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Is Scarlett Johansson's Lawsuit Trouble for Disney?


Black Widow, the latest entrant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first since 2019, has set records for a pandemic opening weekend, raking in $80,366,312, the largest opening since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It's also made a big splash by being available to simultaneously purchase for a premium price at home, via Disney+, and has garnered pretty favorable responses from critics and audiences. Another homerun for the company, right?

Well, things have been complicated thoroughly by an announcement from the film's star Scarlett Johansson that Disney had breached a clause in their contract, economically disadvantaging her, whilst favoring the higher ups with large stock in the performance of Disney+. In order to unpack the implications of this lawsuit on the world of blockbuster filmmaking, we must first explain how Disney may have crippled Johansson's earnings. Many big names for Marvel, as well as Disney productions in general, bank on the high grosses of their releases to earn a significant percentage of box office. When cash rolls in from theatres, the actors receive a previously agreed upon cut of the profits. As such, contracts are negotiated to ensure a lengthy theatrical window, meaning the film has ample time to draw in audiences physically, before being placed on streaming services, so as to ensure that a maximum amount of viewers, unlikely to wait, pay to see it. By placing Black Widow on Disney+ premiere access, Johansson alleges her contract has been breached and that she has been deprived of a significant portion of what her salary would have been, had Disney not diverted audiences' revenue to the stay-at-home option. Some media reports suggest that Johansson has lost around $50 million dollars.

Following Johansson's lawyer's first statement, Disney launched a woefully misguided response, attempting to not so subtly shame Johansson for launching the suit. The company alleged that the premium access premiere had “significantly enhanced [Johansson's] ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20m she has received to date". Outside of this point having nothing to do with whether the terms of Johansson's contract had been violated, Disney was making an attempt to highlight how well off their star already was, basically insinuating that she should pipe down and be grateful. They echoed the sentiment later on in their most blatant attack: “[Johansson's lawsuit is] especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic".

Scarlett's agent Brian Lourd swiftly denounced Disney's actions and response, backed up by various organisations and public support. "Scarlett has been Disney's partner on nine movies, which have earned Disney and its shareholders billions. They have very deliberately moved the revenue stream and profits to the Disney+ side of the company leaving artistic and financial partners out of their new equation. The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of. Disney's direct attack on her character and all else they implied is beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades.” Her lawyer, John Berlinski of Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, concluded; “It's no secret that Disney is releasing films like Black Widow directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company's stock price – and that it's hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so.”

It's clear that Disney has curried no favor in their dealings with Johansson. Whether or not the case is robust is another question entirely. The breach is supposedly confined to the implications of a single sentence of her contract. “For the avoidance of doubt, if Producer [Marvel] in its sole discretion determines to release the Picture, then such release shall be a wide theatrical release of the Picture (i.e., no less than 1,500 screens)”. The dispute comes down to whether or not this sentence implies that the release may only be a wide theatrical release (as per Johansson's legal team, thereby making the Disney+ release a breach) or that in the event of a theatrical release, that this release must constitute a wide release (as per Disney, who would then have made good on providing such a release, regardless of the simultaneous streaming release). It's worth noting that Johansson's suit does not claim that Disney has committed a straight breach of contract, but rather tortious interference, meaning someone has damaged the contractual relationship between Scarlett and Disney, causing economic harm. As such, Johansson's chances of beating Disney at their own game are likely slim.

What is of more concern, however, is that Disney has made a serious error in letting the situation deteriorate so thoroughly, compared to how other conglomerates have managed the transition to a hybrid release strategy. In the wake of Johansson's announcement, public personalities and organisations have been slamming Disney, and the suit could make stars a little bit more distrustful of the company, and more likely to demand guaranteed salaries, or a greater share of streaming profits. Companies have been settling scores with disgruntled talent since the pandemic first began, most famously the debacle between Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan. In a bid to reignite interest in their freshly launched streaming service HBO Max, which had netted a dismal subscriber base of just over 8 million viewers, Warner demolished their theatrical window, and opted to release films simultaneously in theatres and on the service. None of their talent had been informed before the decision was finalized, and outrage was strong. Nolan left it all on the table in a quote for the film history books: “Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.” With concerns over piracy, percentage gross, etc., Nolan is unlikely to return, but aside from this, Warner got their act together and managed to quietly assuage the nerves of their talent. That Disney did not learn as witnesses to this speaks either to their callousness or their confidence.

