Box Office Rings Up Big Bucks (And Big Questions)

It's déja vu all over again. The three biggest films all had numbers after their names: "Shrek 2," "Spider-Man 2" and the third "Harry Potter" movie. Business as usual? Not really. Hollywood made history this year, but I wonder if people out there noticed.

Here's what I mean: Two things your parents warned you never to talk about -- politics and religion. Hollywood followed that advice. As a result, a film about politics and a film about religion had to get by without any studio support.

Final score: Hollywood -- 0, Politics -- $220 million; Religion -- $609 million in the arena known as the international box office.

Every studio in Hollywood said "No," to Mel Gibson so he financed "The Passion of the Christ" himself. Less than 20 percent of the American public consider themselves regular movie-goers. Gibson found his audience among the other 80 percent. Americans aren't supposed to see foreign language films, and the foreign languages in this film were Latin and Aramaic.

Americans also aren't supposed to go to documentaries. Though "Fahrenheit 9/11" ended up doing more for filmmaker Michael Moore than presidential nominee John Kerry, with its blockbuster box office, Moore can afford to retire. John Kerry … had to retire, at least from presidential politics.

Without "Passion," Box Office Would Suffer

Domestic box office should hit a record $9.4 billion in 2004. There's a lot of glitter in glitter gulch this morning. But there's a lot of gulch, too. The reason for the record? Higher ticket prices. Ticket sales were down for the second year in a row.

And without the $490 million "Passion" and "Fahrenheit" brought in domestically, Hollywood would have faced the kind of disaster at the box office it loves to show us on the screen.

Something else that saved Hollywood: the foreign box office. Moderate hits like "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Troy" became huge hits overseas. China and Russia are just becoming important markets for American films and those audiences have never seen anything like this. Even flops like "Van Helsing" made money overseas. These films were helped by a falling dollar, and the fact that no one in the audience understood the dialogue.

Of course, if you don't like a new release in English, you can also not like it French on the DVD version. This year, Hollywood took in almost twice as much selling DVDs as it did selling tickets at the box office. Because kids' DVDs are perennial best sellers, Hollywood is anxious to invest in kids' films. That's one reason three of the year's best films are animated features.

Watch for "Shrek 2," "The Polar Express" and "The Incredibles" to battle it out at the Oscars.

George Lucas redid the "Star Wars" special effects when it came out on DVD. It's a must-have. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was recut and rescored. It's a must-see.

Three years ago, "The Princess Diaries" was a huge surprise hit. It takes three years to make a movie. Now, three years later, there were eight princess movies.

Good Ben, Bad Ben

The most successful star in Hollywood? Dollar in, dollar out, it's Ben Stiller. "Along Came Polly," "Starsky and Hutch" and "Dodgeball" cost $122 million and made $473 million. And that doesn't include "Anchorman" or "Meet the Fockers," two more hits.

And, yes, the time from first run to video is getting shorter. Ben Affleck's "Surviving Christmas" broke the record, coming to the home theater market in less than two months, in time for the holidays, I guess. But if you get one in your stocking that means Santa ran out of lumps of coal.

Affleck was zero for 3 in '04. In "Jersey Girl" they cut J. Lo out of the movie after 12 minutes. They cut the wrong part. "Gigli," it turns out, is Italian for "Jersey Girl."

Oh, Ben, I'll be fair. I said it in my review of "Surviving Christmas" that the word is that off-camera Affleck is smart, funny, charming, interesting, a great person and a great friend. The message is obvious: Ben, stay off camera. And after this year I think he's going to have to take my advice.