Studio Spotlight 2004

It was a year of green ogres, super heroes, and controversial hits from outside of the Hollywood mainstream which made 2004 a memorable dozen months at the North American box office. While total ticket sales inched out a miniscule gain over the previous year, admissions once again slipped with the industry giving its annual thanks to higher ticket prices. In a year that saw the birth of the 4,000-theater opening, Sony Pictures made off with the market share crown for the second time in three years.

Total grosses for the year amounted to $9.21 billion covering the box office year of January 5, 2004 to January 2, 2005, according to Nielsen EDI. Up less than one percent from 2003 in dollars, total admissions slipped nearly 3% to 1.48 billion tickets sold. Wealth was gobbled up by fewer players as 22 releases have crossed or will soon reach the $100M mark compared to the 30 from 2003. But the heavy hitters got stronger. Three films - Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, and The Passion of the Christ - released within five months of each other, broke through the $350M level. That's as much as the previous six years combined. Could a summer of two $400M pictures be too distant in our future?

Controversy became the newest marketing tool in the business. Both The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 attracted plenty of media attention for their subject matter and national debates helped drive millions to the multiplexes to see what the fuss was all about. Computer animation was as hot as ever with sensational turnouts for the Shrek sequel, The Incredibles, The Polar Express, and Shark Tale which together accounted for over $1 billion of the year's total. Franchises were still king as the top five sequels of the year, including current chart-topper Meet the Fockers, should go on to gross an eye-popping $1.5 billion in ticket sales. That's nearly 17% of all business during the year going to only five films. The election year also saw America spending heavily on films the whole family could enjoy. While 2003's top ten boasted four R-rated films, last year's only included one and it was a film about Jesus.

Regaining the box office crown it won in 2002, Sony Pictures led the motion picture industry in 2004 with a stunning $1.31 billion in ticket sales, rising 8% from the previous year. Once again it was the webslinger who drove the release slate to victory in market share as Spider-Man 2 exploded at the summer box office with $373.4M finishing the year as the second-biggest blockbuster. Spider-Man's $403.7M allowed Sony to claim victory in 2002. But the studio also succeeded at targeting teens and young adults with movies that did not break the bank in terms of costs. The Grudge and The Forgotten provided the scares, White Chicks and 50 First Dates kicked in star-driven laughs, and Christmas with the Kranks offered a bit of holiday cheer. Underperformers like Baby Geniuses 2, Breakin' All the Rules, and Little Black Book didn't hurt at all so the studio coasted into 2005 in good shape.

Warner Bros., the only studio to boast four $100M titles in 2004, claimed second place for the year with $1.22 billion in grosses inching up 5% from a Matrix-fueled 2003. The company led all distributors with 19 new wide releases including a wide variety of hits and misses. Warners tested the summer waters with its star franchise by releasing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in the first week of June. But despite earning the best reviews and the largest opening weekend for the series, the boy wizard pic still ended with domestic and worldwide tallies below the previous Potter films. The fourth is on tap for November of this year. Brad Pitt's Troy made up for its somewhat disappointing domestic haul of $133.2M gross with a muscular run overseas leading to a global gross of $500M. Solid numbers also came from spring titles Starsky & Hutch and Scooby Doo 2 as well as holiday hits The Polar Express and Ocean's Twelve. But a big black eye came from the megabudgeted Colin Farrell epic Alexander which limped to just $34M stateside. But Warner Bros. could shed the bad press with the awards contender Million Dollar Baby from studio staple Clint Eastwood.

For Buena Vista, which placed third with $1.16 billion, 2004 was all about the second half. Down 24% from its Nemo-Pirates led domination of 2003, the Mouse House stumbled in the first half of the year with expensive misfires like The Alamo and Around the World in 80 Days and could not catch a break with the early July historical epic King Arthur. Together, the trio couldn't even break $100M in combined domestic grosses. But Disney's fortunes changed with The Village and Princess Diaries 2 which ended the summer on a high note leading to November when The Incredibles and National Treasure joined forces to give the studio five straight weeks at number one.

DreamWorks went cartoon crazy in 2004 and wound up with a record year collecting a whopping $926M from only nine wide releases. Almost quadrupling its total take in 2003, the studio claimed the year's biggest blockbuster with Shrek 2 which accounted for nearly half of all sales. Add in the company's runnerup title Shark Tale and nearly two-thirds of DreamWorks' grosses came from animated films. On-screen humans like Tom Cruise, Will Ferrell, and Tom Hanks added assists with Collateral, Anchorman, and the underperforming The Terminal.

Relying once again on franchise pictures to carry it forward, Universal ended the year in fifth place with $906M, off 17% from a year earlier. The studio kicked off the summer movie season with Van Helsing which performed a bit below expectations, struck out with the Vin Diesel sequel The Chronicles of Riddick, and then bounced back with a stellar turnout for The Bourne Supremacy. But the big gun was held until Christmas when Meet the Fockers dominated the holiday box office with a domestic gross on course to top $250M. Horror remake Dawn of the Dead was a bright spot with $58.9M as was the biopic Ray which has surpassed $70M and is giving the studio Academy buzz.

Holding steady close behind in sixth place was Fox with $904M, up 13% from 2003, led by its trio of summer hits The Day After Tomorrow, I, Robot, and Dodgeball. Paramount suffered another sluggish year grossing only $625M which was off 4% from a dismal 2003. Late year fireworks came from the long-titled kidpics The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. The latter film became the studio's first release to cross $100M in a year and a half and looks to become the first to break $120M since the summer of 2001.

Thanks to The Passion of the Christ, NewMarket Films placed eighth overall with $407M with the Mel Gibson hit accounting for 91% of the distributor's sales for the year. With no new Lord of the Rings film to provide an end-of-year surge, New Line slumped 58% and finished in ninth place with $388M. The studio known for horror, sci-fi, and action hits saw its biggest hit come from the tearjerking romance The Notebook which happened to be the distributor's only title to cross $60M. Rounding out the top ten was Miramax which also had an off year dropping 46% to $378M. The company's top-grossing film was Kill Bill Vol. 2 with $66.2M although current Oscar contender The Aviator is expected to eventually soar above that level.

Top 50 Films of 2004

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 5, 2004 - January 2, 2005 (the Monday after New Year's weekend 2004 until the end of New Year's weekend 2005).

# Distributor 2004 2003 % Diff Wknds at #1
1 Sony $ 1,308.1 $ 1,207.0 8% 10
2 Warner Bros. 1,215.1 1,162.0 5% 6
3 Buena Vista 1,157.3 1,522.0 -24% 6
4 DreamWorks 925.6 237.6 290% 6
5 Universal 905.5 1,083.0 -16% 6
6 Fox 903.8 800.8 13% 4
7 Paramount 624.9 649.7 -4% 3
8 NewMarket 406.5 4
9 New Line 387.8 924.3 -58% 2
10 Miramax 377.7 695.4 -46% 3
TOTAL $ 9,214.4 $ 9,170.0 0% 50
Admissions (billions) 1.48 1.52 -3%

Source: Nielsen EDI

Last Updated : January 11, 2005

Written by Gitesh Pandya