And so, as the lawsuit moves to inevitably conclude behind closed doors, stars will look to see how they can protect their grosses, CEOs will look to see what their shareholders can abide by, and studios will look to see how they can renegotiate their talent's terms to avoid a similar public falling out.

 
Another Reason Why Madea Movies Are Tough to Watch


Early this year, the ever-mounting series of unprecedented, paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering changes our world was undergoing culminated in perhaps the least predictable event of all: Tyler Perry received an Academy Award. Granted, it was the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given for outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes, and not for any film work, but still. Perry has managed to be hugely philanthropic, and create the most impressive studio in the world today, largely due to the massive success of his early Madea films and plays (and some very wise financial decisions, of course).

Despite this, Perry retired Madea in 2019, after the absolute zenith of phoning it in for a Madea movie was released; A Madea Family Funeral. In interviews, he seems tired of her, and has claimed he only intended to use the character once but audiences clamored for more. That is an understatement, and, ever a man of the people, Perry provides; Madea will return in... A Madea Homecoming. And yet, many audience members leave Tyler Perry films, not only unamused, but uncomfortable. Why? This article is not here to ask whether or not Madea upholds unhelpful or problematic stereotypes of any kind, there's more than enough of that, it's here to express why, ignoring every shoddy element in the periphery, down to the theme and very core, Madea leaves a bad taste in our mouths? The answer can be gleamed from the very first film to weather Hurricane Madea.

The aggressive, foul-mouthed, and devoted Madea, a nickname portmanteau of ‘mother dear', was inspired by the mothers, aunts, and other important women who had an impact on Perry's life. His veneration for these matriarchal figures extends to his attitude towards Madea in his films. Madea has a tenacity the younger characters who require her old-school guidance lack. Most of these characters are middle- to upper class suburbanites who have bent and mellowed themselves, suppressing the qualities which make Madea charismatic to audience members. They therefore find themselves unable to adequately face the problems in their lives. Madea has no such qualms. She is raucous, violent, and invasive, qualities the films frame as ‘no-nonsense' tough love. In some films her methods are proven to be a little overzealous, complicating more than resolving, but the movies inevitably confirm that Madea knows best.

Even in Boo! A Madea Halloween, probably one of the most lightweight entries of the series, a father has lost control over his daughter through his absence and lack of discipline as a parent; enter Madea, who scares of all of the rowdy and disrespectful teens straight, and socks one or two for good measure.

So even in the breeziest of Madea comedies, the films follow the character's lead and often push conservative, religious, and regressive values. “Tyler Perry has the unique ability to combine humor with a positive message” one audience member writes on IMDb. Perry has covered spousal abuse, adultery, prostitution, addiction, racism, religion, on and on. So, what messages, methods and madness does Madea bring to her first film? The character was actually first introduced in the play I Can Do Bad All by Myself, one of a number of Madea-centric plays, but we'll be looking at her first on-screen appearance, one which solidified the nature of her character and role in Perry's films, and made her a cash cow: Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

Helen, our heroine, is in a superficially perfect marriage with Charles, a vastly wealthy attorney. At home, however, Helen is bored of being a stay-at-home wife, and struggles to keep her marriage afloat, whilst Charles verbally abuses and cheats on her. One day, Charles drags her kicking and screaming out of their mansion so that his mistress can move in. Left with nowhere else to go after commandeering a U-haul driver's truck, Helen moves in with her grandmother; Madea. This is where several subplots kick in, in most cases Madea manages to smack some sense into the troubled souls from afar. Through the goings on, Madea is placed on house arrest after attempting to literally split all of Charles' belongings in half with a chainsaw, Helen (who reunites with her mother and gets a job) and the U-haul driver develop feelings for each other, and Charles is shot by one of his clients, paralyzing him. Feeling obligated to take care of him, Helen moves back in and responds to his verbal cruelty with physical assault and brutal humiliation, partly as revenge for her mistreatment. She refuses to feed him, leaves him alone in a room to soil himself, tosses him headfirst into a hot tub, etc. Madea and Helen's mother advise her that she will only be able to move on once she has forgiven Charles. Helen assists in his recovery, but Charles only walks again during a church service. The two divorce and Helen marries the U-haul driver. His name was Orlando. It was not important.

