a legal stand against a big studio, alleging Disney used the Black Widow film to lure people to its streaming service, juicing its stock price at the expense of Johansson, whose bonus was tied to box-office sales.
Negotiations between actors and studios are often tense. Johansson’s battle stands out because it went public in such spectacular fashion, spurring endlessly dramatic reactions across Hollywood, with one film critic declaring: “Cinema will never be the same.”
But while de Havilland legitimately made history, Johansson’s chances of toppling the streamers who now control Hollywood seem slimmer.
For the past seven decades, as actors were allowed to “freelance” across studios, they have enjoyed considerable leverage. The highest echelon of stars began earning a cut of a movie’s profit with the likes of Marlon Brando in the 1950s, aligning both sides’ interests. They either prospered or tanked together.
Streaming has torn apart this model. Disney, and Wall Street, view subscribers as the metric for success, not box office revenue. And they are not sharing subscription revenue with actors.
Disney fired back at Johansson’s lawsuit with venom, taking observers aback with the sharpness of its criticism as the company accused the actress of “callous disregard” for the pandemic, and outing her $20m salary for good measure.
One longtime studio executive believes Disney’s fiery response was an attempt to “fire your warning shot early” over future movie profits, effectively saying: “You’re never going to get a piece of this.”
Warner and Netflix have kept the stars happy by handing out big cheques upfront, paying them as though every movie was a box-office hit. Disney has made the calculation that it is more powerful than bad publicity or angry actors.
Johansson’s suit hinges on the interpretation of her contract, which promises a “wide theatrical release”. Does wide theatrical release preclude streaming? A top entertainment lawyer says it is “murky”. But even if Johansson wins, her battle cry will probably not prompt the watershed moment actors are hoping for.
Actors have less leverage in the streaming era for a few reasons. After historic consolidation, a handful of big streaming services preside over the entire business. Popular intellectual property has become the most coveted asset, rather than landing Tom Cruise, or Johansson, for a role. Instead, the studios want franchises that they can milk into endless movies and TV series to keep subscribers satiated. (Disney is spinning 10 shows out of the Star Wars franchise alone).
Actors’ power is further undermined because they do not even know how successful their films are. In the past, box office results assigned a clear dollar value to a movie, guaranteeing actors a specific bonus or percentage payment. In streaming, the owner of the platform is the only party who knows exactly how many people watched a movie, or how subscription numbers changed.
In this new world order, Johansson might be more of a Taylor Swift than de Havilland. In 2014, Swift, at the time undoubtedly the most financially successful musician in the world, boycotted Spotify, making a series of indignant statements about musicians being paid for their work. Within three years she surrendered, as Spotify grew so large it became unavoidable. Today Swift thanks Spotify while promoting her new music.
Having gained 104m subscribers in only a year and a half, Disney Plus has already secured its place in the streaming market. The superhero-ification of the movie industry gives Disney even more power; landing a role in a Marvel film can make an actor’s career.
It is unclear whether Disney’s unemotional approach will mould talent contracts going forward. Or if there will be a template at all. Hollywood is in the middle of a wrenching digital revolution and the world is still fighting a pandemic. One thing is certain, though — the tug of war between the studios and talent will carry on whether in private or public.