Boys and girls of summer

Rising actors have a lot at stake this season

THR's summer movie preview

Sam Worthington might be the biggest star you've never heard of.

The Aussie hunk toplines one of this summer's biggest bets, "Terminator Salvation," as well as James Cameron's "Avatar" in the fall. The one-two punch could make the virtually unknown 32-year-old a household name by year's end.

Or maybe not. Worthington is one of several rising actors with a lot riding on upcoming popcorn pics.

As Hollywood studios scale back film slates, actors are getting fewer chances at the brass ring. But with star salaries shrinking and boxoffice draws of the 1990s and early 2000s losing some of their luster, the town is desperately looking for a new crop of stars who can open a movie.

"It is harder for an actor to break out right now," producer JC Spink says. "The industry is so hungry for A-listers that it puts actors out there before they are ready, actorwise and maturitywise. It's like going to the NBA out of high school instead of college. We don't have the patience to grow things anymore."

The big story this summer might not be potentially record-breaking boxoffice grosses but whether, ready or not, Worthington and company can take advantage of the expected uptick to catapult into the public consciousness -- and raise their quotes at the same time.

"We need someone who can be funny and be dramatic and kiss the girl and can carry a gun," says Mark Waters, director of "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" and producer of July's "(500) Days of Summer." "When you are looking for guys in their late 20s and early 30s, there really isn't a lot to choose from."

Talking to execs and agents around town, word is that Worthington is the real deal. Of course, so were Chris O'Donnell when he booked "Batman and Robin" and Orlando Bloom post-"Pirates of the Caribbean." But seeing "Terminator" dailies apparently convinced Warner Bros.:

The studio hired Worthington for its remake of "Clash of the Titans." But other actors have just as much at stake during the next few months.

Some examples:

Chris Pine

"Star Trek" will be huge, so the question isn't whether Pine's career will get a boost -- it's by how much. He hasn't booked his first post-"Trek" gig, though his name has appeared on shortlists for high-profile projects like Warners' "The Green Lantern." There's another wild card: If audiences fall for Pine as Captain Kirk, will they follow him to other roles? That's a question Robert Pattinson faces in the wake of "Twilight." "If a beloved but stale franchise is successfully relaunched, whether it's 'Star Trek' or 'Terminator,' Chris and Sam will get credit for playing a big part in rebooting it and they will pop," says Dan Lin, who is executive producing "Terminator."

Channing Tatum

The Alabama native has been building buzz since 2006's "Step Up" surprised many by grossing $65 million domestically. "Fighting" opened last weekend with a healthy $12.6 million, but Tatum tests his tentpole prowess for the first time in July opposite Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in "Public Enemies," then follows with the key role of Duke in August's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra." If those movies play as they should, Tatum's star power could get a big boost.

Ayelet Zurer

The Israeli beauty already had a solid career in her native country when Steven Spielberg came calling for 2005's "Munich," in which she played the wife of Eric Bana's character. After a small role in "Vantage Point," she landed the female lead opposite Tom Hanks in Ron Howard's "Angels & Demons," the adaptation of Dan Brown's best-seller. Parlaying that opportunity into a ticket to stardom is not a given, though: Howard and Hanks' first Brown movie, "The Da Vinci Code," was a massive hit but didn't do much careerwise for co-star Audrey Tautou, who hasn't made a major Hollywood film since.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The former child actor from "3rd Rock From the Sun" is 28 and poised for a major breakout. After well-received but little-seen roles in "Brick" and "The Lookout," he stars in Fox Searchlight's buzzy break-up comedy "(500) Days of Summer" and teams with Tatum in "G. I. Joe," in which he plays the villainous Cobra Commander. If either is a hit, he'll have heat going into his high-profile role in Christopher Nolan's "Inception."

Katherine Heigl

She made excellent use of a hiatus from ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" by starring in 2007's "Knocked Up" then established her romantic comedy bona fides with a $23 million opening-weekend haul for "27 Dresses." She faces a major test in July with "The Ugly Truth," a big-budget comedy, opposite Gerard Butler. The film could determine whether Heigl has appeal beyond her core TV fanbase.

Bradley Cooper

He has played plenty of smarmy boyfriends ("Wedding Crashers") and second bananas ("Yes Man"), but this summer he's the anchor, with co-stars Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, of Warners' R-rated comedy "The Hangover." The June release, which revolves around a trio of groomsman who lose the groom in Las Vegas, could do for the stars what director Todd Phillips' "Old School" did for Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell and Luke Wilson. "Bradley's going to show that he can handle comedy and run with some killers, in the comedic sense," Phillips says. "He keeps pace with them and at the same time runs the show. Hopefully people will see that other side of him." The buzz on "Hangover" is so strong that Warners put a sequel into development two months before the movie's release.

Hayden Panettiere

One of the breakout stars of the first season of NBC's "Heroes," she sat out her hiatuses until finding the right role: as the title character in Fox Atomic's teen comedy "I Love You, Beth Cooper." Directed by Chris Columbus, who returns to his teen roots after big-budget efforts like "Harry Potter," the film was made for less than $20 million. But because "Heroes" has been losing its superpowers in the ratings, "Cooper" could be crucial to Panettiere's longevity.

John Krasinski

The star of NBC's "The Office" has a devoted following, but fans haven't followed him to the movies. The 2007 romantic comedy "License to Wed," opposite Robin Williams and Mandy Moore, tanked, and his starring turn with George Clooney in the period football movie "Leatherheads" ended in a loss of down. He has a chance to prove he can be a leading comedy star with "Away We Go," Sam Mendes' story of a couple (Krasinksi and Maya Rudolph) who go on a road trip to figure out where to raise their child. If it finds an audience, Krasinski might be taken seriously as a comedy movie star.

Kristen Bell

The actress from TV's "Veronica Mars" and "Heroes" only recently began to swim in feature-film waters. In the summer, she toplines Disney's romantic comedy "When in Rome," about a woman pursued by suitors after throwing pennies in a fountain. She won praise for her role in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and is shooting "Couples Retreat," which co-stars Vaughn and Jason Bateman. But those films boast ensemble casts; "Rome" is all Bell. Apparently, Disney likes what it sees from the dailies as the studio recently hired her to star in the comedy "You Again."