With the Academy Awards just behind us, 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? Whoopie 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 that is 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 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 subdivided 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), they each have their fans, they each have their stars, and therefore they each have 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"). It's only "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 La Bouf -- they green-light any film that they star in. Ben Stiller and Jack Black green-light comedy films, but not drama. Sean Combs green-lights most of the popular music spectrum, as well as huge swaths of fashion; he is also a respected film actor, but his attachment does not guarantee a green-light. Then again, depending the story and the budget, he could be.
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 Academy Awards 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 somebody something. Whether it's an agent trying to convince a producer or executive to cast somebody, or a publicist trying to convince the media to profile somebody, or a producer trying to get a financier to invest in somebody. 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 that's true, then why be vague? They should shout it from the mountaintop. But yet they 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 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. Often producers can be misguided or delusional (i.e. just because somebody is constantly all over the tabloids doesn't mean they'll get your movie made. Some will, but most won't.)
Every now and then, however, 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 genre starts with "dark". It's a dark-comedy, a dark-thriller, a dark-drama. Actors love dark, but foreign buyers 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. If it's a really big A-list star 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 star 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 they had an A-list star attached, then why isn't a studio doing it? Why are they pounding the indie pavement trying to drum up financing? Why me?
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 move is. If it's a by-the-numbers action flik, 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 stars.
For independent filmmakers, a movie comes together when the producer is able to compile enough financing so as to attract talent, and compile enough talent so as to attract financing.