You hear it bandied about all the time -- such-and-such celebrity is an "A-lister," or an actor you recognize from a minor role or two might reside on the "D-list." But did you know that there actually are such lists -- official ones -- and how celebrities are ranked on them is calculated according to a formula? It's called the Ulmer Scale, and was devised by longtime entertainment journalist James Ulmer as a tool to calculate the "bankability" of a given star.
What's bankability? When it comes to putting together financing for a movie, it's incredibly important: the skyrocketing salaries of the top 20 or so movie stars these days is a direct result of how movie moguls perceive their bankability; can they open the movie? IE, will their name alone get butts in theater seats? There are other factors, too, which Ulmer rates on a 1-100 point scale:
"¢ Willingness to travel/promote. It may sound ridiculous that going on Letterman and giving interviews is considered work, but when you do weeks of this kind of thing at a stretch, I've no doubt that it is (though I can't speak from experience). If the star of your movie is too lazy/busy/agoraphobic to fly to New York and go on some talk shows, you're going to have a problem getting a return on the investment which is his or her salary. Thus, they are less bankable -- thus, their Ulmer Scale rating sinks.
"¢ Professionalism. Is your star going to wind up in the tabloid pages for drunk driving or cavorting with hookers in Vegas? Is he going to fuss and cry when his trailer isn't stocked with the right brand of bottled water, or scream at the crew like a madman? In the 90s Robert Downey, Jr. was considered one of Hollywood's most talented actors -- he was nominated for an Oscar for 1992's Chaplin -- but his reputation as an insane, drug-addled bad boy kept him off the A-list.
"¢ Career management. What other kinds of roles in what other kinds of films is the star accepting? It's hard to remain bankable as an A-list action star if you decide to start taking roles on daytime soaps, just as it's hard to land roles in high-profile Oscar-bait movies if you have a reputation for taking any role in any schlocky movie that comes along (I'm looking at you, Sam Jackson).
"¢ Talent. Yep, talent is actually a factor. Surprised? A lot of stars are great at playing one kind of role: Kate Winslet in dramas, for instance. But would you ever consider replacing Kate Beckinsale in the Resident Evil movies with Kate Winslet? Not likely. Just the same, one-time A-lister Arnold Schwarzenegger saw his star power sink not because he dropped out of movies to pursue politics, but because as he approached late-middle-age, it became clear that he couldn't keep toplining action movies, but there wasn't a whole lot else he could do, either. Range is important. That's why an actor like Tom Hanks -- who started out in comedy, but won an Oscar for drama Philadelphia and is now appearing in action-thriller Angels and Demons -- is solidly A-list.
B-list celebrities are people whose names everyone knows, like Mark Wahlberg and Kate Hudson, but who can't quite "open" a movie on their name alone. The C-list is pretty much everyone else who could be considered famous, and the D-list -- contrary to popular belief -- isn't part of the Ulmer Scale, and doesn't actually exist.