Denzel Washington may exert the purest form of star power in movies today.
His name above the title guarantees a film will open to solid numbers, something few actors in Hollywood can credibly claim to deliver. He did it again last weekend, when his gritty R-rated thriller “The Equalizer” bowed to a sterling $35 million.
“He’s a name people trust,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “He is a brand. Really, it’s no different than Marvel or Pixar. People hear Denzel Washington and they show up.”
Over three decades in the film business, Washington’s films have generated north of $3 billion at the global box office, but he’s put up those lofty numbers in a unique way. At the age of 59, he is launching his first franchise with “The Equalizer,” an adaptation of the CBS action series that Sony, the studio behind the film, hopes will inspire a sequel.
That’s a long time to go without starring in a film that has a numeral in the title. Consider Washington’s fellow A-listers — George Clooney has the “Oceans 11” films, Tom Cruise anchors the “Mission: Impossible” series, Robert Downey Jr. has two franchises with “Sherlock Holmes” and “Iron Man” and Johnny Depp has one in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and is trying to kick off another when the sequel to “Alice in Wonderland” hits theaters in 2016.
Washington has also been able to outlast actors from his generation, including past co-stars such as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, who have seen their box office powers wane over the past 10 years. Contrino says the only actor with a similar appeal has been Adam Sandler, who had a torrid run throughout much of the aughts, but lately has been striking out as often as scoring with audiences.
Consistency has been the hallmark of Washington’s career. His movies have never been billion dollar grossers, and only four have topped $100 million stateside. Instead of being crafted to sell toy lines or comicbooks, they’ve encapsulated a range of genres, many of them geared at adults, a demographic studios often ignore. Some, such as “Deja Vu” or “The Book of Eli,” are formulaic and instantly forgettable, but most are profitable. Through it all, Washington’s movies have relied on his name as the guarantor of a good time.
“He’s very good at mixing it up and he’s absolutely believable in every role he’s been in,” said Rory Bruer, president of domestic distribution at Sony Pictures. “He’s one of those actors audiences totally embrace and he’s somebody who embodies our best values across all races, sexes and creeds.”
His public persona may have an aspirational appeal, but the private Washington is little known to moviegoers. For reporters, Washington has a reputation for being a tough interview — a man unwilling to open up while the microphone is on. That may be a strategic decision.
Unlike stars whose love lives, vacations and eating habits are picked over and chronicled by gossip rags or offered up for consumption through Twitter feeds or personal blogs (we’re looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow), Washington lets the work speak for itself. There’s never been a whiff of scandal over the course of his long career, no tearful apologies on Leno or rehabilitation tours.
“In today’s Twitter-fied and Facebook world, it’s very difficult to keep a low profile,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “That can cloud audience’s perceptions, but when they go to see a Denzel Washington movie, they’re not looking at the personal baggage a lot of big stars carry around.”
They’re just looking at a charismatic actor whose star still shines as others fade from view. One of the last of the movie gods.