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Many top names free for spring films

Strike clears schedule for film, TV actors

In the latest strike-related twist, more top-tier movie stars are available to work than at any time in recent memory, and a substantial number of TV stars may be poised to join them.

George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise are just some of the actors who are free to take part in the flurry of films that will be completed by June, when the DGA and SAG contracts expire.

And once TV shows have been shut down for five weeks, actors who were downgraded to half-pay by studios will either have to be restored to full salary or else be made free agents through force majeure. While it is doubtful the latter will happen with the stars of hits like “The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Heroes,” a prolonged strike could prompt studios to cut deals with those actors that would open them up for feature availability. That means Steve Carell, Patrick Dempsey and Katherine Heigl, Hayden Panettiere and her “Heroes” cohorts could take film jobs.

Studio execs, who’ve had a hard time readying early 2008 production starts and then holding together their pictures once the WGA surprised them by striking early, view this talent windfall with some resignation.

“The big stars have already seen everything we’ve got,” one exec said.

That doesn’t mean studios aren’t giving them a second look at projects. The moment Depp’s long-planned film “Shantaram” was postponed by Warner Bros. over script, budget and locations concerns, his UTA reps received an avalanche of scripts. The same thing happened at CAA when Sony’s postponement of “Angels & Demons” made Hanks available, when Pitt fell out of “State of Play” and when Clooney ankled the Joe Carnahan-directed “White Jazz.”

Universal took advantage of the availability of Russell Crowe to keep “State of Play” going, but that was an anomaly. He is poised to step into a fully formed picture, with sets constructed, Kevin Macdonald ready to direct, and a stellar cast — Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman and Robin Wright Penn — all locked into pay-or-play deals.

Indications are that Crowe likes the script, and the studio and his WMA reps are trying to make a deal that will allow him time to report to the Ridley Scott-directed drama “Nottingham” in March. Even if the start date of “State of Play” gets pushed a bit, U is financing both films and won’t have to barter with a rival studio nervous that Crowe will be late arriving to Sherwood Forest.

Other big stars won’t have such an easy time finding a ready-to-go project. Depp has found a couple of scripts to his liking and is likely to commit to one of them.

Though a lot of script drafts were turned in just before the WGA strike began, several studio execs doubted there will be many other happy surprises, like the kind Paramount got when Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio stepped out of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and into “Shutter Island.” The inability to get rewrites to tailor vehicles to specific stars is a factor.

Once he weaves around the legal ramifications of his 11th-hour exit from “State of Play,” Pitt may well take another film, or, after making and promoting several movies in quick succession, he may be content to stay home with his kids.

Clooney is considered least likely to take an acting job. Citing a motorcycle accident as the reason for backing out of “White Jazz,” Clooney needed WB to push back the opening of “Leatherheads,” the football comedy he directed, so he could edit the film and finish acting with Pitt on the Coen brothers-helmed “Burn After Reading.” Clooney will likely devote the extra time to “Leatherheads,” hole up in his Italian villa and ponder his next potential directing vehicle, “Farragut North,” which DiCaprio is circling.

Though Hanks is available, he’s unlikely to take an acting gig because he’s plenty busy with projects at Playtone, the production company he runs with Gary Goetzman. The “Charlie Wilson’s War” star is immersed as a producer on “The Pacific,” the $220 million WWII miniseries that Playtone is exec producing with Steven Spielberg. The mini is halfway through shooting 10 episodes in Melbourne for airing on HBO in spring 2009.

Playtone also is shooting “Where the Wild Things Are” and “City of Ember” and is in post-production on “Mamma Mia!” and the HBO mini “John Adams.” And if a strike ended shortly, it’s always possible Akiva Goldsman and Ron Howard could solve the script problems that halted “Angels & Demons” and get that pic to the start gate.

Cruise is a wildcard as well. He had been eyeing the Terry George-directed “Edwin A. Salt” at Columbia and a remake of the German comedy “Men” at WB. But Todd Phillips, who is attached to direct the latter, is now prepping the WB comedy “Hangover.” Cruise, who just starred in the Bryan Singer-directed “Valkyrie,” also is busy plotting strategy for United Artists, which he’s running with partner Paula Wagner and a lot of Wall Street money. Will he limit himself to a cameo as a Harvey Weinstein-like studio chief in the Ben Stiller-directed “Tropic Thunder”?

Studio execs said the one genre that could produce last-minute surprise entries is comedy. Such pics are logistically easier to mount, and several top stars could shake loose in time for last-minute laffers. That includes Vince Vaughn, who’ll complete the Seth Gordon-directed comedy “Four Christmases” for New Line and Spyglass in enough time to take another movie — if he feels like it.

Carell and the other TV talent currently on hold could be a boon for laffers, as well as for films by studio-owned specialty and genre arms, which can’t afford to pay superstar salaries.

Carell skipped the early fall rush, when studios were eager to book stars into movies, because an extended season of “The Office” figured to keep him busy until May.

SAG will push studios to either restore those TV stars to full pay or release them. Talent on shaky series will probably find their shows scrapped by force majeure. While some feel that studios would rather pay stars from hit series so they can ramp up episode production if the strike ends, film execs are watching closely. Some wonder if exits will occur in time to mount some late spring pictures.

On the superstar front, several execs and dealmakers said that top-tier stars probably aren’t as eager to work as the studios are to have them.

“We’ve come a long way from the days when guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis got booked into every available slot,” said one talent agent. “These guys are all rich enough to welcome vacations.”

Execs and dealmakers also were pondering what will happen once deals are made with all three labor guilds. The entire business will reboot, and nearly every major star will be available. Studios that already spent hundreds of millions of dollars filling 2009 slates will have to decide how quickly to assemble new production starts to accommodate stars who by then will be hungry to work.

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