Ostensibly, the movie resolves any grievances with Helen's revenge by making it clear that forgiveness is her salvation. This is not quite good enough, the film rushes through the forgiveness, and relishes the melodramatic vindictiveness. Not to mention, it is for her own sake that Helen decides to forgive Charles, not because what she's doing is wrong. In fact, in the narrative Charles becomes a better man for having been subjected to agony. Helen was a caring wife well before this, making the only factor that could have moved Charles to grow as a person the extended suffering. The film, no matter its inextricable flip-flopping, as Helen forgives and forgets seemingly with no effort at all, makes it clear that brutalizing Charles was righteous and beneficial. It is fundamentally framed as a story where a woman takes command of her life by taking after the most commanding woman in her life, never mind the fact that said woman is played by a man.

It's clear that Perry admires things about Madea and her apprentices that are to some viewers, abhorrent, not in a literal sense, obviously Perry is not making Madea films to advocate wonton sadism, but he does find it funny in the context of the movies, and it's only natural that some people might disagree.

"She would beat the hell out of you but make sure the ambulance got there in time to make sure they could set your arm back, you know what I mean? Because the love was there inside all of it. I know it sounds really strange, but that's the old-school mentality. That's why I think the character is so popular, because a lot of people miss that type of grandmother; everybody is so worried about being politically-correct that she's no longer around."

And yet, Diary of A Mad Black Woman is one of Perry's best received and most earnest comedies, so why do so many viewers look past, or agree with his ethos? People that enjoy the Madea movies do so because they relate to them, and don't take them very seriously. It's as simple as that.

 
Devilsdorp - Homegrown Homicide


Showmax has released its first original true crime docuseries, and it's a complete mystery where they could possibly go from here. While there was some hesitancy in watching the series, as though the local doc might have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to meet the interests in true crime of Showmax's viewers, but no, this is a wild one. If the events of Devilsdorp were presented as fiction, they would come across as utterly contrived tripe. It is unbelievable that this could ever happen.

And on that note, it's near impossible to review Devilsdorp because it becomes most rewarding once a certain threshold of spoilers has been crossed and it's best not to be overly familiar with the case going in. Over and over again, things are not what they seem, as the narrative of the murders seems to shift from financially-motivated, to Satanic links, to church involvement, to cults, to cover-ups, fraud, betrayals, and so on. This review will stick to what can be gleaned from the trailers for the show, as well as what series director David Enright has seen fit to reveal to the press, and a few minor details that are worth mentioning but won't spoil the many twists-and-turns.

The show tracks the events of the ‘Satanic Murders' and later ‘Appointment Murders', collectively known as the Krugersdorp Killings, hopping back and forth in time to unfurl the details like an investigation in progress. As Enright put it; “What started as a group of devout Christians trying to help a former Satanist escape the satanic church ended in a murderous spree involving a killer mom, her two children, and a cult with more victims than members. It may all sound too far-fetched to be believed, except it really happened, just down the road from us.” It's astounding that these people thought they could get away with any of this, and that for so long, they did.

The typical sin for a true crime docuseries is that, knowing viewers will want to stay for the resolution of the case, or at least the latest twist, they are formatted to stretch the facts of the case thin, padding a story that could easily be told in two or three episodes out to a full ten. The first episodes will dive straight into the grisly killings and intriguing players, but later on, episodes will begin to be occupied with laborious non-sequiturs, tediously unusable testimonies and local gossip treated with equal weight to the real investigation, only to leave off on a cliffhanger for an actually interesting development right as the episode ends. Better click on the next one, it's getting good now! Watch time is valuable.

