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Stars and Strife: Big Celeb Paydays Are More Fragile Than Ever

From Julia Roberts to Will Ferrell, a Wrap two-part series looks at performers under pressure.

(Also see Part 2: More Than Ever, Players Are Hearing "Scale.")



Mickey Rourke won a Golden Globe for "The Wrestler," was nominated for an Oscar and, more importantly, saw his career go from nowhere to the stratosphere in just a few months.


So he’s back to the big-time paydays, right?


Not so fast.


Negotiating in January to play the evil Whiplash in "Iron Man 2," things turned sour when Marvel offered him only $250,000. After the type of haggling rarely seen between a studio and a star, he finally signed in March for a rumored $400,000.


And Rourke wasn’t the only new "Iron Man 2" talent to feel the squeeze. Reports have surfaced that Scarlett Johansson, who would normally get seven figures for a major movie — is also getting paid a mere $400,000.


And even megastars have seen their salaries change.


When the spiritual chick flick "Eat, Pray Love" was being shopped around, an executive at one major studio that was part of the early negotiations said Julia Roberts was offered a shockingly low $1 million to star — plus a healthy back-end.


She balked, and when the project landed at Sony, she got her usual $15 million quote.


That’s what she was paid for "Duplicity," which turned out to be a dud for Universal.


It’s getting really ugly out there in front of the camera. From marquee talent to workaday actors — Hollywood has become a buyers market. And that works to the benefit of studios and producers, and to the detriment of actors and their agents. (Visit TheWrap tomorrow for part 2: The pressure rises on working actors.)


As studios are rethinking their economic models, the A-list stars who appear in movies that miss are extremely vulnerable. Roberts joins Will Ferrell ("Land of the Lost," "Semi-Pro"), George Clooney ("Leatherheads," "The Good German") and Russell Crowe ("State of Play," "Body of Lies") are just a few examples. (See separate story on five actors who need to be careful.)


"They’re not ‘must-haves,’ ” said one high-level studio executive about these actors, though he declined to be identified.  "They’ve all been in too many movies that didn’t work."


This week, Forbes released its list of highest-paid actors in the business, and according to the numbers, nobody should feel very sorry for Adam Sandler or Tom Hanks. There will always be a handful of hot names, and studios still want to be in business with Will Smith and Matt Damon.


The weekend was full of performers who may not be able to bank on record paydays anymore. Eddie Murphy’s "Imagine That" was his second summer dud in a row, opening to only $5.6 million. Ferrell’s "Land of the Lost" was a critical and commercial stinker and has grossed only $35 million.


And even though it grossed in line with expectations at $25 million, "The Taking of Pelham 123" couldn’t ride megastars Denzel Washington and John Tavolta to anything higher than 3rd place, behind two star-free holdovers in "The Hangover" and "Up."


And besides the biggest names, general performers are more than ever being asked to read for parts, something that may not have happened two years ago, agents and casting directors are saying.

Christina Ricci was cast in a recent three-episode arc on TNT’s “Saving Grace” — but only after auditioning. She had no choice if she wanted the work, said agent Todd Justice.

“If I say no, the network says, OK, I have another person I can give it to,” he said. 

These days, few say no, said casting agent David Rubin, who has cast dozens of films, including “The English Patient,” “Men in Black” and “Yes Man.” “Maybe a small handful of old-school character actors will not compromise their quote,” he said. 


More indicative of the way things are versus the way things use to be, Rubin said studios are “summarily ignoring quotes.”


(Also see Part 2: More Than Ever, Players Are Hearing "Scale.")