Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" became the first documentary to top the $100 million mark, while Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn's goofy comedy "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" was another surprise $100 million hit.
Teamed with such familiar favorites as "Shrek," "Spider-Man" and "Harry Potter" sequels, "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Dodgeball" helped lift the industry to an all-time summer haul of just under $4 billion from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
That's up 3 percent from the previous record of $3.9 billion set last summer.
But like summer 2003, higher admission prices meant fewer tickets were sold. Exhibitor Relations estimates moviegoers bought 637.8 million tickets domestically this past summer, down 0.76 percent from 2003.
"What this summer on balance taught us, I think, is people were reasonably satisfied," said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman at Universal Pictures, which had hits with "The Bourne Supremacy" and "Van Helsing" and a flop with "Thunderbirds." "I don't think they were extraordinarily satisfied, but you know what? At the end of the day, reasonably satisfied's not a terrible report card."
The sequels "Shrek 2," "Spider-Man 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" took the win, place and show spots at the box office, with other follow-ups such as "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement" performing well.
"Shrek 2," reuniting the voice cast of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy, raced past 2003's smash "Finding Nemo" to become the top-grossing animated movie ever at $436.7 million.
The slightly naughty irreverence of "Shrek," along with computer-generated imagery that appeals to tech-savvy audiences, helped broaden the movie's appeal beyond the family audience.
"I think one of the reasons is people have to come to accept CGI as a way of making a movie that's compelling to all ages," as opposed to hand-drawn animation, which can carry the stigma that it's mainly for kids and their moms, said Jim Tharp, head of distribution for DreamWorks, the studio behind the "Shrek" movies. "CGI plays to teens, to dads, to the whole 3-to-93 age group."
"Spider-Man 2," a reunion for director Sam Raimi and stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco, came up short of the $404 million gross of the 2002 original, but the sequel still made a fortune at $370 million. It should finish a bit ahead of "The Passion of the Christ" as the year's No. 2 hit so far.
Likewise, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" fell shy of the box-office spells weaved by its two predecessors, but the movie's $247 million gross bodes well for the franchise, whose next installment is due out next year.
Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was unlike any other summer hit. Its $118 million domestic total was six times that of the previous record holder among feature-length documentaries, Moore's "Bowling for Columbine."
An alternately humorous and horrifying diatribe against President Bush and his actions regarding the Sept. 11 attacks, "Fahrenheit 9/11" blends Moore's cheeky wit with sobering images from Iraq and interviews with those affected by the war.
"We said from the get-go `Fahrenheit' was not just informative but also broadly entertaining," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, one of the film's distributors. "We've always felt it was the combination of those two things that made it connect with audiences across the country."
Summer regular Will Smith scored another success with "I, Robot," which joined Dennis Quaid's "The Day After Tomorrow," Brad Pitt's "Troy" and M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" to round out the season's $100 million hit parade.
Other solid earners included Tom Cruise's "Collateral," Will Ferrell's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and the teary sleeper "The Notebook."
Summer duds included Halle Berry's "Catwoman," Jackie Chan's "Around the World in 80 Days," Kate Hudson's "Raising Helen" and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's "New York Minute."
Overall, the quality of movies this season proved better than summer 2003, when many moviegoers were disenchanted by a barrage of lackluster sequels, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations.
"This was a pretty good summer. You had a solid mix of blockbusters, some great documentaries and indie films," Dergarabedian said. "This is what audiences want. They're looking for a choice. If you couldn't find a movie you wanted to see this summer, then you should stop going to see movies."