There’s probably no film producer on the planet with more power and influence than Kevin Feige. As the mastermind behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Feige has become one of the industry’s sole movie producers—not a writer, not a director, but a producer—with brand name appeal, a potency he’s mostly used to…keep making the Disney-owned Marvel movies that he pretty clearly enjoys making. (Also, the billions of box-office dollars he also, presumably, enjoys making.) Among other things, the last decade has gifted Feige with a pristine reputation for the handling of talent; certainly, it’s not easy to imagine a roster with this many big-name stars surviving for 10-plus years without ever fielding any drama blow-ups worse than negotiating who has to stand next to Jeremy Renner at the photoshoots.
That streak ended yesterday, though, when MCU star Scarlett Johansson launched a lawsuit against Disney, claiming that the company’s decision to simultaneously release Black Widow in theaters and on its Disney+ subscription service was a breach of agreements made with her, and allegedly cost her some $50 million in potential box office bonuses. And while Disney was quick to fire back with a weirdly shame-based response—suggesting that the big mean actor was bullying the tiny little global business syndicate by calling Johansson’s suit “sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic”—Feige hasn’t as yet weighed in on the conflict between his bosses and one of his high-profile stars.
Publicly, at least: At least one source is reporting that Feige is really, really not happy about how this whole situation has gone down. This is per What I’m Hearing…, the regular industry newsletter from former The Hollywood Reporter editor Matt Belloni, which claims that Feige is “angry and embarrassed” over Disney’s handling of the ScarJo situation. Although Belloni doesn’t cite names in his write-up, he states that Feige was against the hybrid release schedule for Black Widow from the jump. And then, Belloni writes, “When the shit hit the fan, the movie started tanking, and Johansson’s team threatened litigation, [Feige] wanted Disney to make this right with her.” Which, again: One of the keys to Feige’s massive success over the last few years has been the cultivation of the actors who sell these movies, and while Johansson probably wouldn’t be launching this lawsuit in the first place if she still had MCU projects on her plate, that friction can’t be pleasant, or look good to other potential stars.
Belloni also offers up some interesting analysis, drawn from Johansson’s lawsuit, about why this is happening now. I.e., that the use of tentpole movies to draw consumers to Disney+ benefited the company—which saw its stock price jump after releasing figures on Black Widow’s streaming performance—but not the performers. (Black Widow’s “Premium Access” payments on Disney+ were reportedly lumped into the totals used to determine Johansson’s bonuses, but her claim remains that the decision to place it on streaming inherently devalued its potential for performance.) That is, if a movie tanks, numbers-wise, but still draws in a lot of new subscribers, Disney wins—but performers, whose deals are all built around ticket sales, don’t, a break with the previous system that helped the MCU thrive.
And, look: No one’s expecting Kevin Feige to walk over any of this. Belloni—who also reports on some murmurings that Emma Stone is “weighing her options” in a similar way in regards to the treatment of Cruella (although that weighing will probably depend in part on how Johansson’s case fares)—notes that Feige is a “company man.” But also: Both he and Disney are well aware of the strength of his brand and reputation as the man who made the biggest hits in movie history happen. Disney is already reportedly reaching out to stars, trying to do the renegotiations they apparently refused to do with Johansson—and which Warner Bros. notably performed for Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot ahead of Wonder Woman 1984 getting similar hybrid treatment—presumably because there’s only so many of these high-profile talent revolts that even the leviathan can stomach.