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Burning Question: Is Denzel Washington Hollywood's Most Reliable Hit Machine?

Leslie Gornstein
Movie Talk
August 5, 2013

Why does Denzel Washington get so many box office hits in a row? Is he the biggest A-lister in the world right now?
- I. Gilbert, Vermont

Denzel does have a habit of delivering more than $20 million in box office receipts whenever one of his movies opens. The latest release, "2 Guns", is no exception, having logged $27.4 million this past weekend. That's certainly not as stellar as, say, "Safe House" ($40.2 million) or "The Book of Eli" ($32.8 million) but it's better than "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" ($23.4 million). Even the Oscar-bait movie "Flight" has made money, and that's saying something for a movie where all the action comes in the first 15 minutes.

In historical context, it's clear that "2 Guns" didn’t, um, blow the box office away, but Washington still seems to be having a better summer than many. (Right, Ryan Reynolds?) Sure, Johnny Depp's "Lone Ranger" brought in roughly the same amount in its opening weekend earlier this season — but that flick was a $250 million production. As opposed to, you know, "2 Guns", which cost a modest-by-comparison $61 million (not counting its marketing budget). Still, the gun-slinging Denzel flick is much more likely to break even.

[Related: Paula Patton Topless in '2 Guns': 'It Was My Idea']

So: Is Washington the biggest, or at least the most financially reliable, star on Earth right now?

Well, dataheads sure like him. Ray Subers at Box Office Mojo calls Washington "one of the most consistently bankable stars in the business."

If the first rule for a Hollywood star, like a doctor is "do no harm", then Denzel starts out on solid ground. He has avoided spectacular bombs like "Lone Ranger" or risky giant bets such as Brad Pitt's "World War Z."

Washington's films rarely end up earning the kind of world-devouring money that Depp or Robert Downey Jr's big hits do. The biggest grosser of his career, "American Gangster," earned a nice but-by-Hollywood-standards not jaw-dropping $266 million worldwide. Compare that with Depp whose two biggest "Pirates" film have crossed the billion mark. But if the payoff is smaller, the bet is safer.

And there is one more factor we should consider: The Ulmer Scale. In essence, Hollywood journalist James Ulmer created this ranking which measures the financial value of a star. It doesn't predict box office, but it calculates something equally important: The chances that, by hiring a certain actor, producers will make all of their money back in pre-sales before a single frame of a movie has been shot.

Interestingly, Depp and Brad Pitt currently enjoy a top Ulmer score of 100; if hired, Ulmer predicts that their employers absolutely, without a doubt, will make money, essentially. Or at least break even.

Washington? His current score is 98.

"Johnny Depp is our gold standard when it comes to Ulmer," casting director Bonnie Gillespie explains. "Denzel has a 98 Ulmer score, but he's one of those people who's known as making really good choices. It's not that the other guys make poor choices, but sometimes they've been thrown an awful lot of money to do something that is spectacularly bad."

Counting Depp's recent bomb and Pitt’s "World War Z" — the latter of which only recently made its money back on a giant production budget of $170 million — don’t be shocked if next year's Ulmer scale comes out with new numbers favoring Washington.

"Denzel Washington is Mr. Consistency at the box office, no doubt about it," Exhibitor Relations box office analyst Jeff Bock tells Yahoo! Movies. "However, that makes him more of a Paul Pierce than a LeBron James. ... Or, if you'd rather do a golf metaphor — he stays on the fairway, but seldom drives it all the way to the green."

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