Just five movies - "Shrek 2," "Spider-Man 2," "The Passion of the Christ," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "The Incredibles" - accounted for roughly one-sixth of Hollywood's overall projected revenues of nearly $9.4 billion, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
That would beat the record of $9.32 billion set in 2002.
Total grosses were on track to rise about 1 percent from 2003, when revenues fell for the first time in 12 years.
Yet factoring in higher prices, the number of tickets sold was expected to be off about 2.5 percent from 2003's 1.54 billion admissions. That would be the second consecutive year that ticket sales slipped, after a decade in which admissions climbed steadily.
Do studio bosses worry that audiences are losing interest?
"I don't think so yet, because ticket sales actually increased for a number of years prior to this current downturn," said Jim Tharp, head of distribution for DreamWorks, which had its best year ever with $916 million at the domestic box office, paced by the $436 million haul of "Shrek 2."
"I don't think it's time to panic yet. It would take another couple of years of this trend for it to be something of concern."
The last two years, the movie business was something of a victim of its own success after revenues soared about 20 percent in 2001-02. Industry analysts say sustaining that level of growth would be unrealistic and that the comparatively small audience declines in 2003 and 2004 were not a cause for alarm.
Viewed over the long haul, Hollywood continues to draw its biggest audiences since the late 1950s, with the number of tickets sold up 25 percent since 1990.
Still, 2004 seemed to produce more than its share of box-office underachievers, duds and outright bombs, among them the historical epics "Alexander," "King Arthur," "Hidalgo" and "The Alamo"; the comedies "Raising Helen," "Welcome to Mooseport" and "Surviving Christmas"; and the action flicks "Catwoman," "Thunderbirds" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."
"There are duds every year, high-profile duds and low-profile duds," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "It seems like the landscape this year was littered with a lot of very high-profile duds."
Along with "Shrek 2," sequel hits included "Spider-Man 2" ($373 million) "Harry Potter" ($249 million) and "The Bourne Supremacy" ($176 million). Some other film followups tanked, including "The Chronicles of Riddick," "The Whole Ten Yards" and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason."
Hollywood banked big on remakes, but came up short with updates of "The Big Bounce," "Walking Tall," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "Alfie."
Other films exceeded expectations, among them the $100 million hits "The Day After Tomorrow," "Shark Tale" and "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story."
The industry's overall year would have been bleaker if not for two hits that Hollywood balked at releasing.
Big studios passed on Mel Gibson's religious saga "The Passion of the Christ." Gibson hired independent distributor Newmarket Films to handle the release, which became a $370 million blockbuster on the strength of a grassroots marketing campaign by churches and Christian leaders.
Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," his assault on President Bush over the Sept. 11 attacks, won the top prize at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. But Disney objected to its political content and refused to let subsidiary Miramax release it.
Miramax bosses Harvey and Bob Weinstein bought the film back and released it independently. "Fahrenheit 9/11" grossed $119 million, the first documentary to top $100 million.
Combined, Gibson and Moore's films accounted for 5 percent of domestic movie revenues.
"Both of those films may have brought people to the movie theater who hadn't been in 10 years. They were so unique in their appeal, people had to see them for whatever reason, political or religious," Dergarabedian said. "Take those two films out of the mix, and that's half a billion dollars right there."
A number of smaller movies helped fill in the gaps in a year where many big-budgeted movies failed to click, including the independent hits "Napoleon Dynamite," "Open Water" and "Garden State."
The ever-reliable horror audience also boosted Hollywood's bottom line, turning out for such fright flicks as "The Grudge," "Alien Vs. Predator," "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," "Dawn of the Dead," "Saw" and "Exorcist: The Beginning."
With growing competition for people's attention from the Internet, cable and satellite TV, DVDs and home theaters, studio executives say it's encouraging that theatrical films remain a steady draw.
"Why isn't everybody staying home and waiting for the DVD to come out?" said Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios, whose 2004 movies included "White Chicks," "The Forgotten" and "Christmas With the Kranks."
"We are a culture that loves to go out and enjoy ourselves. That continues from generation to generation, and movies are still one of the least-expensive ways to entertain a family, where you can go and spend two hours in the dark with a bunch of people you don't know, laughing and crying."