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What Is an "a List"?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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An A list is a term applied to the top-rated people or items in a career, location, or other category. The phrase originates with a movie industry trade publication that ranks the most popular actors and film directors. Widely used by the entertainment press, the phrase A list has passed into common English usage to describe the preferential items in any given set. Similar terms, such as B list to describe second choices, also originate with the film industry, but are widely applied elsewhere. In England, the phrase A list was used to describe a political movement in the mid-2000s.

In early Hollywood, actors and other filmmakers worked under contract to the major studios. After World War II, the American film industry gradually shifted to a free-agent system similar to that of major-league athletes. Top movie stars could work for whichever studio or producer paid the most. Studio executives, in turn, needed a method to determine which stars were worth the highest salaries. The presence of a popular star increases the chance of a lucrative opening weekend, traditionally used as the yardstick of a film’s success.

In the 1980s, entertainment journalist James Ulmer codified a system to indicate the financial worth, or bankability, of the most popular actors. As top actor salaries reached millions of US dollars per film, Ulmer’s guidebook, The Hot List, became an essential tool in the Hollywood deal-making process. Updated every year, The Hot List ranks actors in categories ranging from D to A, with the most popular actors of the year on the A list. In the 1990s and 2000s, the phrase A list and its variations quickly passed into popular usage.

Despite this usage, Ulmer’s company emphasizes that the A list and related terms are proprietary, that is, part of the company’s intellectual property. This is because such general usage can result in a company’s loss of an important trademark or slogan. Terms such as aspirin, escalator, and zipper went from legally protected trademarks to generic words during the 20th century. Companies representing brands such as Band-Aids and Kleenex mount public awareness campaigns to forestall this natural process of language. Sometimes legal action is also required.

Nevertheless, the term A list is part of the popular 21st century lexicon. It is used synonymously with first class, a term for air and coach travel that has come to mean the best in any given category. While it is most often used for people, as in an A-list performer, it can refer to any item, such as an A-list property. Comedian and reality-show host Kathy Griffin jokingly refers to herself as a D-list performer. In 2006, future British prime minister David Cameron created an A-list of current and potential political allies.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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