The Streaming War Has Begun… To Get More Interesting

“In this battle of streaming wars, of accessibility, creative quality and ownership– money is the prize and the weapon formed against us.”

First Black Widow, and now it looks like Shang-Chi is caught in the crossfire.

Let’s talk about the Streaming Wars!

I love to watch battle scenes. I think most people do, no matter what the violence entails or which side you’re rooting for. Whether it be a ragtag group of misfits banding together to take on something much more significant. An underdog hero with the odds unfavourable in their position as they go against a beast. Or two gods fighting over the end of the world as they know it. Fantasy, science-fiction and historical dramas are great genre settings for these battles. But to witness a battle in the mundane setting of our unfiltered world in real-time? The slow unfolding of powerful corporations and the dangerous uncovering of even more powerful people? It has got to be one of my dreadfully favourite battles to watch.

On the morning of 29 July, exactly a month after the much anticipated Black Widow (2021) release, Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney. Attorneys representing Johansson claim that Disney had breached her contract by releasing the film on their streaming platform, Disney+, at the same time as releasing in theatres. Thus restricting ticket sales and the overall box office performance. Johansson’s contract tied compensation exclusively to only-theatre release and box office sales. Due to the pandemic causing a two-year delay from its initial release. When Disney finally announced that Black Widow would release on Disney+ with an added subscription fee, it created friction.

As it was not a part of Johansson’s contract and decreased any chance of the film becoming a box office hit. Many more fans opted to watch Black Widow on Disney+ than the theatres. The film had grossed $360.2 Million, which seems a lot. Until recorded sales fell 67% in its second weekend at the US box office, marking the biggest-ever drop for an MCU movie from its opening.

Avengers films usually hit over the billion-dollar mark at the box office. As the original member and the long-awaited solo film, Black Widow was tracking to score as high. If not higher as the first major film in Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4 slate. While the contract in question has not yet been revealed to the public, the lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. Stating “Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of agreement, without justification, to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel.”

Johansson had been ambushed. As an executive producer of the film, she poured her finances into the production that made Black Widow. The majority of her compensation is dependent on the film’s box office performance and expecting further bonuses if seen successful; Johansson’s leap into her superheroine’s solo film now mirrored the cliff Natasha Romanoff fell from Avengers: Endgame (2019). As the first film from the MCU to release on Disney+, the corporation revealed that of the $80 Million earned in Black Widow’s opening weekend, $60 Million was in part of the streaming platform’s rental revenue.

The transparency of the statistics was meant to intimidate other streaming services, but instead, it stung Johansson. Over a decade of playing an underutilized character, misunderstood through misogyny and the male gaze, finally getting her solo film. For it to only achieve a fraction of the profits imagined. Raving reviews and praise for the super spy doesn’t precisely pay her.  Johansson was ambushed, and she wasn’t prepared to go down quietly. 

Johansson moving forward in this battle against Disney is a particularly engaging perspective. She’s no underdog in this fight, and her past of questionable comments drew a mixed reaction to these headlines. Disney responded that the choice to make Black Widow available on Disney+ simultaneously during its theatre release was to adhere to the safety of fans and pandemic precautions. “There is no merit whatsoever to this filing,” Disney fired back. “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Disney was armed, as always, and Johansson’s attempts to bring them down wouldn’t be so easy. This made Johansson seem ignorant of the pandemic. Painting her alleged greed for money as more important than the fear of ordinary watchers. Disney stated further that Johansson had already received $20 Million for her work. Arguing that “the release of Black Widow on Disney+ has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20 Million she has received to date.”. The only thing worse than playing dirty in a battle is if your opponent was playing naïve.

This was between the industry’s most recognizable and highest-paid actress against the world’s most recognizable and highest-earning corporation. Would Johansson be an unstoppable force against Disney’s immovable object? Her legal team believed so and encouraged her to take the case that would be unprecedented. Not only would Johansson’s team take the big mouse corporation by the ears. But it would also expose the damaging effects streaming services have on artists and creators.

Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney was merely a spark as more actors and directors came forward with concerns about streaming services. Despite the growing demand and preferred consumption of films/series during the pandemic. Emma Stone soon released a statement that she was considering suing Disney after the simultaneous release of Cruella (2021). A hit on Disney+ earlier in the year but didn’t deliver impressive box office numbers. This was followed by a pre-emptive statement from Emily Blunt, mere weeks ahead of the release of Jungle Cruise (2021). Another film that would ultimately blunder at the box office due to the simultaneous release on Disney’s streaming platform.

The fire was now ablaze. More artists came forward of how streaming services negatively impacted their films even before the pandemic hit. Complaining of movies made years ago that now received no payment despite high rankings on these particular streaming sites. Gerard Butler has filed a lawsuit against the producers of Olympus Has Fallen (2013). Yes, read that again. A lawsuit, for a film that came out almost eight years ago– claiming breach of contract and $10 million still owed to him from the profits. Last year saw Olympus Has Fallen, and its latest installment Angel Has Fallen (2019). Which graced the Top Ten on Netflix for a couple of weeks.

Pay gaps in Hollywood have been a significant issue for many, many years. Still, if the pay gap because of streaming is drastically impacting prominent white film stars, then I can’t even begin to imagine the more significant gap for actors of colour. Simu Liu, the first Asian Canadian MCU superhero and star of the highly anticipated Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), is fighting a much more frustrating battle.

