Box office sets record at nearly $4 billion. ''Shrek 2'' leads the summer hits at $437 million

By Gary Susman
Updated September 04, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

The good news for Hollywood: This summer’s box office, from the beginning of May to Labor Day, was the most lucrative ever, raking in $3.986 billion, up 3 percent from last summer. The bad news: That marginal increase is due to rising ticket prices, since the number of admissions actually declined slightly. Also, that dollar figure rests largely on the strength of a handful of blockbusters, some of them unexpected, while many supposedly sure things fell flat.

Actually, there were a few sure things, most of them sequels. While last summer’s crop of sequels (think ”Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle”) didn’t live up to the hype, this year’s batch pleased audiences and critics alike. The top movie of the season (and of the year-to-date) was ”Shrek 2,” which took in $436.7 million. Other top-grossing sequels included ”Spider-Man 2” ($370 million), ”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” ($247 million), ”The Bourne Supremacy” ($165 million), and ”The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” ($85 million).

Also doing well were silly male-centered comedies, like ”Anchorman” ($84 million) and ”Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” ($113 million). Female-centered comedies, like ”Raising Helen,” ”The Stepford Wives,” and ”New York Minute,” didn’t fare as well.

Some big names proved their worth at the box office, like Will Smith (”I, Robot”), Tom Cruise (”Collateral”), and disaster-movie director Roland Emmerich (”The Day After Tomorrow”). Others did not — Jackie Chan (”Around the World in Eighty Days”), Halle Berry (”Catwoman”), Denzel Washington (”The Manchurian Candidate”), Hugh Jackman (”Van Helsing”), director M. Night Shyamalan (”The Village”), and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (”King Arthur”).

The summer’s other big surprise came in the form of documentaries, building on last summer’s strong slate of nonfiction films (”Spellbound,” ”Winged Migration”). The big story was, of course, Michael Moore’s ”Fahrenheit 9/11,” which became the first documentary to break $100 million (it’s earned $118 million to date), but several other documentaries — many of them similarly political-minded or critical of President Bush — flourished in its wake. From ”Super Size Me” to ”Outfoxed” to ”Bush’s Brain” to ”Control Room,” there are so many docs currently on screen that, according to Moore, one out of every five films currently in release is a documentary.