How Hollywood Contract Clauses Screwed Over Its Stars, Producers, and Showrunners

11 Min Read

H O L L Y W O O D 

Anindya Arif


Scarlett Johansson has filed a lawsuit against Disney due to them releasing her newest film simultaneously on Disney’s streaming platform Disney+ as well as in the theaters. The actress argues that not delaying the release on the digital platform has caused her significant amounts of losses in monetary bonuses as they were correlated to the film’s box office performance at the box office. She was promised that there would be a ninety-day exclusivity period before the film gets released on streaming platforms. Due to the simultaneous release, some sources have reported that Scarlett Johansson has lost about $50m just in bonuses. 

Disney has fired back at her, saying, “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Disney has also claimed that Scarlett Johansson has already received $20 million for her role in The Black Widow, and releasing it on streaming platforms has further opened up an additional revenue stream for her. However, there has been nothing publicised regarding whether or not they have renegotiated the contract terms with her as of yet.

Matt Mueller, an editor of Screen Daily, says the steps taken by Scarlett Johansson will bring changes to other celebrity contracts. Other studios are likely to reform their contracts in a way that actors won’t be able to take such measures, which could worsen conditions for the actors involved in these films. Muller also stated that the final result of this case is likely to change this strategy taken by these studios. This strategy would be very beneficial for the growth of their streaming services which will increase the stock prices and benefit their shareholders. 


Post pandemic Hollywood has seen a recent trend of big Hollywood studios such as Warner Media releasing their films on both theaters and their streaming platforms simultaneously. Warner media has clearly stated that it plans to go down the same route as they plan to release a year’s worth of films on both their streaming service HBO MAX as well as in theaters at the same time. Many actors often get a percentage of the box office revenue in conjecture with how well the film does in the box office. The renowned studio is already trying to negotiate new contracts with the stars of its upcoming blockbusters including Dune, The Matrix 4, and In the Heights. It includes cash beforehand as well as other bonuses depending on the film’s performance in theatres. This will lead to these actors facing similar losses of revenue as Scarlett Johansson. Disney, having recently taken over Fox Entertainment, has stated that Searchlight Pictures films will also be simultaneously released on Disney+. 

Christopher Nolan who has previously worked with Warner Media in 2002’s Insomnia has criticised this simultaneous release structure. As he believes these films are supposed to be big-screen experiences and none of the directors, actors, or crew members working in these films were consulted and has labeled the move “a real bait and switch”. He also stated how this approach is more favorable towards investors and executives rather than the people making and working on the film. 

Warner Brother famously shot the Hobbit films in New Zealand, which caused a long and drawn-out dispute with the union of performers (Equity) when the studio refused to give them their internationally recognised rights to collectively bargain. New Zealand’s anti-union government at the time alongside Warner Media painted a narrative of how it was the union that wanted to move the production away from the country. It was actually the studio who literally declined the union members their basic rights. It was then used as an example to pass a legislation change that took away employment rights from the New Zealand film industry and also took a significant portion of the taxpayer money to subsidise the Warner Media film.

Fox Entertainment Group

Fox previously prevented Emily Blunt from joining the MCU to play the titular role of Natasha Ramona aka the Black Widow due to the contract she signed with Fox while doing the film The Devil Wears Prada, which had a clause in it that they could call her up anytime, and Fox decided to enact that clause exactly when Iron Man 2’s production was supposed to begin, as she had to play Iron Man 2’s production was supposed to begin, as she had to play her part in the Gulliver’s Travels. The avid Iron Man fan later revealed in The Howard Stern Show, that she didn’t even want to be in  Gulliver’s Travels. Due to the production dates of the movie clashing with the Iron Man 2’s production, she, more or less, was forced to turn the role down.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures famously forced Channing Tatum to star in the film GI Joe: Rise of Cobra. He revealed the backstory on The Howard Stern Show too, how he had a three-picture deal with the studio. He felt the movie script was subpar at best. When he tried to say no as he felt he could not really be the central character, the studio threatened him with legal actions stating “No option: ‘You’re doing this or we’re gonna sue you.’”.

Ed Norton was forced to do the now smash hit The Italian Job due to contractual obligations with Paramount Pictures. Paramount, who produced his debut film Primal Fear had contract stipulations that he would receive $75,000 for the first and approximately $125,000 for the second film respectively. These obligations also forced him to settle with Paramount and extend the duration of these clauses so he could star in Fincher’s Fight Club since it clashed with the movie Twenty Billion’s production. The final terms were settled for him to do one more film with Paramount for one million dollars.

Jennifer Garner was forced by Fox to do the 2005 film “Elektra due to her contract obligations from the 2003 daredevil film. 

Universal Studios//NBC:

Universal Studios at it again, this time for intentionally removing black actors from the international poster of 2009’s Couples Retreat international poster. Amazon Love sued Universal more than a decade later for that, in 2020. The studio is infamous for its tokenistic approach such as creating the ‘Global Talent Development & Inclusion’ in 2017 and for producing once in a blue moon diverse films like Getting Out and Straight Outta Compton. Both the actor and studio have now settled. 

Universal’s sister company NBC’s hit show Saturday Night Live started to get sick of all its big stars, as they were trading the small screens for box office glamour. To stop them from doing so, they were made to sign contracts for the 1999-2000 season, which would keep them bonded to the network for up to 12 years. Half of it on SNL and another half on their other projects. It also gave Lorne Michaels, creator of SNL, a considerable stake in their movie careers and had a three-movie option with the SNL Films (co-owned by Paramount Pictures, NBC, and Mr. Michaels) for which the star would receive $75,000, $150,000, and $300,000, for the first, second, and the third film respectively. 


The creator of Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman and its other producers filed a lawsuit against AMC over profit sharing. With Walking Dead, AMC moved away from the norms of hiring other studios to produce their shows instead of choosing to do it on their own, which resulted in them receiving lower profit shares. AMC argued that they cleared all these with the producers and their lawyers beforehand, but the lawsuit, however, is still ongoing. In a different lawsuit, AMC settled for $200M with former Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont and CAA earlier this month. A lawsuit was filed since he felt he was not properly reimbursed. Apart from this, he will keep on receiving profits from the show and its new spin-off Fear of the Walking Dead

Hollywood Accounting:

Big studios in Hollywood often delve into a practice known as “Hollywood Accounting” where each individual film is set up as its own company that is liable to the studio. Throughout the production and after the main studio keeps charging the shell company essentially the cost of making the films. Even though the studio is making a lot of money through this on paper, there are times when the film is not profitable, which results in the studios having to not pay any contract points or royalties to its stars or makers. 

The worst part is how far these studios would go to not pay the people making them this bucket load of cash in the first place.


Anindya eats music, fiction, and reality — all for breakfast. Send him fresh recipes at [email protected] He is also a part of TDA Editorial Team.

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