'Passion of the Christ,' 'Fahrenheit 9/11' Tops in 2004

by Brandon Gray
January 30, 2005

Without a doubt, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 defined 2004—the rest of the box office was business as usual. The Passion and Fahrenheit emerged as the most talked about movies, sparking controversy that reflected and defined the nation and re-configuring religious movies and documentaries as big moneymakers.

The total gross for 2004 was a record $9.42 billion, up 2.5 percent from 2003, but, as ticket prices rose an estimated 3.6 percent, admissions actually decreased by 1.1 percent to 1.51 billion. Take away the bonus kick from The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, and box office would have been down 2.8 percent with admissions lower by a hefty 6.2 percent.

Audiences stayed away from several high-profile pictures, including Alexander, Catwoman, The Alamo and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but their subjects and other factors made them doomed from inception. A weak dollar assisted several domestic disappointments in cleaning up overseas. Historic battle pictures again proved their international mettle as Troy, King Arthur and Alexander will each triple their flabby domestic takes at the end of the day. British comedy Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason bagged a frigid $40 million domestically, but crossed $200 million overseas, where it will top Bridget Jones's Diary.

Though not a big money loser, the most disappointing box office performer of 2004 was Team America: World Police. The raunchy puppet picture, made by the creators of South Park, spoofing action movies and current events, behaved like its strings were cut—lots of press amounted to just $32.8 million in theaters, proving that the increasingly eager to please entertainment media has little sway among moviegoers.

With end-of-year releases having had plenty of time to show their stuff, the ten best box office results of 2004 can objectively be judged, and they are not simply the highest grossing pictures. The top ten are the most accomplished based on contextual factors, including industry expectations, genre, momentum and cultural impact.

For instance, movies like The Incredibles, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Day After Tomorrow were hugely successful, but they were not exceptional when considered in context.

It is important to note that, as is always the case, the Ten Best do not necessarily reflect the quality of the movies themselves (by that measure, this Ten Best could easily be the Ten Worst). Bad movies can be blockbusters, good movies can bomb—especially in a bankrupt culture—and vice versa.

The Ten Best Box Office Results of 2004:

1. The Passion of the Christ—$370.3 million

Reacting to the perceived nihilism and hedonism of Hollywood and the press, many Americans echoed the crowd chorus in Inherit the Wind and said "give me that old time religion." This was more than a movie for passive entertainment. It was a philosophy people were voting for at the box office, and it portended the results of the presidential election, in which the religious man, believed to be persecuted, gained the approval of others in order to continue his "hard work."

Director Mel Gibson arguably took the greatest risk of the year, financing the $30 million budget on his own and making the fundamentalist Christian movie outside the studio system. Sure, biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur were some of the most popular movies of their time, but they were also old-fashioned secular spectacles. The Passion was not epic in scope—it was intimate, torturous and intensely gory, rivaling horror movies with its graphic images. In the past few decades, the highest-grossing Christian movie had been the animated Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie at $25.6 million, which The Passion topped on its first day alone.

Mel Gibson
Mr. Gibson orchestrated one of Hollywood's greatest marketing campaigns—one that didn't require him to spend much money. For months prior to opening, he strategically withheld screenings from the press, instead showing the movie to church congregations, select conservative pundits and religious groups, stoking the controversy over the picture's message, violence, supposed anti-Semitism, etc. The press, from the left to the right, bought into the hype, talking about the movie non-stop and granting unprecedented pre-release coverage. Grass roots promotions spread the word and put it over the top.

2. Fahrenheit 9/11—$119.2 million

Reacting to the perceived conservatism and war mongering of Washington, talk radio and cable news, many Americans said "give me that old time propaganda." Like The Passion, many were voting when they saw Fahrenheit 9/11—voting against the sitting president and what he represents to the liberal establishment. Because it didn't offer a positive alternative, Michael Moore's anti-Bush tract turned out to be the flipside of The Passion of the Christ, adding to the perception of Bush as the persecuted and galvanizing many to vote for him.

