The box office has taken in an estimated $8 billion and will need to average about $300 million for each of the five remaining weekends on the calendar to threaten the record. A handful of holiday releases may hold up their end of such a bargain, but it's doubtful that such anticipated blockbusters as "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" and "The Last Samurai" will be able to rescue the movie business from a lackluster bottom line for the year.
Hollywood has been playing catch-up all year, without much success. The past weekend's grosses are fairly emblematic of the way business has gone for the movie industry in 2003.
The 10 top-grossing films of the past weekend collected just over $125 million, led by the estimated $40 million for "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat." The overall gross was down an estimated 12 percent from the comparable weekend last year, when "Die Another Day opened at No. 1 with more than $47 million -- and down 10 percent from the same weekend in 2001, when "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" took in more than $57 million in its second weekend.
Whatever success the box office has enjoyed this year has been largely attributable to a relatively small number of true blockbusters and a larger number of films that turned in respectable grosses -- even though some of them performed well below expectations.
The box-office champ of 2003 -- unless or until "The Lord of the Rings" has its say -- is "Finding Nemo." The fifth Disney-Pixar computer animated comedy took in $339.6 million and became the biggest animated hit of all time. Disney also scored the second biggest hit of the year to far with "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," which grossed $303.7 million.
"The Matrix Reloaded" has grossed more than $281.5 million, but "The Matrix Revolutions" -- the third installment of the "Matrix" trilogy -- has grossed just $125 million in its first three weeks. Box-office analysts say "Revolutions" will be hard pressed to top $150 million.
Then too, there have been some overachievers. The best example of that is probably "Elf," the Will Ferrell Christmas-themed comedy that actually rose from No. 2 in its opening weekend to No. 1 in its second, and heads into Thanksgiving weekend with $100 million in the bank and good prospects for a prosperous run through Christmas.
Thanksgiving weekend shapes up as a fairly competitive time at the box office, with new releases including Eddie Murphy's "The Haunted Mansion" and director Ron Howard's Western drama "The Missing." "The Haunted Mansion" is an effects-heavy comedy based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name. "The Missing" stars Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett in a story about a man who must swallow his pride to rescue his granddaughter from kidnappers in the Old West.
The first weekend of December brings the youth drama "Honey" and the Tom Cruise epic "The Last Samurai." "Honey" stars Jessica Alba as a young woman who aspires to be a professional dancer. "The Last Samurai" features Cruise as a Civil War veteran who goes to Japan to teach modern combat, but learns to respect ancient ways.
Dec. 12 features a handful of romantic comedies -- including the new Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton feature "Something's Got to Give." "Love Don't Cost a Thing" is aimed at the urban-youth market, and "Stuck on You" has Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear playing conjoined twins in the newest Farrelly Brothers comedy.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" -- the third of writer-director Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic book series -- arrives in theaters on Dec. 17. Also in December, Oscar-winners Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly co-star in "House of Sand and Fog," based on the novel of the same name by Andre Dubus III.
There will be lots to choose from on Christmas Day, when five major releases open.
Director Tim Burton returns to theaters with "Big Fish," starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney and Billy Crudup in the story of a man who sets out to understand his dying father by reliving events from the old man's own life.
Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt star as the heads of a blended family in a remake of "Cheaper by the Dozen," and Ben Affleck stars in action director John Woo's "Paycheck" -- based on a short story by Philip K. Dick ("Bladerunner," "Minority Report").
As year-end stories about the movie business examine reasons for the downturn at the box office, it is likely that much of the blame will fall on the quality of the product. That theme will get special emphasis during the upcoming movie awards season -- as critics carry out their traditional year-end assault on the state of the Hollywood movie, a complaint that has become a permanent fixture of Hollywood culture in recent years.