Scarlett Johansson’s Lawsuit and Disney Brand ‘Carnage’: Is CEO Bob Chapek to Blame?

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“Disney’s approach under Iger would have been markedly different,” one lawyer says

Black Widow with (clockwise) Marvel President Kevin Feige, Disney CEO Bob Chapek, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger
Black Widow with (clockwise) Marvel President Kevin Feige, Disney CEO Bob Chapek, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger

As Hollywood grapples with the bombshell lawsuit filed by Scarlett Johansson against Disney last Thursday, entertainment executives, agents and producers are split on what kind of fallout Disney will face and whether CEO Bob Chapek is to blame for the “carnage” to the company’s standing in Hollywood’s talent community.

Multiple insiders who spoke to TheWrap said they were surprised that the contract dispute was allowed to burst into public view at all. And while the industry may be facing a watershed moment over streaming and movie star profit participation, they also wonder if this is a crisis created by Chapek, who has few talent relationships and little practical experience dealing with movie stars.

As one leading producer on a huge film franchise grumbled to TheWrap: “Pretty sure Chapek made the mistake. He didn’t think it would blow up in his face. He doesn’t deal with talent.”

Bob Iger
Walt Disney Co Executive Chairman Bob Iger (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The feeling that Disney’s last CEO Bob Iger would have handled this differently was all the more pronounced by Disney’s official response to the lawsuit, which called Johansson “callous” and disclosed her $20 million salary — suggesting she was being greedy in claiming $50 million in box office-based backend compensation in the suit. Johansson’s camp told TheWrap the actress was shocked by the tone. So were many others around Hollywood.

“Last time I checked, I was pretty sure that the senior team at Disney wouldn’t get a lot of purchase by accusing someone else of being greedy,” said one top executive in the industry, who called the response “ham-handed.”

Another pressure point is that Marvel chief Kevin Feige was reportedly angry and embarrassed at the way the company handled the dispute with a star who had done nine highly profitable films for its biggest franchise. Feige had lobbied against the streaming plan for day-and-date and was not heeded. The decision seems to have sat with Chapek’s right hand man, Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution, another executive with little to no experience managing talent relationships.

“It seems that Chapek is putting a lot of his industry and talent relations in the hands of his distribution group, which has proven to be inexperienced in the traditional ways that things are to be done,” one entertainment executive told TheWrap. “That wouldn’t have happened under (former CEO Bob) Iger — he would have done it himself.”

“Disney’s approach under Iger would have been markedly different and would have had less initial brand carnage,” Eric Schiffer of The Patriarch Organization and chairman of Reputation Management Consultants said. Iger’s team “would have attempted to work behind the scenes and maintain a greater level of trust in the relationship,” he added.

Gene Del Vecchio, an adjunct professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business, agreed that this situation called for some of Iger’s signature diplomacy. “Bob Iger was named CEO in 2005 not only due to his business acumen, but for his mastery of developing and keeping relationships that he had honed for dozens of years working with temperamental, high-profile stars,” Del Vecchio told TheWrap. “Disney’s acquisition and management of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucas are testimony to his ability. Chapek’s previous experience with Disney Consumer Products, Parks and Resorts did not demand the same level of star-charged interaction.”

Del Vecchio also noted the recent flareup surrounding former mixed-martial arts star Gina Carano, a breakout star of the Disney+ “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian” who was being groomed to lead her own spinoff series — until the actress came under fire in February for an Instagram post comparing being Republican today to being Jewish during Nazi Germany. Disney’s Lucasfilm publicly fired her and called out her “abhorrent and unacceptable” social media posts. “The dispute with Scarlett Johansson, coming on the heels of Disney mishandling of the relationship with Gina Carano, does make you wonder if this latest incident is not so much about a broken contract but about a broken relationship,” he said.

Other insiders who spoke to TheWrap on condition of anonymity said this was a matter of Chapek deciding to prioritize the studio’s streaming business — and shareholders — over talent relationships.

Chapek just “did what was the right move for his shareholders, which is to drive people to Disney+, which he has successfully done while also increasing the stock price,” a top agent said. “Notably, the numerous successes of the various Marvel (theatrical) films have done nothing to increase the Disney stock price. But increased subscriptions to Disney+ has. So what’s $50 million or so to Chapek?”

In Johansson’s suit, the actress alleged that she lost income from Disney’s decision to release “Black Widow” on both Disney+ and in theaters simultaneously, and accused Disney of wanting to boost its streaming revenue at the expense of box office. What’s more, if she can prove damages, Disney may have to pay Johansson even more than the $50 million windfall that insiders told the Wall Street Journal she stood to gain from the Marvel film hitting box office-based targets. The suit also said that she tried to speak to Disney and Marvel to right the wrong, but that she was “ignored.”

A second entertainment executive agreed that $50 million is chump change for a corporation like Disney: “This is a couple of million dollars and Chapek is a CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, It’s a much bigger question for Feige. He is the most sacred executive in Hollywood today, and no one will pick a fight with him.”

Feige, largely considered to be the architect of Marvel’s successful, multi-franchise film operation, previously answered to Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter. Tensions arose between Feige and Perlmutter during the early phases of the MCU because of Perlmutter’s reported frugality and micromanaging style. In 2015, when Feige threatened to leave Marvel when Perlmutter wanted to slash the budget for “Captain America: Civil War,” Iger intervened and approved a reorganization that had Feige reporting directly to Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn. Perlumutter also actively opposed efforts to develop films like “Captain Marvel” and “Black Widow” centered on female superheroes.

Kevin Feige Marvel Star Wars Chris Evans Captain America
President of Marvel Studio Kevin Feige / Getty Images

While Feige’s attorney declined to comment, former Hollywood Reporter editor Matthew Belloni in his Thursday newsletter “What I’m Hearing” said the Marvel boss wasn’t happy about the situation and had lobbied Disney against putting the film on Disney+ the same day as in theaters and not “wanting to upset his talent.”

“History has proven, don’t f— with Kevin Feige,” the second entertainment executive said. “He wins every time — there’s nothing like Marvel.”

Schiffer called Johansson’s suit a “reckless war from both sides” and said Chapek was not necessarily wrong for standing up to the actress’ demands. “We don’t know what happened behind the scenes. Were (her actions) so lethally stupid that it would have been (equally stupid) for Disney not to have done this?” Schiffer said. “Those facts will come out later and players in Hollywood will be able to get a better sense of how the decision got made. But it’s high stakes, and given the klieg lights on this event, better handled behind the scenes.”

A spokesperson for Disney did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

As for Johansson, it remains to be seen whether she chooses to keep working at Disney no matter how her lawsuit pans out. Just a month ago, it was announced that she would produce a “Tower of Terror” movie based on the Disneyland theme park ride via her These Pictures banner. Whether she chooses to proceed is currently unclear.

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.


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