Hollywood loves cut-price Brits

As the film industry hits hard times, producers are hiring our actors to fill roles that used to go to $20m-a-movie US stars. Guy Adams reports from Los Angeles
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The Independent Culture

Like many a careful shopper, Hollywood's cash-strapped casting agents are discovering that the best way to ease spending in these times of economic difficulty is to follow an old housewife's trick: buy British.

The film industry, weary of paying $20m (£10m) salaries to Matt Damon, Nicole Kidman and their A-list chums, is waking up to the value of a generation of cut-price alternatives from across the Atlantic. In an attempt to cope with falling domestic box-office sales and the after-effects of the writers' strike, major Hollywood studios are hiring up-and-coming actors such as James McAvoy and Jim Sturgess to front productions that would traditionally feature major US stars.

A story in the Hollywood newspaper Variety last week identified young Brits who represent value bets for producers. They include Ben Whishaw, Emily Blunt and Ben Barnes, who was catapulted to fame as the star of the recent Prince Caspian, which took nearly $400m worldwide.

McAvoy, who cut his teeth on the British TV series Shameless, is thought to represent a canny alternative to action heroes such as Damon or Brad Pitt. Although he commands a fraction of their salaries, McAvoy recently received adulatory reviews as the lead in Wanted, which co-starred Angelina Jolie. The film took $155m in the US alone.

The increasing importance of foreign markets to US film revenues is also helping talent from Europe. Overseas box office, which used to be thought inconsequential, now accounts for half of Hollywood's takings, increasing the importance of employing credible international stars. "In the world of foreign sales, there is a parallel universe, with a different group of actors who are considered bankable, even if they've only had a few film credits, as long as those few films were successful enough to give them recognition around the globe," Variety noted.

A further boon to Brit actors has been the US independent film industry slump. Producers who are not supported by big studios face the toughest markets in decades. "As available money for movies gets squeezed, indie producers need to find 'bankable' names who don't command movie star prices," the article added.

One beneficiary may be Blunt, who stars in The Wolf Man, landing a higher credit than Anthony Hopkins. Another could be Tilda Swinton, referred to (only half-jokingly) as a cut-price Kidman, who will take top billing in the Coen brothers' film Burn After Reading, co-starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

Bullock v Blunt: The girl next door

She made a fine bus driver, but since 'Speed' Sandra Bullock has earned up to $15m a film. Emily Blunt, star of 'The Devil Wears Prada', is just as smart and sensitive, but commands less than $1.5m. That may change withthe release of her mooted 'breakthrough' film,'The Wolf Man'

Maguire v Sturgess: Strong but sensitive

The only way is down for Tobey Maguire, after the huge success of 'Spiderman' pushed his pay above $17m. Jim Sturgess, by contrast, is on the up: in 'The Other Boleyn Girl' and '21' later this year, he's established himself as master of the sensitive roles that catapulted Maguire to fame.

Kidman v Swinton: The ice queen

No one can deny Nicole Kidman's talent, but she charges $17.5m to $20m for getting out of bed – and her films don't always make money. 'Forbes' magazine made Kidman, the worst-performing star in Hollywood; Tilda Swinton, on the other hand, will do just as good a job forless than $3m.

Damon v McAvoy: The action hero

You don't get many action heroes to the pound, and 'Bourne Ultimatum' star Matt Damon demands at least $10m a film (though he did take a one-off cut to $500,000 for 'Ocean's 13'). James McAvoy boasts more modest tastes: his fee for 'Wanted' is thought to be a mere $2.5m.