Shortly after being hit with a lawsuit from actress Scarlett Johansson on Thursday, Disney fired back at the star in an unexpectedly personal tone, claiming that her lawsuit was “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The Black Widow star filed a lawsuit on July 29th alleging a breach of contract when the media conglomerate jointly released the film in theatres and on its streaming service, Disney+. Johansson asserts that her contract with Disney and Marvel promised an exclusively theatrical release, as a portion of her salary would come from box office revenue.
In addition to claiming the actress has no regard for the effects of the pandemic, Disney also revealed Johansson earned $20 million for the film in an attempt to discredit her claim that the joint release negatively affected her earnings.
Bryan Lourd, co-chair of powerful artist agency CAA, which represents Johansson, responded to Disney’s statement by claiming Disney has “shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic” and that disclosing her salary in their press statement was an “attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of.”
As Disney began exploring new ways to release their films to a wide audience, they disregarded current contracts with their actors. The circumstances of the pandemic changed the way audiences enjoyed films, but the conglomerate never renegotiated ScarJo’s contract to accommodate these changes. Instead, they decided to publicly attack her character and success.
The Public’s Response
Most public reactions to this stand-off have been in support of ScarJo, with one Twitter user stating, “If Disney can do this to Scarlett Johansson, imagine what they’re able to do to creators/actors with a lot less power and money.”
Actor Alec Baldwin also tweeted his support for the actress with a simple “#TeamScarlett”.
Notable female interest groups Women in Film, ReFrame, and Time’s Up also publicly criticized Disney for its “gendered character attack” on Johansson, stating that “while we take no position on the business issues in the litigation between Scarlett Johansson and The Walt Disney Company, we stand firmly against Disney’s recent statement which attempts to characterize Johansson as insensitive or selfish for defending her contractual business rights.”
Even people who are not necessarily ScarJo fans are defending the actress because of Disney’s inability to handle this lawsuit without publicly attacking Johansson’s character. As one of the most famous actresses of the last couple of decades, Johansson’s public battle with Disney is sure to inspire other Disney actors to hold the company accountable for promises that were not upheld or renegotiated after the pandemic changed the film industry.
The Public Relations Takeaway
Disney’s treatment of Scarlett Johansson in this scenario offers a valuable lesson in knowing when to pick your battles, hold your tongue, and handle matters privately. Disney chose to wage a public and personal attack on one of the most notable actresses of our time, and it should come as no surprise that they faced immense backlash.
Disney also called into question ScarJo’s regard for the pandemic, when Disney themselves has acted questionably amid the public health crisis. Claiming that Johansson’s lawsuit demonstrates a “callous disregard…of the Covid-19 pandemic” is a hypocritical attack, considering the company reopened its Florida theme park last summer while the pandemic was still in full swing.
Regardless of the legal outcome of this situation, brands and business owners can learn from Disney’s mistakes. Recognizing the potential consequences of making a controversial statement publicly is integral to maintaining reputation and image, and brands must recognize when the risks of such statements outweigh the benefits.
Gabby Macrina is a Public Relations and Content Development Intern at Flackable, an award-winning public relations agency representing financial and professional services brands nationwide. To learn more about Flackable, please visit flackable.com. Follow Gabby on Twitter @GabbyMacrinaPR