With Hollywood still basking in the glow of the Academy Awards, we should discuss what “A-List” means, and more importantly, what effect it has on actually getting a film made from a financing perspective. Does winning an Oscar make you an A-list star? Whoopi Goldberg might beg to differ, but it also depends on how you define A-list.
“A-list” is an unofficial moniker used to denote somebody’s status within a particular facet of the entertainment industry. It’s important to remember, however, that each facet of “The Industry” is it’s own sub-Industry, comprised of numerous sub-sub-Industries, and so on – each of which, at every level, refer to themselves as “The Industry”. The Entertainment Industry, as we know it, is broadly comprised of Live Entertainment, Mass Media Entertainment and Electronic Entertainment. Within those three main categories are major sub-categories like sports, music, theatre, film, broadcasting, theme parks, fashion, video games and so on. Each of these subs and sub-subs can then be repeatedly divided and sub-divided, and each are Industries unto themselves. For example, mass media: music: rock/pop/soul: R&B: rap: gangsta rap: East Coast vs. West Coast. No matter where a particular Industry resides in the overall hierarchy and no matter what culture or country that hierarchy resides in, each has their fans, each has their stars, and therefore each has their own “A-list” stars. Some stars transcend hierarchies and some stars appear to transcend the entire Entertainment Industry. But just because somebody is well known across multiple facets of The Industry doesn’t necessarily make them “A-list” in each of them.
Having taken all of this under consideration, it stands to reason that to be “A-list” means that their involvement in certain projects is generally sufficient to get those projects financed (or “greenlit”). I stress the term “certain projects” because one’s A-list status will green-light some films, but not others. Matt Damon, Will Smith, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, Shia LaBeouf – they green-light any film that they star in. Ben Stiller and Jack Black green-light comedy films, but not dramas. Sean Combs green-lights most of the popular music spectrum, as well as huge swaths of fashion; Combs is also a respected film actor, but his attachment does not guarantee a green-light and is dependent on the Industry-sub, and possibly sub-sub from which it is generated and to which it is aimed.
Oscar ≠ A-List
So how does an actor become “A-list”? Generally, their agents are the first to bestow this moniker upon them in an attempt to elevate their clients’ salaries or land them a part in a big film. If they weren’t already “A-list”, then an Academy Award win can also imbue an actor with an “A-list” glow that temporarily attracts great projects. Oscars can also defibrillate one’s dormant “A-list” status.
The bottom line is that the term “A-list” is only used when somebody is trying to sell something, whether it’s an agent trying to convince a producer or executive to cast a talent, or a publicist trying to convince the media to profile a person or project, or a producer trying to get a financier to invest. This is especially true for the latter. In the quest for financing, indie producers abuse this concept, ad nauseum. “Hey, I have a great project with A-list stars attached. Will you finance it?” If it’s true that you have A-List talent attached, then why be vague? If it were true, they would shout it from the mountaintop. But yet, many still pitch their projects this way. So the question is, who is the producer trying to convince? Themselves? The investor? Surely they must know on some gut-level that this actor is or is not an A-list star. Often it’s an actor who was A-list at one time, but is no longer. Producers also need to discern A-list celebrity from A-list star (i.e. just because somebody is all over the tabloids doesn’t mean they’ll get your movie financed. Some will, but most won’t.)
Every now and then, a project with an actual A-list star does appear on the indie scene. And when they do, the first question one should ask is “What’s wrong with it?” And 9 times out of 10, the first thing that’s wrong with it is that the film’s genre starts with “dark”. It’s a dark-comedy, a dark-thriller, a dark-drama. Actors love dark, but the foreign buyers (who are critical for financing) do not. There’s a cultural subtext that makes a movie dark that rarely translates over to other cultures. Actors want to spread their wings and win awards, but foreign buyers don’t. Likewise, if there is a really big A-list star attached, then there’s really something wrong with it. “It’s a dark thriller with Cameron Diaz.” “Sounds ok. “She’s a brunette.” “No thanks.” “It’s a dark drama with Leonardo.” “Sounds ok.” “Oh, and he plays a hunchback.” “No thanks.” “But it’s in 3D!” “I said, no thanks.”
Time is valuable, and great packages are hard to find, so it’s understandable that producers can be quick to convince themselves that a star is A-list-ish. But, if that actor doesn’t attract the necessary elements to get a movie made, then the producer has to cut that actor loose, which can sour valuable relationships if the producer went to great lengths to get the talent attached in the first place. The A-list studio business is incestuous – they tend to stick with their own. Indie producers that aren’t generally in the A-list game need to ask themselves: If it were actually true that you had an A-List star attached, then why isn’t a studio throwing money at your project? Why are you still pounding the indie pavement trying to drum up financing? The answer is: Your talent isn’t truly A-List, or isn’t A-list for this project.
Nevertheless, lots of indie movies still get made without a big A-list star in the lead. This is usually accomplished by applying basic arithmetic to the A-list formula. If one A-list star gets a movie made (A = A), then how many B-list stars equal one A-list? The answer depends on how commercial the movie is. If it’s a by-the-numbers action flick, then probably 2xB = A. If it’s The King’s Speech, then 5xB = A. If it’s too obscure or too low budget then just cast whomever, get lucky on the financing, and roll the dice on the returns.
This fractal nature of the entertainment industry provides an almost infinite number of hierarchies that are in continuous motion, ever-changing, not always for the better. Nonetheless, most producers seek out A-list (or Now-List) stars, because if they truly are A-listers at the exact moment the film is being packaged, then they’ve successfully captured lightening in a bottle; this puts the project on the fast track to financing, and soon after, it slides into the most sought-after base of all: the green-light.