Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow lawsuit has revealed a major streaming issue

The most anticipated Hollywood event of the summer is a multimillion-dollar showdown between two of the industry's greatest names: Scarlett Johansson and Disney. Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney last week over the day-and-date distribution of her Marvel superhero picture Black Widow on Disney Plus on the same day it was released in theatres, possibly robbing her of a large box-office payday. The fallout has been tumultuous, but it's also highlighted the many ways that streaming has irrevocably transformed the way we watch movies, as well as the consequences for the creatives and artists who produce them.

Traditionally, movie contracts have been based on box office performance, with large bonuses connected to how well a picture did. Both the artists and the studios benefited from this. Studios saved money upfront and didn't have to risk wasting money on a disaster, while performers, producers, and anyone involved in a film could use box office figures to determine how much their work was worth and be compensated appropriately.

However, with the transition to streaming, things had to alter. An industry attorney who negotiates contracts for top-level talent told The Verge that actors and producers working with a streaming service like Netflix are generally paid a fixed price. If they're fortunate enough to have a lot of clout, they could be able to negotiate a bonus premium charge, which is a contractual monetary amount paid out over months or quarters. However, unlike box office bonuses, it is not based on performance. According to the attorney, Netflix typically pays out this prenegotiated figure in eight quarterly payments following a title's debut, whereas Apple pays out a bit faster over a year.

The traditional method of negotiating talent compensation has rapidly evolved. According to Johansson's lawsuit, the conditions of the Black Widow release were originally settled in 2017 — long before Disney Plus was revealed, and Johansson's team didn't think it was essential to negotiate streaming arrangements. Her contract said that Black Widow would have a "broad theatrical distribution," but the fact that it would be solely theatrical appears to be an understanding.

While actors are aware that they must negotiate conditions for streaming, evaluating their worth is more challenging than looking at box office earnings alone. Streaming providers keep their performance data close to their chests, and they're hesitant to reveal details on engagement and revenue on individual titles. The data that is given is frequently unclear, obfuscated, or devoid of context regarding how streamers judged a title's success (or failure). “I don't see Netflix sharing how big their membership base is or what their viewership is any time soon,” the attorney said. “However, we'd want to see it.”

Another factor to consider is that the success measures for each streamer are, for the most part, unknown. Box office receipts provide a clear picture of a film's performance in relation to its budget and anticipated ticket sales. But, with streaming, we don't really know what a win looks like - large viewing figures, new signups, repeat views — until the firm tells us.