Gary Susman
December 23, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Even without holiday hobbits this year, the North American box office is poised to end 2004 with a record-busting annual take of $9.4 billion, according to tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. That would top the $9.3 billion benchmark set in 2002, though not because more moviegoers are buying tickets. In fact, paid admissions dropped this year to about 1.5 billion (there were 1.53 billion ticket buyers last year and 1.6 billion in 2002). So credit (or blame) goes to higher ticket prices.

The top-grossing movie of the year will be DreamWorks’ Shrek 2, which earned $436 million this summer. However, the top-earning studio is Sony, raking in $1.3 billion from such hits as Spider-Man 2 (the year’s No. 2 film, with $373 million) and The Grudge ($110 million).

Of course, many of the year’s best-loved films, whether cult hits like Napoleon Dynamite or independently financed blockbusters like Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ, didn’t come from the studio system at all. Imagine how many fewer ticket buyers there would have been this year if Mel Gibson’s Passion hadn’t brought them into the multiplex, many for the first time in years. Whether Hollywood can lure them back for return visits in 2005 is another story.

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