Studio Spotlight 2003

Though not a record year at the North American box office, moviegoers lined up at the multiplexes to see colorful fish, dashing pirates, and some Hobbits on a quest to make 2003 the second best year ever for ticket sales. Over the 52-week period ending January 4, 2004, the domestic box office generated $9.17 billion in revenue, according to Nielsen EDI, representing a 1% decline from 2002. However, with ticket prices up 4% last year, total admissions reached 1.52 billion, down 5% from the previous record year.

Showing breadth among companies, four different studios crossed the billion dollar mark in annual sales. By year's end, 26 movies crossed the $100M mark with four more holiday releases likely to join the club in the weeks ahead. Strength was lacking from the higher end of hits as nine films surpassed $150M compared to a stellar twelve from each of the previous two years.

Disney claimed the two most popular movies of the year with the Pixar-produced animated tale Finding Nemo which grossed $339.7M and the high seas adventure Pirates of the Caribbean which looted $305.4M and finished the year in first place among all the major studios. But even though movies for the Mickey Mouse audience did gangbusters at the cash registers, R-rated films for adults made a big comeback. Action sequels like Terminator 3, Bad Boys II, and the pair of Matrix films led the way for an astounding fifteen movies with an R rating opening in the number one spot in 2003.

2003 was the year of sequels with nearly two dozen hitting theaters receiving mixed reactions from ticket buyers. Hollywood studios continued to rely on franchise pictures to boost sales at the box office, but a number of them boasted huge production and marketing budgets and were met with yawns from the public. The country was in the mood to laugh as a number of star-driven comedies struck gold including Bringing Down the House, Anger Management, Cheaper by the Dozen, Elf, and Bruce Almighty.

Buena Vista easily led the year in market share with $1.52 billion in ticket sales outdistancing second-place Sony by a whopping $315M. The Disney charge was led by the one-two punch of the summer megablockbusters Nemo and Pirates which collectively grossed $645M domestically and over $1.4 billion worldwide - and that is before all the home video sales. By mid-summer, the Mouse House took the lead and never looked back leaving the remaining studios to fight over the silver medal. Other big hits for the company included the comedies Bringing Down the House with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah and the Jamie Lee Curtis remake Freaky Friday, both of which crossed the $100M mark.

Box office strength for Buena Vista usually comes from some combination of its three main suppliers - Pixar Animations Studios, producer Jerry Bruckhemier, and director M. Night Shyamalan. In 2004, Disney will try to defend its crown with such potential hits as Bruckheimer's King Arthur (July 7), Shyamalan's The Village (July 30), and the Pixar pic The Incredibles (November 5).

Last year's top studio Sony slipped to second place with $1.21 billion in grosses and saw its fortunes come not from a couple of megahits, but from a large slate of successful films. Without a webslinger in 2003, it was understandable that sales would drop but Sony did lead all studios with nine number one openers. Buena Vista, by comparison, only posted four. The studio's highest-grossing titles were the Bruckheimer-produced action sequel Bad Boys II with $138.6M and the Adam Sandler-Jack Nicholson comedy Anger Management with $135.6M. S.W.A.T., Daddy Day Care, and Charlies Angels: Full Throttle also crossed the century mark, but the Angels sequel ended up being a costly disappointment to produce and market leaving the franchise in question. December hit Something's Gotta Give should find its way to about $110M making it one of the studio's top performers born in 2003. For the new year, all eyes are on Spider-Man 2 set to spin on July 2.

Close behind in third place was Warner Bros. with $1.16 billion in ticket sales in 2003 derived mostly from sequels. The high-profile Matrix installments and Terminator 3 together kicked in about half of the year's total. Oscar hopes are on Clint Eastwood's Mystic River which grossed $54M and Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai which will slice through the $100M mark soon. Other bright spots for Warner Bros. came from kidpic Kangaroo Jack and the Halle Berry thriller Gothika. Although 2003 was wizardless, the new year will bring back the Hogwarts box office bonanza with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which flies into theaters with a new director and a new release pattern on June 4th. Warners will remain a major contender this year with promising releases such as Troy (May 14) with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, Halle Berry in Catwoman (July 30), the Tom Hanks holiday pic The Polar Express (November 10), and the Steven Soderbergh sequel Ocean's Twelve in December.

Universal followed in fourth place with $1.01 billion and collected most of its grosses during an incredibly lucrative summer fueled by pricey pics. Bruce Almighty saw Jim Carrey return to comedic form with a hefty $242.8M gross making it the second-biggest hit ever for the actor. 2 Fast 2 Furious and American Wedding were $100M continuations of summer 2001 smashes while Seabiscuit provided late-summer strength and is Universal's big chance for Academy Award nods. The studio sunk plenty of cash into the Marvel Comics pic The Hulk which left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans and deteriorated quickly at the box office. This summer, Universal will kick things off with the monster movie Van Helsing on May 7 and end the year with the Robert De Niro-Ben Stiller sequel Meet the Fockers in December.

Rounding out the top five was New Line Cinema which started the year at number one with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and closed the year with The Return of the King on top of the charts. Overall for the year, the distributor grossed $924M and managed to beat out more established studios like Fox and Paramount. Among releases not set in Middle-earth, New Line scored a holiday smash with the Will Ferrell comedy Elf which pulled in over $170M to date. Long a leader in the horror genre, the distributor hacked up big numbers for the long-awaited Freddy vs. Jason and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which together grossed $163M. It will be difficult for New Line to match the grosses of the past three years without another Rings installment, but notable releases in the new year include the vampire sequel Blade: Trinity starring Wesley Snipes and the Jennifer Lopez relationship comedy Monster-in-Law.

Sixth place was taken by Fox with $801M led by X2: X-Men United and Cheaper by the Dozen while Miramax placed seventh with $695M driven by blockbuster sequels Spy Kids 3D and Scary Movie 3 as well as the Oscar champ Chicago which made most of its $170.7M in 2003. Ranking dead last among the big six studios was Paramount which suffered a dreadful year with only $650M in grosses which followed an equally dismal 2002. Box office blunders included Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life, The Core, Rugrats Go Wild!, and Timeline, but some good news came from the comedies How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and School of Rock. Finishing in ninth place was MGM/UA with $364M with DreamWorks dropping down to tenth with a slow year that saw $238M in ticket sales.

Top 50 Films of 2003

The table below wraps up the year in the lives of Hollywood's studios and distributors. Annual grosses cover the box office year of January 6, 2003 - January 4, 2004 (the Monday after New Year's weekend 2003 until the end of New Year's weekend 2004).

# Distributor 2003 2002 % Diff Wknds at #1
1 Buena Vista $ 1,522.0 $ 1,190.0 28% 7
2 Sony 1,207.0 1,572.0 -23% 10
3 Warner Bros. 1,162.0 1,090.0 7% 6
4 Universal 1,083.0 867.7 25% 7
5 New Line 924.3 912.4 1% 7
6 Fox 800.8 1,065.0 -25% 6
7 Miramax 695.4 394.7 76% 4
8 Paramount 649.7 695.7 -7% 3
9 MGM/UA 364.4 369.2 -1% 1
10 DreamWorks 237.6 513.8 -54% 1
TOTAL $ 9,172.1 $ 9,267.8 -1% 52
Admissions (billions) 1.52 1.60 -5%

Source: Nielsen EDI

Last Updated : January 7, 2004

Written by Gitesh Pandya