Devilsdorp is a brisk 4 episodes, absolutely packed end-to-end, to the point that the title sequence of each episode is only about 10 seconds long. It leaves few stones unturned, but cuts frivolous details out of the equation, resulting in a remarkable clarity of events and process for the examination. It's refreshing to see a series of this nature more focused on giving you the facts than on its own polish.

Devilsdorp Aerial View

That isn't to say that the production leaves something to be desired, on the contrary, Devilsdorp has rock solid fundamentals. It uses quality cameras, and so unlike some local content doesn't look distractingly cheap, backed by a solid score that ranges from ominous to curious, and other times melancholy, to add an element of well-judged and non-invasive atmosphere. Also present are the typical suggestive dramatic re-enactments to accompany the interviewee's testimonies, though they air on the side of evocative, never showing faces, murders, etc. Keeping these sorts of indiscreet touches to a minimum works in the show's favor, because Devilsdorp is at its worst on the rare occasions that it does try a flourish or two, attempting to freak the audience out with a spliced in image of creepy dolls, or a hulking effigy constructed for the show in an attempt to articulate what can only be assumed to be what the showrunner's felt was the ‘theme' of this story. But this is not a story; these attempts to play into the occult elements of the case are silly, and this sort of embellishment is even criticized once or twice by professionals in the show itself (tabloids at the time of course *loved* that they could chill their readers by focusing on the Satanism of it all).

The interviews themselves are the standout contribution of Devilsdorp, unbelievable source material notwithstanding. There are some truly revealing talks, and every account is thoroughly detailed and thoughtful. These events had a profound effect on the lives of every person on screen, and they've all had time to let their thoughts on the matter germinate into absorbing depositions. There are some peculiar individuals involved here, a few seem to enjoy spinning this yarn; one is a journalist who's oddly cavalier on the subject of the dead, excitable on the subject of her work, and incorrigible in her attachment to one of the killers. Another is an eccentric investigating officer who fancies himself as Krugersdorp's own Chuck Norris.

Devilsdorp Aerial View

The amount of cooperation from the parties involved is remarkable, families of the victims, outside specialists, prosecutors, psychologists, witness protection members, all providing very personal accounts, taking us through their train of thought, which inevitably leads to some speculation (as when witnesses recount actions they personally found suspicious). Krugersdorp is a community with a large gulf between the haves and the have nots. It is also, generally-speaking, a deeply religious community, which retains the weight of the Apartheid government's ‘fight against Satan' through battling the ‘inherent atheism of Communism'. This background informs the perspective of many of the locals, and so informs the tone and point-of-view of some sequences of the show, though within good time Devilsdorp reframes and questions itself, first tactfully, and then in one of those moments where the creators butt in with inserts like the effigy to make their point. Still, when dealing with its procedural elements, the show is mesmerizing and whether you find the beliefs or naïveté of many of the players ridiculous or not, being entrenched into the goings-on of this community is compelling. The only view left largely without interviews is that of the ringleader (which somehow makes them all the more unnerving).

Devilsdorp is recommended binge watching, for one because leaving a gap between episodes may give the impression of red herrings, which when viewed in a single sitting are shown for what they are: reflections of all elements at play, both in the case and in the beliefs of the involved parties. This is a complete submergence into how this nightmare came to be, and that means allowing justifications the time of day too. The other reason is that this becomes a heavy watch, and though its tough to look away, you'll be relieved once you've finished it and can move on. It is taxing to acknowledge that many of the perpetrators were perfectly normal members of the Krugersdorp community, who got involved with what became a series of grisly killings, armed only with good intentions.

 
Game of Thrones: Crash, Burn and the Aftermath


Game of Thrones, the show, truly started one day in 2006 when the show's primary creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (D&D), underwent a test from author of the source material, George R.R. Martin. He asked them, well before the answer was commonly guessed at in fan forums, who Jon Snow's mother is? They got it right.

