Honey, Who Shrunk The Stars?

There are signs that this trend may be invading the film world as well, even if not all movie executives see it yet. All you have to do is wander into a multiplex. Most of the biggest hits so far this season haven't been the star-driven pictures. They've been franchise films like ''Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' (which opened at $94 million) and ''Shrek 2'' ($433 million and counting), or superhero extravaganzas like ''Spider-Man 2'' (with a total to date of $344 million) and ''The Bourne Supremacy'' (currently at $99 million), none of which depended on big stars to open.

There came a moment in 2003 when Gyllenhaal nearly stole Maguire's Spidey suit and plenty of Hollywood players bet it wouldn't hurt the franchise. And that's another reason these ministars are probably here to stay: Like all mass-produced goods, they're easier to replace. Not to mention a lot cheaper (Cruise and Hanks generally charge $20-25 million a movie for acting; Tobey Maguire got $4 million for the first ''Spider-Man''). Until, of course, those $4 million stars demand a raise. ''It escalates pretty quickly,'' notes one of the studio chiefs. ''It used to be a star would go from $8 million to $9 million. Now they go from $8 million to $15 million.'' Or, in Maguire's case, from $4 million to $17 million. ''Even these younger stars are starting to price themselves out of the picture.''

ART VS. COMMERCE (OR, IT'S SWELL TO SELL BUT INCREDIBLE TO BE CREDIBLE)

There's one more explanation for why today's younger actors haven't become bigger stars: Maybe they don't want to be. Back when Cruise and Roberts were charting their early careers, the road to stardom was straight and narrow. After landing that initial breakout hit, you followed up by scoring another, then another, slowly accruing a bigger and bigger fan base. A diversity of roles was permitted, even encouraged -- race-car driver, fighter pilot, wounded Vietnam vet, whatever -- just so long as you didn't submerge yourself too deeply in the part. The star's personal charisma on the screen -- coupled with talent, of course -- was the important thing. Ultimately, people were going to see a Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson movie. Good or bad, it's how the industry had been operating since Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.

But today, thanks to the indie boom, younger actors have a lot more choices -- and it's made them artistically ambitious. ''The parallel is to what happened in the '70s, with actors once again choosing films based on great parts,'' offers Newman. ''You're seeing less of these people trying to repeat the same formula from movie to movie.'' On the contrary, you're seeing some of them turn their backs entirely on formula, walking away from gigs that might have made them much bigger stars.

Leonardo DiCaprio was following the time-tested career path to box office godliness -- years of solid acting in smaller roles, moderate amounts of press -- before he ran into the mother of all icebreakers. ''Titanic'' was a hit created by the public if ever there was one, and afterward DiCaprio was better positioned than any actor of his generation for a shot at a Cruise-size career. Instead, he cold-shouldered the sorts of roles that would have perpetuated his fans' adoration, embracing more challenging fare, like ''The Beach'' and ''Gangs of New York.'' While he continues to land starring roles, no one would now call DiCaprio a box office lock.

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