Like Mr. Gibson, Moore used the fawning press as a capitalist marketing tool, making Fahrenheit 9/11 the next cultural must-see after The Passion of the Christ. Moore had already set the record for a traditional documentary twice before with the anti-business Roger and Me and the anti-gun Bowling for Columbine, but his anti-war Fahrenheit marked a new milestone in its first weekend and went on to become Hollywood's first documentary blockbuster. That precedent alone is enough to rank No. 2 for the year.

More political movies were released in 2004 than in any other year, and Fahrenheit 9/11 paved the way for all of them. There were the anti-Bush documentaries, pro-Kerry ones, and then conservatives reacted with anti-Kerry ones. In total, 17 political documentaries hit theaters (not counting straight-to-video) besides Fahrenheit, yet their combined box office was $8.7 million or just seven percent of Fahrenheit.

3. Shrek 2—$441.2 million

The highest grossing movie of 2004 was always expected to be a blockbuster, but not nearly to this degree. The original Shrek grossed $267.7 million in 2001, and Shrek 2 improved upon that already massive sum by 65 percent. Grabbing the second biggest opening weekend of all time ($108 million), the animated ogre comedy landed at No. 3 among the all time top-grossing movies.

4. Meet the Fockers—$278 million (projected)

In a mere 13 days, Meet the Fockers out-grossed its predecessor Meet the Parents (which was no slouch at $166.2 million). Such speed of overcoming the original usually happens only when the original yielded modest returns (Austin Powers, The Terminator). Fockers also became the highest grossing picture ever in the careers of stars Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.

5. National Treasure—$170 million (projected)

Uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer showed his Midas touch again in an underperforming genre, as he did with Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003. National Treasure appealed as a clean, PG-rated action-adventure and was No. 1 for three weekends in a row during the competitive holiday season.

6. Spider-Man 2—$373.6 million

The Marvel Comics sequel made less than Spider-Man's $403.7 million, but still was a tremendous blockbuster in its own right. In fact, its 93 percent retention of its 2002 predecessor's gross was the best of the major superhero franchises—Superman 2 held 81 percent of Superman, while Batman Returns mustered 65 percent of Batman.

7. The Grudge—$110.4 million

This $10 million haunted house movie blustered past all expectations with its $39.1 million opening in October, becoming one of the most profitable pictures of the year and representing horror's continued prominence in the marketplace.

8. The Polar Express—$163 million (projected)

More than one quarter of The Polar Express gross came from 60 IMAX venues, compared to its 3,650 total theaters. That plus word-of-mouth and the Christmas theme helped director Robert Zemeckis' ambitious animated feature find the longest legs of all saturation releases in 2004—following its disappointing $23.3 million opening weekend. With a $165 million production budget and another fortune spent on marketing, it still has a long road to profitability, which keeps it from ranking higher.

9. Napoleon Dynamite—$44.6 million

This $400,000 episodic teen comedy was pre-ordained as the sleeper, independent hit of summer 2004, courtesy of its MTV connection, but after a long gestation, it fulfilled that promise and then some—becoming a mini-cultural phenomenon.

10. The Bourne Supremacy—$176.2 million

Despite nauseating and disorienting camera work and an early turn of events that cancels out the chemistry of the first picture, The Bourne Supremacy out-grossed The Bourne Identity's $121.7 million by a wide margin, ensuring a third movie in the franchise. That Supremacy opened to $52.5 million speaks to how well regarded Identity was as these types of action thrillers are not prone to such massive starts.

Among movie stars, Ben Stiller had the banner year. The total gross for his five starring roles—Meet the Fockers, DodgeBall, Starsky and Hutch, Along Came Polly and Envy—will end up around $580 million, or about half of his lifetime tally. On the other end of the spectrum, the actor who played Jesus, James Caviezel, was just as prolific, but the four other movies he appeared in grossed, combined, a mere 1% of The Passion's $370.3 million.

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Sunshine Cracks Through Dark 2004, by Scott Holleran
2004 Domestic Grosses
2004 Studio Market Share

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DAILY: Monday, 12/10 (39 tracked)
WEEKEND: Weekend Actuals, 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' #1
DAILY: Friday, 'Ralph 2' #1
WEEKLY: 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' Tops the Week with $31.1m
DAILY: Thursday 12/6, (44 tracked)
DAILY: Wednesday, 12/5 (37 tracked)
DAILY: Tuesday, 12/04 (35 tracked)
New MPAA Ratings Added