While negotiations were speeding to a close for Jim Carrey to star in the Columbia comedy “Cable Guy,” for a salary that could surpass $17 million, it’s become clear that the day when a major studio pays stars $20 million or more has arrived. The upfront salaries of top-tier leading men seemed to have hit a plateau of $15 million, but all bets have been off since Sylvester Stallone got a promised $20 million payday from Savoy, then cemented his stature at the studio level with a $17.5 million payday from Universal for “Daylight.” Though Arnold Schwarzenegger’s salary for the Warner Bros. actioner “Eraser” was never disclosed, sources say it exceeds $17 million.

The Willis household alone has been largely responsible for the recent trend. After getting $15 million to do “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” Bruce Willis just received $16.5 million from New Line for the Walter Hill western “Gundown.” Demi Moore, meanwhile, shot up to $12.5 million for Castle Rock’s “Striptease.” Small wonder Mike Ovitz decided to stay in the agency business.

“Of all the big prices, it might have been Demi’s that started this price hike,” said one studio executive. “Everybody seemed OK at $15 million, but then suddenly she’s $3 million away from the biggest male stars. It’s been out of control since then.”

The next actor to reach that exalted stratosphere will likely be Carrey, when he finally gets plugged into “Cable Guy.” Don’t think these figures haven’t been noticed by the reps of actors such as Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford and a select group of franchise stars. As such top earners look for their next jobs, it will be hard to hold the price below a cool $20 mil much longer.

Carrey’s turn as the Riddler in “Batman Forever” is expected to clearly establish his box office power in the international marketplace. In “Cable Guy,” he would play a lonely cable TV installation man who haunts one of his customers, ultimately using his expertise to make his first friend. Aside from a clear record salary for a cable installer, the salary would be the highest ever paid a star by Columbia. Columbia/TriStar chairman Mark Canton, the “Batman” exec at WB before he moved to Columbia, is known to be high on Carrey. If the deal’s completed, “Cable Guy” wouldn’t necessarily be Carrey’s next film. Among other things, he’s got a deal for a sequel to New Line’s “The Mask.” Carrey is currently shooting Morgan Creek’s “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.”

When Columbia bought the script last April for $750,000, it quickly attached “Saturday Night Live” star Chris Farley to the movie, with a summer start date. “Cable” reception grew fuzzy at that point when Paramount, which had a picture option after “Tommy Boy,” forced Farley to instead do the comedy “Black Sheep.” Columbia and Farley agreed he’d star in “Cable” once he completed his final season of “SNL,” but sources said he recently decided he didn’t want to commit to a film that far in the future and stepped aside.

Enter Carrey, who had turned down $18 million from Motion Picture Corp. of America to star in the comedy “Thief of Santa Monica,” and recently nixed offers as high as $16 million. “Cable Guy” is the first project he’s warmed to creatively in that salary range. Columbia declined comment, as did a spokesman for Carrey.

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