To avoid another potential lawsuit, Disney is making Shang-Chi have separate in-theatre and on-streaming releases. CEO Bob Chapek commented that “it will be an interesting experiment for us” and “another data point” for Disney+. Considering the movie is only going to be utilizing a 45-day theatrical exhibition before going to streaming. This is no longer a presumption but a pattern. Studios appear to be setting up these high-budget movies to fail at the box office. All so that they can reap more benefits as major titles on streaming services. Something that clearly got under the public and Simu’s skin.

Fans took to social media claiming there’s a noticeable absence of Shang-Chi promotion. That Disney has left Simu to do all the heavy lifting to promote the movie all by his lonesome. Simu himself took to Twitter and made an impassioned, albeit corny, call to action. Stating “we’re not an experiment”, and inviting fans to join him in “fucking up history” on September 3rd.

This matter transcends ‘contractual complications’. Beneath the surface, it’s a struggle for ownership under streaming services. The rise of Netflix, Hulu, AmazonPrime and HBO Max, to name a few. Has removed these dependent forms of compensation from box office successes. The decision by traditional movie studios, like Warner Bros. and Disney, to release films on their in-house subscription services has further upended these old ways of doing business.

When Warner Bros. opted to send its entire filmography to HBO Max, the studio had to pay tens of millions of dollars to the stars of those films. That resulted in Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Keanu Reeves earning their entire back-end on Warner Bros.’s movies on its new service. To restrict the pitfalls of streaming services to the payment of actors seems like a minor issue. Until one realizes that for creators and artists who will most likely turn to streaming services to distribute their work, ownership rights and the majority of profits now vests with the streaming company instead of the creator.

That means directors, writers, music composers, cinematographers, wardrobe, and other essential departments. All the people behind your favourite movies would lose the intellectual property rights to their creations. Because it would, first and foremost, all belong to the streaming company. Then the meagre pay becomes an immense frustration as streaming services’ revenue is, once again, goes to the company first, and then the artist. But this residual payment system doesn’t have to be like that. When filming Malcom & Marie (2020), executive producer Zendaya ensured that the entire crew, which comprised 22 people in total, would benefit from the ‘points system’ that streaming services have enabled when purchasing distribution and ownership rights of media. Malcolm & Marie was sold for $30 Million to Netflix – so one point equals 1%. Everyone on the cast and crew who had points was likely rewarded for their work.

Even if a crew member had just one point, that could equal $300 000 in profit for them from the sale to Netflix. Zendaya explained, “These are the people that are laying all the tracks and were with us through the whole thing — and literally putting their blood, sweat, and tears into it.”

These terms and conditions to work with streaming services shouldn’t be a trap for creators. Confirmation of full payment, restriction of ownership rights, and (unlike some streaming services, promote themselves) control over creativity. A prime example would be Michaela Coel’s refusal of Netflix’s upfront offer of $1 Million for her Emmy-nominated limited series I May Destroy You. Citing in a Forbes interview that the sum had strings attached, including full rights ownership away from the creator.

Coel debated with a Netflix executive producer on this; “I said, ‘If it’s not a big deal, then I’d really like to have 5 % of my rights,’” Coel added, stating that she even went down to 2%, and then 1% and even as a final compromise to 0.5%. Netflix didn’t budge. So instead, Coel accepted the offer from BBC that partnered with HBO. Granting her full control and ownership rights over all twelve episodes which she wrote and starred in. 

This takes the streaming wars to new stakes. At first, the streaming war seemed to be about the type of content and prices each streaming platform offered. During the lockdown, the overall streaming service subscriptions reached 1 Billion users, with Disney+ spurring more than 100 million subscribers. To say that streaming is based on ‘conformality would be a severe simplification. Sure, streaming services have opened many doors – I mean tabs – of opportunities at a person’s own time and taste, especially when all of that was within the walls of your home during the pandemic lockdown, but this has since pushed streaming services to provide more than that.

Streaming services offering proper closed captions in a variety of languages, audio descriptors, brightness adjustments and speed ratings have enhanced viewership that one may not receive in theatres. For too long, experiencing films in the theatres had hindered people with disabilities. By going above to provide ‘comfortability,’ streaming services had begun to promote ‘accessibility.’ Streaming services became more accommodating through partnering with studios, production houses and even film festivals to send screeners, thus revealing the attainability of the film industry when finally pushed to do so.

The pre-Covid memories of the in-theatre experience may be greatly missed. Still, the steps taken to grant accessibility of media through streaming shouldn’t be disregarded once ‘this all goes away.’ The pros achieved from the accessibility and inclusivity of streaming services outweigh the cons, but that is only because of the dynamic I have as a viewer and not a creator. As I, alongside other viewers, ask for ‘quality over quantity’ from the approved content and arrives on streaming services, that quality should include the ethics for what happens beyond our screens and beyond the camera lens. 

Two years into this pandemic has emboldened the reliance and power of streaming services – for both viewers and creators. Streaming services outlived the claims that it would be ‘the death of cinema’ as many acclaimed traditional film directors have prophesized. This is the cue for the film industry’s creative and financial aspects to be redefined along with the evolution of streaming services, yet there’s so much greed behind this resistance. The music industry staggered for many years at the popularity and demand of streaming. It looks like the traditional film industry is set to follow the same shock if it doesn’t readjust to the rise of something that can be far greater than it already is.

In this battle of streaming wars, of accessibility during difficult times, creative quality and ownership – money is the prize and the weapon formed against us. As I said, the best part about witnessing battles is the slow unfold. To say that Scarlett Johansson is the beginning of this corporate and contractual chaos wouldn’t be entirely true, but she did reveal this deadly web for all of us to quickly get caught in. Watch your step; this spider is still spinning her web.

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