Hollywood JargonHollywood SlangHollywood Speak
Ulmer Scale   Noun, e.g.,The Ulmer Scale is credited with giving Hollywood the term “A-lister.”

Definition: A survey that ranks on a scale of 1 to 100 the influence of more than 1,400 actors worldwide to generate movie financing. Created in 1998 by entertainment journalist James Ulmer, the survey canvases sources that range from producers, entertainment agents and studio executives to international distributors, foreign sales agents and investment bankers. Taken into account are an actor’s box office, versatility, professionalism and willingness to promote films.

Ulmer Scale
Mel Gibson suffered the biggest drop in bankability of any actor between 2006 and 2009. Being recorded drunk making obscene, racially-charged death threats to ex-girlfriends hurt Mel in the category of Professionalism and rendered moot the category of Willingness to Promote Movies.

Those in the 1,400 “Hot List” who score 90+ make Ulmer’s “A+ List,” which signifies an actor’s name alone is enough to generate most if not all of the financing needed to greenlight a project. Next comes the A List, B+ List, B List, C List and D List. Numbers of actors included in each list have varied over the years. The last Hot List, published in 2009 (called the “2009-2010 Hot List”), included two A+ actors, 26 A actors and 84 B+ actors.

History: Ulmer began quantifying star power after observing too many big-salaried stars were delivering small box office movies, and vice versa. His Ulmer Scale has since been a force in Hollywood’s cosmos, although in recent years it has been criticized for the very reason it was created. Ulmer’s response: Critics fail to understand all or part of the premise that the Ulmer Scale is 1) a survey of experts 2) on the bankability of actors 3) for films to be distributed worldwide.


Often forgotten, says Ulmer, is that an actor’s rating isn’t based on box office alone, but on the opinions of industry experts. The objective of the Ulmer Scale is to assess an actor’s present value—a value that can be belied by past box office. Any actor's box office can go from hot to cold one flick to the next , e.g., Johnny Depp scoring with “Dark Shadows” (2012) only to flop with “The Lone Ranger” (2013). Ulmer’s evaluation criteria are intended to offer insight into how much a star deserves past box office praise or blame. For instance, from 2006 to 2009, Tom Cruise went from second to nowhere on Ulmer’s top 10 list. Among other things,  Cruise’s ratings for “professionalism” suffered from his 2008 appearance on “Oprah,“  in which he showed off his 5-feet-7-inch physique by toe dancing on a sofa. Bad career choice for an action hero.


Ulmer’s definition of an A-lister is often confused with the media’s undefined definition of a “celebrity” A-lister. The latter apparently can include about anyone who has trod on a red carpet, including television actors and even reality television performers. Ulmer’s most vocal critics, however, are fans of movie stars—and especially fans of female stars, such as Jennifer Anniston, Jennifer Lopez and Sandra Bullock—who are outraged that their favorite star isn’t A listed.

1998 Top 10
1. Tom Hanks
2. Mel Gibson
3. Tom Cruise
4. Harrison Ford
5. Jim Carrey
6. Leonardo DiCaprio
7. John Travolta
8. Julia Roberts
9. Robin Williams
10. Brad Pitt

2002 Top 10
1. Tom Cruise
2. Tom Hanks
3. Julia Roberts
4. Mel Gibson
5. Jim Carrey
6. George Clooney
7. Russell Crowe
8. Harrison Ford
9. Bruce Willis
10. Brad Pitt

2006 Top 10

1. Tom Hanks
2. Tom Cruise
3. Jim Carrey
4. George Clooney
5. Russell Crowe
6. Johnny Depp
7. Nicole Kidman
8. Jude Law
9. Brad Pitt
10. Jullia Roberts

2009 Top 10
1. Will Smith
2. Johnny Depp
3. Brad Pitt
4. Tom Hanks
5. George Clooney
6. Will Ferrell
7. Reese Witherspoon
8. Nicolas Cage
9. Leonardo DiCaprio
10. Russell Crowe

Ulmer’s response: Fame is not commensurate with bankability. Being followed by millions on Twitter and Facebook, in fan and fashion magazines, and on TMC, Access Hollywood and the E Channel, does not necessarily translate into ticket sales. Many fans satisfy their appetites for stars having them served by media other than movies. However, most important to the bankability of female stars is a fact often cited by Ulmer: Women moviegoers drive box office.  And what do women want? One big clue is that three of the top five actors in the 2009 Top 10 have been People Magazine’s "The Sexiest Man Alive."


In Japan, Ulmer told The Los Angeles Times, women drive the box office twice. Each week they go to movies on Wednesdays with their girlfriends, and then again on the weekend on their own. Point being, actors like Will Smith who wow Japanese women receive extra credit.  In fact, a star is measured more by his or her value in turning turnstyles outside the U.S.A. as in.  For instance, the top five box office movies of 2012 grossed $9,217,717,092. Of that total, ticket sales outside the U.S.A. accounted for $5,043,974,000 or 55 percent. As big as they may seem to American audiences, stars such as Ben Stiller, Jennifer Lawrence and Mark Wahlberg suffer with ratings affected by the actors' lack of international appeal.

Ulmer acknowledges that his Hot List doesn't wield the influence it once did largely because the value of actors isn't what it once was. Looming ever larger in large productions is the value of source material, particularly comic book super heroes, e.g., "Iron Man 3" (2013), "Man of Steel" (2013), "The Avengers" (2012), "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012); and novels, e.g. "World War Z" (2013), "The Hunger Games" (2012), "The Twilight Saga" (2012), "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012). Then there are the animated blockbusters that require only voices, e.g., "Despicable Me 2" (2013), "Monsters University" (2013), "Planes" (2013). For mid- to low-budget movies, directors, concept and effects are beginning to eclipse star power--something that is reflected by the Hot List ratings. For instance, only two actors made Ulmer's A+ List in 2009 compared to 6 in 2006 and 10 in 2002.

Related Terms:     above-the-line     production value    star system   Classic Movie Metric    
BOATS         character actor


Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Hollywood