Jennifer Aniston, Horrible Bosses, Jennifer Lopez,The Backup Plan

John P. Johnson/New Line Cinema; Peter Lovino/CBS Films

How is that people like Jessica Alba, Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Lopez are considered A-listers but have yet to even come close to a box office hit?
—Susan Apple, via the inbox

I counted two incorrect things in your question, so let's jump in: You're wrong. At least one of the actors you mention have logged bona fide box office hits, and all of them genuinely merit the title of A-lister, if not A-plus.

In fact, if you ever wanted to make a movie, and one of these gals expressed interest, you'd be lucky:

Because all of them have the power make a filmmaker rich. Before their movie is even shot. Yes. Correct. Really.

Here's why:

The definition of A-list has changed. Originally, producers reserved the term for stars who can "open a picture," in other words, put American butts in American movie theater seats on the merit of their name alone. Back in the day, it didn't matter what movie the A-lister had chosen, on that the A-lister was in it. Think Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, other toothy feel-good folk from the 1980s.

Cut to today. Now stars make the A-list when their names attract very different types of deals.

"The reason all these women do very well is that they trigger upfront distribution deals overseas, which has nothing to do with U.S. box office," says Bonnie Gillespie, a casting director who is currently working on a consulting service called Get A-Listed.

"Where filmmakers really make their money now is in sales of physical DVDs, in other countries, where everyone wants to buy American movies."

Just how A-listy are the three babes you mention? Quite. That's how.

I refer you to the Ulmer Scale, which tracks the moneymaking power of actors. Specifically, the Ulmer Score indicates the likelihood of a star generating enough up-front interest for a producer to make all of his money back before shooting even stars.

For, say, a small-budget picture, Alba has a 46, Lopez has 81 and Aniston has 96. So if you hire Aniston for your cheap rom-com, it's almost guaranteed to make all of its money back before it ever hits the market.

(Alba's may seem low, but considering that the average actor is someone you've never heard of, it's actually kinda high.)

You may be surprised by the types of actors who are doing well overseas these days.

Like a pair of '90s-era actors who are pretty much finished over here, but are huge in Eastern Europe. Who? Tune in to my latest podcast to find out:

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