There’s an interesting snap judgment in a current Kim Masters/Daily Beast article about studios having shifted into deep rollback mode these days on star salaries. The studios are using the worldwide financial meltdown as an excuse to get tough, but the decisive underlying factor is, as Masters writes, that “the model is collapsing.”

Meaning, I gather, that while a very select few superstars like Will Smith can still be counted upon to open a film (unless it’s a morose stinker like Seven Pounds) and the right star in the right film (say, Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man) is a definite box-office accelerant, fewer and fewer actors rank in this regard. It almost seems, in fact, as if the very concept of a movie star may be on the wane. Digital media has levelled the playing field, and the mystique of movie stars has dissipated.

How many of the hot celebrity names of the ’90s and the early part of this century still matter in a box-office sense? Tom Cruise may not be done, but the suits see him as damaged goods; Harrison Ford has been over for a while now. Is Tom Hanks still a bona fide star? In any event, says Masters, the value of respected second-tier stars seems to be sinking like a stone.

“After years of impotent promises to choke off rich deals with talent, the studios are finally making it happen,” she reports. “They’re hammering on star salaries and perks like private jets, too. ‘They’ve wanted to go in this direction for a long time and the global financial crisis has given them the lever to do it,’ says one veteran talent representative. ‘

“Why would anybody pay Julia Roberts $20 million to do Duplicity?” a producer tells Masters. “That won’t happen again.” Indeed, this source says Sony Pictures is ponying up $15 million for Roberts to do Eat, Pray, Love and probably already regrets having committed to pay that much.

“These changes may cheer up ordinary citizens who can’t understand why a star ever got millions to be in a movie in the first place,” she writes, “but the fact that the studios are finally laying down the law also illustrates the strains hey are under as they try to crank out expensive popular entertainment when the model is collapsing.

“Stars in the middle range — famous names but something well short of, say, Will Smith — are facing the toughest battles,” she reports.

“The studios are going out to actors who have been $10 million players and saying, ‘Here’s $5 million. Here’s two and a half,'” she hears from a top agent. “It’s like there are no rules.” If an actor balks at the deal, the studios say they will move to another choice immediately. “They’re not fucking around,” says the talent representative. “They know exactly who that next person is. Sometimes they’ll tell you.”

“On certain movies, they feel like whoever they put in a part is fine. Once they lock down Robert Downey, Jr., on Iron Man 2, everything else is fine. I don’t think they give a shit if it’s Mickey Rourke or Scarlett Johansson.”