The Ulmer Scale: A true test of Hollywood star bankability?


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As the star of ‘Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,’ Ben Stiller has another huge hit film opening this weekend, the only real question being whether it will make $300 or $400 or $500 million around the world -- its predecessor, ‘Night at the Museum,’ having grossed a total of $574.4 million here and overseas.

So in Hollywood, Stiller is a king. But there’s one place where he doesn’t get any respect -- in the pages of the Ulmer Scale, which for years was one of the industry’s most trusted databases when it came to gauging movie star bankability.


After taking a couple of years off, James Ulmer -- the brains behind the scale -- is back with his new 2009-10 Actors Hot List, featuring bankability rankings of 1,402 actors, Will Smith being No. 1 and Trent Ford being No. 1,402. The Scale, currently only available in book form, divides actors into graded lists, the grades based not only on the performance of their films but the actors’ career management, willingness to travel and promote their projects, professionalism and acting range. Ulmer ranks bankability at three different budget levels -- low ($1-$8 million), medium ($8-$30 million) and high (more than $30 million).

There are only two actors on the A-plus list, Smith and Johnny Depp, followed by 26 actors on the A-list and 84 actors on the B-plus list. At one time, the Ulmer Scale was a hot item in studio circles, since movie executives are always on the lookout for convenient ways to codify star power. Since Ulmer bases his picks on interviews with a relatively large sampling of international film buyers, financiers, sales agents, producers and company executives, the scale was especially valuable at one time, being one of the first systems to put a premium on an actor’s global appeal.

In recent years, the scale has received far less buzz. In fact, Ulmer took several years off to work as a consultant before assembling this new book. If nothing else, the book serves as a convenient reminder of who’s hot and who’s not, offering an uppers and downers list of which actors have been on the rise and on the fall since Ulmer issued his last book in 2007. (The actor most on the rise: Shia LaBeouf; the actor with the biggest drop: Mel Gibson.) If you look at movies the way we sports geeks look at baseball statistics, you could argue that Ulmer is the movie biz equivalent of Bill James, who built a huge following over the years, among fans and baseball executives, with his in-depth sabermetric analysis.

But I worry that Ulmer hasn’t kept up with the times. As I looked over his ratings, I found a host of questionable judgments -- starting with the ranking of Ben Stiller at No. 62 on the actors’ list, not only far behind such successful comics as Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler but below a host of actors who are now considered box-office poison, notably Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Jude Law and Mike Myers. Ulmer insists that box-office performance isn’t the scale’s only indicator of success. But especially when he puts such weight on international visibility, how could Ferrell be the highest-ranked comic at No. 6 overall, with Sandler way back at No. 21 and Stiller at No. 62?

The record speaks for itself. If you take each of the actors last four mainstream films, both Stiller and Sandler easily outperform Ferrell, having far bigger grosses, especially internationally. In fact, Stiller’s worst-performing movie (‘Tropic Thunder’) made more money around the globe than Ferrell’s best-performing film (‘Talladega Nights’). So when I spoke with Ulmer on Friday, I had a few skeptical questions to ask. Did he have any good answers? You be the judge. Keep reading:

Q: So why is Will Ferrell ranked so much higher than every other comic, especially considering that his films don’t perform very well overseas, especially compared with Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler?

Ulmer: You have to remember, this isn’t my personal ranking, but taken from a group of buyers and sellers. But the consensus was that Ferrell was the most bankable comedian, in particular because he has the most appeal to women and women drive the box office. Will is really well-liked in Japan, where women drive the box-office twice, going to movies on Wednesdays with their girlfriends and then again on the weekend on their own.

Q: But how could Ben Stiller be ranked so low? How could he be behind Ben Affleck and Jude Law? Nobody wants to make a movie with them, while Stiller is a huge star. What gives?

Ulmer: This isn’t just a correlation to who you’d want to cast in a movie. This is, in essence, a global averaging. Except for ‘Night at the Museum,’ Stiller has been in a lot of comedies that don’t translate as well to the international marketplace.

Q: What about ‘Meet the Fockers’?

Ulmer: Well, I have to look seriously at this stuff and see about why certain people are rising and falling. There are a lot of different factors that go into people’s assessments about these actors.

Q: How could Harrison Ford be at No. 26 on the list, ahead of younger stars like Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves and Jamie Foxx? Among the studio people I talk to, Ford isn’t on anyone’s A-list anymore.

Ulmer: My guess is that Ford’s name probably has a stronger holding value than he deserves. He’s had such a long run as an action-adventure star that he continues to travel well in foreign markets and on DVD. If you talk to buyers in Japan and Europe, they still rank him really high.

Q: What about Al Pacino? You have him at No. 35, ahead of Mark Wahlberg and Jack Black. And Pacino isn’t even an action star. No studio wants him in a starring role anymore. So why is he so high?

Ulmer: A lot of the people who do the grading, especially in Europe, still see a real iconic value in Pacino, even when people in the U.S .wouldn’t view him as a good risk. He’s always ranked higher than you’d expect. The same is true of Jack Nicholson. They just have an enduring appeal.

Q: Everyone on the list is old. I don’t think there’s a male star who’s under 35 on the list until you get to Shia LaBeouf, who’s tied for No. 67. You have Seth Rogen at No. 82 and Zac Efron at No. 98. With all due respect, aren’t they much hotter than Robert Redford (No. 65) or Dustin Hoffman (No. 67)?

Ulmer: That’s a very American-centric or studio-centric view of the world. Most people in Europe don’t even know Zac Efron’s name. The buyers are more interested in someone who’s been a star for a long time than someone who’s just starting their career. I talked to four different [sources] who said that Seth Rogen is just an American star. People overseas don’t get his slacker humor. So these younger actors that are powerful in Hollywood simply aren’t perceived the same way overseas.

Q: One of the stars who dropped the most since your last scale was Nicole Kidman. Why?

Ulmer: Even overseas, people see her choice of roles as very erratic. She’ll do a studio film, but followed by several films that don’t even register overseas. She’s just too unpredictable. A French executive I spoke to said, ‘I find her fascinating, but she’s too quirky.’ That makes her a very risky bet.