The Number One Movie in America: The Firm
By Sean Collier
November 13, 2020
In the summer of 1993, the early ’90s and late ’90s had a fistfight.
In one corner, representing the early part of the new decade: “The Firm,” a genuine, unflashy movie for grown-ups. This is the sort of drama that studios could rely on for a hit at the time: Respected movie stars, serious (if admittedly pulpy) subject matter and just enough swear words and sex to get an R rating. The parents would call a babysitter, have a date night and money would be made.
In the other corner, representing the shift that was staring down Hollywood: “Jurassic Park.” Tailor-made for the PG-13 rating — thus ensuring that all ages, perhaps barring the smallest children of particularly careful parents, would buy tickets — Spielberg’s adventure flick was spectacle for all demographics. It was not the first proper, ’90s-style blockbuster; we had seen the likes of “Terminator 2” and “Batman Returns.” But even those hits paled in comparison to the record-smashing tyrannosaur.
For three weeks, “Jurassic Park” dominated, beginning with a record-breaking $47 million opening weekend. Then — starting with the July 4 long weekend — “The Firm” took over, winning the next three weekends.
If you look at that box score, the two seem evenly matched; it’s like the Lakers outscored the Bucks in the first half, then the Bucks got it together and won the third and fourth quarters. That doesn’t tell the whole story, however, since “Jurassic Park” ran the score up so dramatically in its first three weekends. While “The Firm” would stay ahead of “Jurassic Park” for five weeks, the dinosaur film would hang around for the rest of the year, constantly adding to a gargantuan take.
“Jurassic Park” is the top-grossing film of 1993; “The Firm” is in fourth. As they say at the end of many games that were never in doubt, however, the score wasn’t actually that close. “Jurassic Park” more than doubled the take of “The Firm,” earning more than $350 million. “The Firm” finished at around $158 million.
Hollywood was shifting, and there are many books and long-form takes that can explain how that change persists to this day; bombastic, four-quadrant spectacles make all the money, and grown-up dramas now turn a quiet profit at best. Even counting “The Firm” as a decided hit, the writing was on the wall.
So: Is it any good? Yes, certainly. Following the plight of in-over-his-head Harvard law grad Mitch (Tom Cruise), “The Firm” is a legal thriller that never enters the courtroom, a twisting story of secrets and influence. Its cast is positively loaded with heavy hitters: Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, David Straitharn, Gary Busey, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Wilford Brimley, Hal Holbrook, Holly Hunter — who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, on the same night she won Best Actress for “The Piano” — and plenty more besides.
The first adaptation of a John Grisham novel to top the box office, “The Firm” successfully feels like a mass-market page-turner. It’s long, but never fails to make you curious about what will happen next; like a novel that can easily eat up a transcontinental flight, you might put it down for a second (or, in this case, hit the pause button), but you’ll eagerly return to it.
They do still make movies like “The Firm.” Gripping, fun, grown-up capers come out every year. But ever since Tom Cruise lost a fight with an island full of dinosaurs, those movies don’t top the summer box office for three weeks.
Going forward, in fact, most of them will likely be preceded by the Netflix logo.
“The Firm” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: "Sneakers." For sneaking.