Is Demi Moore worth the big bucks? You betcha.

Call it a reverse domino effect. The day Demi Moore got $12.5 million to play a stripper fighting for custody of her daughter in Castle Rock’s Strip Tease, Sharon Stone‘s asking price jumped from $6 million to $7 million, Jodie Foster went from $7 million to $8 million, Meg Ryan moved from $6 million to $8 million, and Julia Roberts leaped from $12 million to $13 million. ”It’s great,” says Stone’s manager, Chuck Binder. ”It’s forcing every woman’s salary up.”

Which is precisely why Hollywood’s largely male executive suite is hot and bothered by Moore’s blockbuster payout for the movie version of Carl Hiaasen’s 1993 best-seller. Already anxious about skyrocketing salaries for male stars — most recently, Sly Stallone grabbed $20 million from Savoy — the studios are now facing higher prices on the distaff side, too. And, of course, there are those nagging questions about whether Moore is really worth it. ”Why pay her $12 million to take her clothes off,” grouses one exec, ”when she does it for [magazines] for free?”

But you don’t have to be an accountant to know that, in Hollywood terms, she is worth it. Stone, Foster, and Roberts have had their hits, but Moore has delivered a string of international blockbusters (worldwide grosses on her recent films include: Disclosure, $180 million — and still counting; A Few Good Men, $146 million; Indecent Proposal, $258 million; and Ghost, $545 million), making her the industry’s most bankable actress. ”The reason there’s so much discussion is only because she’s a woman,” sighs president of Castle Rock Pictures Martin Shafer, who worked with Moore on A Few Good Men and says she was the only actress they approached for the role. ”She is every bit as valuable as the dozen guys who get comparable money. On an international basis, Demi Moore is the biggest female star in the world.”

And her allure — a key to understanding this particular paycheck — doesn’t hurt. ”Demi and Sharon share one thing,” says producer Dawn Steel. ”They are sexy as all hell. If you’re making a movie called Strip Tease, you’d better get one of the sexiest women in town and pay her whatever you have to.”

In the film, to be directed by Honeymoon in VegasAndrew Bergman, Moore will play a Florida working-class mom doing what a mom’s gotta do — in this case, strip — to finance a custody battle for her 6-year-old daughter (think Stella Dallas). ”Andrew Bergman isn’t making Showgirls,” insists Shafer. ”Strip Tease needs a woman who can play a strong dramatic role and [look good]. Demi can do both,” he says. A Castle Rock spokesman says that Jack Nicholson has been approached as a possible costar.

While Shafer has upped the ante for Moore, he isn’t the only one bidding for her talents. She has deals all over town, including The Juror with Alec Baldwin at Sony Pictures, and an untitled terrorist thriller at Disney’s Caravan Pictures.

Moore is following much the same strategy as her husband, Bruce Willis, by balancing smaller-scale quality pictures that don’t pay the big bucks upfront — like Roland Joffe‘s film of The Scarlet Letter or Moore’s own production of the female-ensemble drama Gaslight Addition — with lucrative, studio-backed commercial projects. ”It’s ironic,” points out Steel, ”that Bruce was responsible for the upsurge in actors’ salaries when he got a groundbreaking $5 million for Die Hard. Now his wife is benefiting.”

Ultimately, Moore’s big score has less to do with gender dynamics than it does with Hollywood’s bottom line. ”Finally women are getting paid what men get because someone thinks they can make money off paying Demi $12 million,” says one studio chairman. ”This is not about sexual equality, it’s about money.”