Early estimates today (2)declared 2004 a record year at the North American box office, spurred on by asuperb opening 12 days for Universal's Meet The Fockers that saw the comedy race past $150m (seeseparate story).

According to industry calculations annual ticket sales amounted to $9.4bn, a 1.4%rise from $9.27bn in 2003 that eclipses the previous mark of $9.32bn set in2002.

Business in 2002 was driven chiefly by the gravity-defying antics of Spider-Man,The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, and Star Wars: Episode II -Attack Of The Clones, as well as a host of $200m-plus releases thatincluded Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets and Signs.

The biggest picture in 2004 was Shrek 2 on $436m, followed by ThePassion Of The Christ on $373m and Spider-Man 2 on $370m.

Ticket sales fell 1.7% from 1.54billion in 2003 to 1.51billion. The most amountof tickets sold in recent times was 1.6billion in 2002.

With a buoyant homeentertainment market and a growing roster of leisure alternatives, theatre attendancelevels have slumped since the salad days of the 1930s and 1940s.

However this year could become the biggest yet at the box office, with a line-up that includes StarWars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith, Steven Spielberg's The War OfThe Worlds, Peter Jackson's King Kong, Harry Potter And TheGoblet Of Fire, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Kingdom OfHeaven, The Fantastic Four, The Ring 2, The Hitchhiker'sGuide To The Galaxy and Doom, among others.