Femmes Gain Ground On The Superstar Salary Scale

With the announcement last week that Sandra Bullock would make upwards of $10 million plus gross participation for her role in New Line’s “In Love and War,” the actress entered the rarefied atmosphere of actresses passing the $10 million mark.

Bullock joins the ranks of A-list female stars including Demi Moore (who got around $12.5 million for her role in Columbia’s “Striptease”), Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Whitney Houston, Sharon Stone and Whoopi Goldberg.

While the best-paid actresses still lag behind their male counterparts – who are now working on the $20 million barrier – women’s salaries have become a force to contend with.

So why the sudden increase?

Agency upheavel, supply and demand, and the fact that women are finally opening pictures are the oft-cited reasons for this above-the-line affirmative action.

One top producer mentions recent turmoil at the tenpercenteries as a reason for skyrocketing star salaries, both male and female. “At a time when agencies are reshaping themselves, agents are under the gun to come up with these kinds of jumps,” he says. “And people are paying it because there are so few movie stars.”

But others feel that this goes beyond agents vamping to impress flighty clients.

“What it shows is that the business is out of control,” suggests another producer, commenting on Meg Ryan’s reported $8 million-plus payday for her role in Fine Line’s “Easy Women.” “Sandra Bullock is worth it. She is someone the audiences like to see on the screen. But to pay Meg Ryan that much… She’s had two misfires in row, ‘ I.Q.’ and ‘French Kiss.'”

Responds Fine Line’s Ruth Vitale: “Meg Ryan is probably one of the biggest stars in the world. Even Meg’s less successful films are still wildly successful.”

Touchstone Pictures is betting Whitney Houston, who is reportedly getting $10 million for her role in Penny Marshall’s remake of “The Bishop’s Wife, ” will have the same effect on audiences.

While not the most seasoned actress, Houston offers the added marketing boost of her huge music following. She is scheduled to provide at least five pop reworkings of gospel standards for “The Bishop’s Wife.”

“The Bodyguard,” Houston’s starring debut, grossed $415 million worldwide.

But if women can bring in audiences, why are they still paid less than men? Is it just a highstakes version of the same sexism that causes women to be paid less than men in the rest of society?

The conventional explanation is that action films, which traditionally feature prominent male roles, do better on average than comedies and dramas worldwide.

“That argument’s wearing pretty thin, ” says one producer. “Is ‘ Assassins’ going to do well enough – even including inter national – to justify $20 million for Stallone?”

The rationale for paying top dollar to action stars can also be seen as faulty because action films are arguably less dependent on performance than dramas and comedies.

Another old saw is that a female star can’t open a film.

Numerous recent examples put the lie to that idea too, however. Pfeiffer’s “Dangerous Minds” took in $14.9 million on its opening weekend. And Roberts can take credit for the $11.1 million opening of “Something to Talk About.” Unless, of course, it was the legions of Dennis Quaid fans that jammed the multiplexes.

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