Reality check as Hollywood's A-list feels the pinch

Big name actors are being forced to cut back their multi-million dollar pay demands after a disappointing run at the box office.

The days of $USD 20 million ($23.8 million) pay cheques for A-list Hollywood stars are over after a series of films with big name actors failed to deliver at the box office.

The three biggest US films of the summer have been the latest versions of the Transformer and Harry Potter franchises, starring relative newcomers Shia LaBeouf and Daniel Radcliffe, and a computer-animated Pixar offering, Up.

But Duplicity (with Julia Roberts), Land of the Lost (Will Ferrell), Imagine That (Edddie Murphy), Funny People (Adam Sandler), Public Enemies (Johnny Depp), The Taking of Pelham 123 (Denzel Washington and John Travolta) and even Angels & Demons (Tom Hanks) brought in sales that varied from average to abysmal.

The one movie luminary to live up to his billing for drawing audiences has been Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds - the violence-packed Quentin Tarantino number that took in $USD 38 million ($45 million) last weekend.

"In the past, studios believed that if they wanted a box office hit, they needed a big star for presence and visibility," said Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Pictures and former studio chief at Sony Pictures, with films such as Midnight Express, Rain Man and Batman to his name.

"But this year, we've had a summer filled with sequels, remakes and franchises that don't come with big names. There are still very talented stars of course but not every movie needs them for commercial success."

The tough economic climate started the transformation but the revolution in technology and social networking has driven home the fundamental upheavals this summer. For studios reeling from the collapse in DVD sales, this box office trend has given them the chance to redress the bargaining balance with stars and their representatives. Agents used to deliver take-it-or-leave-it financial demands, but now studios set the price.

In Hollywood, there is usually a code of omerta among all parties when it comes to specific numbers. But a rare spat over salaries became public recently when Washington, an Oscar winner who only recently joined the $USD 20 million club, reluctantly agreed a reduced pay cheque for a 20th Century Fox project after initially threatening to walk away.

Disney reportedly ditched Julia Roberts for Sandra Bullock when she would not cut her salary - believed to be around the $USD 15 million ($17.8 million) mark until recently - to star in the recent comedy hit The Proposal.

Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke apparently accepted $USD 400,000 ($476,083) each plus a take of profits to appear in Iron Man 2. And Jim Carrey has foregone any cheque upfront, instead agreeing to pocket 30 per cent of profits for a recent project, according to Hollywood insiders discussing the movie Yes Man.

Young men, the dominant force for Hollywood blockbusters for generations, are losing interest in big name movies as they find their entertainment elsewhere - the internet, video games and iPhone applications - usually without having to leave their sofas.

Social networking is also transforming the market for opening weekends - the biggest grosser for virtually every film - as cinemagoers spread their verdicts on a new film from inside the cinema by Twitter or Facebook.

Stephen Galloway, executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter, said: "Twitter has revolutionised the business overnight. Word of mouth about films used to spread, but fairly slowly: now the minute one person sees a movie, he 'tweets' his 100 friends, they 'tweet' their 100 friends - in literally seconds word has spread that it's a stinker."

Mr Guber said: "Stars are still holding out for those big sums they used to earn, but many of them are, I'd imagine, being paid half to two thirds of what they were getting two years ago."

The Sunday Telegraph, UK