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Scarlett Johansson vs Disney. A few days ago, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars announced her decision to take on the Mouse in a court of law, a moment of frustration catalysed by a dispute over Johansson’s latest outing Black Widow and its ‘theatrical window’.
Her argument, in essence, was that Disney had promised a theatrical release, a promise that she understood meant Black Widow would be exclusive to cinemas until the time was right to release it on Disney+, the company’s flagship streaming service.
Disney responded fiercely, calling Johansson’s lawsuit out as ‘callous’ and showing a ‘disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic’, a statement laced with unintended irony, given that, shockingly, neither the A-list actor nor the multi-billion-dollar corporation will have been hit anywhere nearly as bad as the watching public they are bickering in front of.
Either way, the new Disney smear tactics are unexpected. They released the information that Johansson earned an upfront payment of $20m for starring in Black Widow, information that is clearly being used to present her as greedy and inconsiderate; a bold move when targeting is one of the world’s favourite actors and star of your biggest moneymaking franchise. Do we infer, then, that Disney is desperate to protect the autonomy of its streaming platform, even at the expense of valuable assets? What do we infer about Scarlett Johansson – is she fighting the good fight on behalf of cinematic autonomy, or as greedy as Disney insinuate?
The answer to that is simple. Who knows? The whole fiasco has been inflated beyond reasonable proportions by people looking for a bit of excitement in the general absence of any yet, no one has imbued their enthusiasm with any insight. It’s the same kind of furore that arises when two heavyweights are scheduled to fight, but in this instance, the heavyweights will be meeting in a wood panelled courtroom and obsessively dissecting fine print for weeks on end. Unless the lawyers for the defence and prosecution are Saul Goodman and Harvey Specter, you can count me out.
Ultimately, even if the case reaches court, it will be settled away from the public eye. Someone will pay someone else a bit of money and life will almost definitely carry on as normal. If Emma Stone and Emily Blunt decide to join the fight (as has been rumoured) then, it might be one to keep an eye on.
But you can’t just leave the issue there. That’s would be pointless – and even if it wasn’t – there is still a nagging sense of a trend emerging, a timeline of flash points that may develop into a more significant chain of events. It would be remiss not to explore that possibility and its consequences.
Johansson vs Disney has picked up a lot of publicity but, it is not the first instance of a star taking on their paymasters nor is it the most forceful diatribe. Notably, two of the most popular directors around, Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, publicly lambasted Warner Bros. and their streaming service HBO Max, after they announced that all of Warner Bros. 2021 releases would stream concurrently on the platform. For traditionalists such as Nolan and Villeneuve, this amounts to no less than cinematic sacrilege, a breach of trust between the studios and both its filmmakers and audiences. Villeneuve put it best in an exclusive tirade for Variety, saying ‘Streaming can produce great content, but not movies of “Dune’s” (his upcoming film) scope and scale.’
He is absolutely correct on both counts. Netflix has a host of fantastic original shows, from The Crown to Better Call Saul, where the best viewing medium is doubtlessly on a TV screen in the comfort of one’s own home. They are long haul experiences, not suited to a cinema screen. Beyond that, streaming services have contributed to a golden age of TV, either producing or hosting the best shows available. Given the enormous financial power that Netflix, Amazon and Disney wield, it’s no surprise, but it is this financial power that is starting to have an adverse effect on the film industry.
Firstly, you do have temper criticism of these kinds of decisions with knowledge of the global context these days. Obviously, the effect of the pandemic requires businesses, however big or small, to adapt and Warner Bros’ plan for HBO Max will be largely motivated by a fear of revenue loss. By encouraging people to join, they guarantee income without each audience member having to venture into the risky outdoors.
The worry is whether this trend will continue beyond the pandemic. You can already hear the studios saying, ‘we’ve started this now so we may as well finish it.’ But even before coronavirus took hold of the industry, it seemed as if the power balance was shifting towards streaming anyway. Martin Scorsese, arguably the greatest living director and foremost champion of cinema as a legitimate art form, had his 2019 epic The Irishman released to theatres for a limited time before it was then confined to Netflix.
Why would such a stalwart give in to streaming? Well, quelle surprise, money. The Irishman’s de-aging CGI technology meant the film was out of the standard studio budget range. Netflix, of course, were happy to cover the small fee of $175m to produce the film. Was Scorsese happy with the arrangement? One would guess not, knowing his values, but that is the direction films are headed. The new force, the new money is in streaming. It simply out-competes its rivals.
As Scorsese’s next film Killers of the Flower Moon is expected to be released on Apple TV+, it begs more questions about the future of the art’s traditional values. What seems to be misunderstood by those who make these executive decisions are the core principles that make cinema what it is. Filmmakers cultivate their artwork with nothing but the big screen in mind, designing every aspect of the sound and image with precision and time-consuming effort to maximise the visceral emotional experience that true cinema should provide.
Everything is changing. Inventions will always follow a doomed cycle – they are born, they become popular, then traditional, then outdated and then they die. And it’s sad, but it’s going to happen, because we are exploitable creatures of convenience. We drive to places we could walk, shop online instead of the high street, we browse Netflix when we could, for a little more effort, grace the theatre. The things that we ignore will end up in the infinite graveyard of outdated tradition.
So, Scarlett Johansson vs. Disney may prove to be a farce, another forgettable footnote, lost amidst the reams and reams of meaningless industry gossip and drama. But maybe, maybe, we can hope that it becomes another link in the chain of opposition to the opportunism of the streaming services.