Signs of D&D's desire to branch out were there all along. They've admitted to wanting to downplay the fantasy elements of the series. As early as 2014, Dirty White Boys was announced as the duos first feature film production. Dirty White Boys faded from likelihood. Spending this much of your life on something can start to grate on anyone. They got a little trigger happy with concluding the show and against Martin's better judgement, rushed condensed seasons 7 and 8 out, ignoring the amount of material left to cover, and relying completely on their own writers, but mostly, themselves.

A year later, as these moves were being finalized, D&D partnered with HBO for a show immediately following the conclusion of Game of Thrones; their dream project Confederate. In the wake of this July 19, 2017 announcement, public interest was low and it seems clear now that Confederate won't be moving forward. Instead, about 6 months later on February 6 2018 D&D signed with Disney to write and produce the next slate of Star Wars films as soon as the show concluded with release dates slated at 2022, 2024, and 2026. Then, trouble began to brew, trouble well beyond Disney's own minimizing focus on films from the franchise. All was not quiet on the Westeros front.

Game of Thrones: Crash, Burn and the Aftermath

The final season of Game of Thrones is disappointing television, a messy and bungled conclusion to years of patient, intelligent and grand storytelling. The production tried its best to amp up everything they had, to give the show if not a well put together conclusion, at least a bombastic one. But fans only had hate in their hearts for two: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. We are unlikely to see a level of viewer backlash this severe again anytime soon. Lots of this ‘criticism' was downright childish. Fan communities made plans to boo D&D off stage at Comic Con, foiled when they had the good sense not to make an appearance, leaving only the cast to show face. A targeted campaign made it so that to this day, upon googling “Bad Writers” you are greeted with images of the two. 1.5 million signatures on Change.org, a sincere plea to HBO to revamp the series' conclusion with ‘capable writers', but the damage had been done. Even if HBO had done the unthinkable and just rewound the clock to give season 8 another go, public interest just was not there. Game of Thrones had permanently damaged its legacy as a title at the forefront of the Golden Age of TV.

Even D&D seemed to agree that there are some things they would like to have done differently. "Really the only people who are to blame are us – and I sure as hell don't want to blame us." Conversely, producers on the show made spirited defenses, saying that they have no regrets, and that the season was the best work they'd ever done, making a few snarky remarks about armchair writers. George Martin aired some soft-ball grievances: “The [final] series has been... not completely faithful... otherwise, it would have to run another five seasons.”

Coinciding with this, Gemini Man, which David had done some writing for, bombed *hard*, losing somewhere in the compass of $111.1 million. The pair stayed largely silent for a couple of months but made an appearance on a panel at the Austin Film Festival. Here, they gave a small talk including a humble look back at how ill-prepared they were to take on the show. Given the climate at the time, ex-fans seized upon the opportunity to further prove D&D's incompetence. A vocal minority of scorned viewers were out to frame them as audience poison and studios. The effort was hilariously futile.

A few months earlier, D&D had been scooped up by Netflix for a reported $200 million. They're first collaboration, The Chair, will be premiering soon, though D&D are only producers. For their first writing/directing gig, the pair have turned to the massively ambitious Chinese sci-fi novel series The Three-Body Problem. For writers who admit to struggling with the scope of George .R.R. Martin's novels, this is a very daunting choice to assume, "taking readers on a journey from the 1960s until the end of time, from life on our pale blue dot to the distant fringes of the universe". With their passion reignited, there's a good chance The Three-Body Problem will be just as refreshing to its creators as it could be to audiences.

As for Game of Thrones properties in the wake of D&D-day, a prequel is on the way; House of Dragon. This new series is set 300 years before the events of the show proper, an adaptation of Martin's Fire & Blood, following a civil war involving House Targaryen. It's been made clear that D&D are "entirely hands off" for this project. George Martin has also provided updates acknowledging that out of the five Game of Thrones prequels fans had to look forward to, one has been cancelled already, with only a pilot to its name, three others remain in “active development” and a few more are being planned. House of Dragon is currently filming in the UK, but the question remains; have audiences moved on, or are they waiting eagerly for a return to form for the world of Game of Thrones?

 
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