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55% Disappointment Was Denzel Washington’s First Movie To Break A Major Box Office Milestone

55% Disappointment Was Denzel Washington's First Movie To Break A Major Box Office Milestone


  • The Pelican Brief was Denzel Washington’s first movie to make over $100 million domestically.
  • The success of The Pelican Brief was due to factors like Washington’s star power and being based on a bestselling novel by John Grisham.
  • Washington has had five other films break into the six-figure range domestically since 1993.

Denzel Washington has had an amazing acting career, but his first movie to break a big box office milestone came from an unexpected film that only got 55% on Rotten Tomatoes. Denzel Washington is, today, one of the biggest names in Hollywood, and it’s hard to remember a time when his movies weren’t almost universally acclaimed. Earlier in his career, though, some of Washington’s movies didn’t reach the same level of success he’s now known for. He didn’t reach a major box office record until 1993, and one of Washington’s most average films accomplished it.

Washington had some great movies in the 90s, but not all of them were critical successes. That decade was one of his most prolific, as Washington appeared in 24 movies and shows in the 90s. With such a huge number of projects in just 10 years, it was inevitable that some of them wouldn’t be as well-received as others. While some of Washington’s movies weren’t hits with critics, he did have some very financially successful movies, and one of them managed to be the first of his films to earn over $100,000 at the domestic box office.


Every Denzel Washington Movie, Ranked Worst To Best

With a career spanning over four decades, Denzel Washington has long become a household name, and here are all of his movies, ranked.

The Pelican Brief Was Denzel Washington’s First Movie To Make Over $100 Million Domestically

Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief

Washington’s first movie to make six digits at the domestic box office was 1993’s The Pelican Brief. Washington played Gray Grantham, a journalist who helped Julia Roberts’ Darby Shaw uncover the conspiracy behind the assassination of two Supreme Court Justices. Despite earning $100,768,056 at the domestic box office (via Box Office Mojo), The Pelican Brief was not very well received, and it only earned a 55% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s especially surprising that The Pelican Brief was the first to break that barrier, considering Washington had several movies that were much better received before 1993, like Glory (95%) or Malcolm X (88%).

The Pelican Brief
had a budget of $45 million and a worldwide revenue of over $195 million, meaning it likely made about $80 million in pure profit after expenses.

There are a few reasons The Pelican Brief managed to be one of Denzel Washington’s highest-grossing movies, even when better ones floundered at the box office. The Pelican Brief had a star-studded cast that drew in quite a few viewers, including Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, John Heard, and Washington himself, among many others. It was also based on a bestselling John Grisham novel, and the 90s were arguably the peak of the author’s popularity. Grisham’s novels sold incredibly well, and The Pelican Brief was among the first of many adaptations of his writing, with others like A Time to Kill also finding financial success.

5 Other Denzel Washington Movies Have Made More Than $100 Million Domestically

While The Pelican Brief may have been the first of Washington’s movies to make over $100,000 domestically, it was far from the last. Since 1993, Washington has had five other films break into the six-figure range, including Remember the Titans (2000), American Gangster (2007), Safe House (2012), The Equalizer (2014), and The Equalizer 2 (2018). Many of these figures seem low compared to billion-dollar earners like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they also had significantly lower budgets than those blockbusters. When the Hollywood calculus is complete, many of Washington’s movies have proven to be huge financial successes.

Denzel Washington Movies’ Box Office Returns



Domestic Box Office

Worldwide Box Office

American Gangster




Safe House




The Pelican Brief




The Equalizer




The Equalizer 2




Remember the Titans




The fact that The Pelican Brief was so successful domestically was a result of a combination of factors, but it really can’t be overstated how important Washington was. He’s been a massive star since the 1980s, and his name carries quite a bit of weight, especially in America. Without the star power Washington brings to his films, and the underrated performance by Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief, almost none of his movies would be anywhere near as successful as they turned out to be. The Pelican Brief is proof that Denzel Washington can turn an alright movie into a massive financial success.

Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, Box Office Mojo

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