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Ulmer Scale  

Definition: A periodic 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 while 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.

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 became a force in Hollywood, although it has been criticized for the very reason it was created. Ulmer’s response: His 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.

Survey of Experts

The objective of the Ulmer Scale is to assess an actor’s present value, which can be belied by box office. For instance, according to IMBd, “Dark Shadows” (2012) starring Johnny Depp grossed $245.5 million worldwide on a budget of $150 million. According to Variety, “The Lone Ranger” (2013) starring Johnny Depp grossed $260.5 million worldwide on a budget of $225 to 250 million, The New York Times also claimed that because of additional expenses beyond budget, the "The Lone Ranger" needed to gross $650 million to break even.

The evaluation criteria that experts are asked to apply are intended to offer insight into how much a star deserves box office credit or blame. For instance, from 2006 to 2009, Tom Cruise went from second to nowhere on Ulmer’s top 10 list. Among other things, experts downgraded Cruise because of his 2008 appearance on “Oprah,“ where he showcased his 5-feet-7-inch physique by toe dancing on a sofa. Not the image an action film star.should project, experts agreed.


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 female movie stars not A-listed, such as Jennifer Anniston, Jennifer Lopez and Sandra Bullock.

Ulmer’s response: Fame is not commensurate with bankability. Being followed by millions on Twitter and Facebook; through fan and fashion magazines and Internet websites; and on TMC, Access Hollywood and the E Channel, does not necessarily translate into ticket sales. Many fans satisfy their appetites for stars through publicity rather than movies. Also 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 clue is that Ulmer's Top 10 List usually includes two or more actors who have been named People Magazine’s "The Sexiest Man Alive."


In Japan, Ulmer told The Los Angeles Times, women drive the box office twice a week. First 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 rewarded more by turning turnstyles outside the U.S.A. as in because for many films foreign receipts top domestic receipts. As big as they may seem to American audiences, stars such as Ben Stiller, Jennifer Lawrence and Mark Wahlberg suffer from a 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 large today are films based on super hero comic books and animatied films, both of which benefit from computer generated imagagery (CGI). CGI may eventually replace live actors altogether.

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