To Stream or Not to Stream: Litigation Concerning Box Office Releases Moved to Streaming
It’s no secret that there’s a great deal of money to be made in the box office game. Box office revenue is a reliable measurement of a film’s success, with the most successful films, like Spider-Man: No Way Home, grossing over $1 billion in box office sales. However, like so many aspects of the entertainment industry, box office releases and distributors’ approaches to film rollouts have been affected significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The “lockdown” phase of the pandemic saw companies like Disney move creatively toward streaming releases, with films like Soul bypassing box office releases altogether. Though this solution arose from necessity, the option to stream a new release has not disappeared entirely from the film fanatic’s slate of choices. Since the “reopening” phase of the pandemic has begun and moviegoers now feel safer attending traditional theatrical venues, box offices have reopened. Some studios, however, have chosen a tandem approach, releasing films both to their subscribers as well as to theaters for in-person viewing.
This choice, while met positively by many film aficionados – especially those not yet ready to attend live events – has sparked litigation from many sides. Actors, including Scarlett Johansson, and production companies, including Village Roadshow, have brought suit against companies responsible for abandoning a box office-only approach, affecting the entertainment landscape and causing a stir among the film community.
In summer 2021, Disney released Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansson. The film rollout was accessible to Premier Access Members on Disney+ as well as to moviegoers who bought tickets to see the film traditionally. Johansson alleged that she missed out on box office bonuses due to the rollout on Disney+, and that the film’s underperformance at the box office could be attributed to its availability through streaming. After all, why would a fan who enjoyed the film go see it a second, third, or fourth time at box office prices when they could purchase Premier Access for unlimited views? Knowing Marvel fans, it’s not unlikely that more than a few Black Widow viewers had a hankering to see the film more than once during its early months of release. The complaint also mentioned that Disney+, the relatively nascent streaming platform, may have gotten a boost due to offering an anticipated new flick.
Though the case has since settled and its ultimate impact on future major rollouts remains to be seen, Johansson alerted the entertainment community to a major hole in ongoing negotiations and contracts as companies shift to dual-release models. If actors are not considered while studios find ways to profit from this adaptation to our new world and evolving technologies, we can certainly expect additional lawsuits from actors in the future.
Clearly, Johansson was not alone in her grievances. The issue of streaming as a competitor to box office sales has popped up again – this time in a lawsuit initiated by a production company. Village Roadshow, a co-producer of The Matrix Resurrections, sued Warner Bros., alleging that the studio’s choice to release the film simultaneously via theatrical release and their streaming platform, HBO Max, was motivated by a desire to boost subscribers to the platform. The suit goes on to allege that this choice caused the film to suffer financially, which affected the co-producer’s earnings from the film. The parties will next appear before the court on March 11 for a status hearing, and the outcome of this case will no doubt further stoke the flames of this ongoing debate.
Between Johansson’s settlement and this ongoing litigation, it’s clear that this issue is not yet resolved, and entertainment’s adaptations to a post-2020 world remain to be finalized. Whether simultaneous releases are of the moment or here to stay, one thing is clear: content producers and creatives of all kinds are demanding their fair share, regardless of where fans are watching their movies.