What the bleep did we know? That was the big question of 2004, a year punctuated by box office surprises. Top domestic grosser Shrek 2 earned a fairy-tale- worthy $436.7 million to beat odds-on-favorite Spider-Man 2 (which snared a mere $373.4 million). But that’s not all (hey, we’re still trying to figure out how Christmas With the Kranks earned nearly $75 million!). Here’s a look at the year’s highlights and lowlights — the movies that made for the most interesting stories at the box office.
The Passion of the Christ Headlines (ours included) questioned whether Mel Gibson would endure the hoopla surrounding his Jesus epic — and earn back his $30 million investment. But he was redeemed when The Passion opened in February to an astonishing $83.8 million, held the No. 1 spot for three weeks, and topped off at $370.3 million, placing ninth on the list of all-time domestic grossers. (Indie distributor Newmarket took on the movie after everyone else passed.) Credit goes to a vast grassroots marketing campaign that targeted churchgoing Americans and encouraged wide attendance despite the film’s extreme violence and R rating. Don’t be surprised if studios apply Gibson’s strategy to such future religion-themed films as The Da Vinci Code and the Chronicles of Narnia series.
Napoleon Dynamite Made for $400,000, the comedy about a Tater Tot-hoarding weirdo sprouted some of the year’s longest legs, earning $44.5 million over seven months during which it rarely left the top 20. Fox Searchlight bought the movie at Sundance and its direct-to-teens marketing plan (including wide-ranging MTV tie-ins) should influence the way modestly reviewed budding cult classics play out in seasons to come.
Fahrenheit 9/11 The subject matter was so volatile that Disney refused to let Miramax release the film, then sold it back to Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and watched as it became the top-grossing non-IMAX doc ever ($119.1 million) for Lions Gate, IFC, and the Fellowship Adventure Group. Cultural lightning rod Michael Moore did for documentaries what Quentin Tarantino did for indies a decade ago, crystallizing their growing mainstream appeal. (Other ’04 successes: Super Size Me, Touching the Void, and Riding Giants.)
Alexander A high-profile pet project, Oliver Stone’s $150 million independently financed epic could have been the next Passion. But it flopped. After grossing just $34.1 million domestically, Alexander is starting to earn money overseas ($68.9 million to date), but don’t expect it to wind up looking like another sword-and-sandals saga released last year by Warner Bros. (a division of EW parent Time Warner): Troy made $133.3 million in North America before conquering foreign soil ($357.8 million).
The Polar Express Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis’ ultra-expensive animated Christmas flick opened in November to a middling $23.3 million and was all but left for dead. Warner Bros. altered its marketing plan soon after the film’s release, focusing on the family-friendly story rather than the leading man and steering audiences toward pricey IMAX screenings, which accentuated the movie’s innovative animation. After grossing $160.6 million, the film is now positioned to become a perennial holiday favorite.