The UK box office looks set for a thrilling end-of-year race to establish the biggest-grossing distributor of 2002.

And while it is still too early to predict with any certainty, there is a real possibility that Entertainment Film Distributors could become the first independent distributor ever to finish on top of the chart.

Box office tallies for the year to October 27 reveal that Entertainment trailed only Buena Vista International after ten months. Particularly impressive, is the fact that the£105.3m taken by Entertainment to Oct 27, (giving the company a 16.3% market share), was achieved from just 16 releases.

In comparison Buena Vista's£105.9m (16.4%) was grossed from the releases of 27 titles , while third-placed 20th Century Fox's£104.6m (16.2%) from 22 films.

The outstanding performance reflects the success that Entertainment has enjoyed throughout the year with 2001 holdover The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (£38m this year), as well as 2002 hits such as Gosford Park (£12.3m), Blade II (£9.1m) and Austin Powers In Goldmember (£23.4m). Meanwhile, Indie-hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding (£13.4m and counting) was still playing well throughout November.

But it is the much anticipated blockbuster sequel The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (released Dec 18) that will propel the independent distributor within sight of the UK box office crown.

The first Lord Of The Rings title had grossed£25m by the end of 2001. The Two Towers sequel not only has an extra day of play this year (Fellowship opened on Dec 19) but it is expected to go out on more screens.

Dominic Crosthwaite of spread-betting company Cantor Index told screendaily: "Our clients expect The Two Towers to open stronger than the£7.3m opening that The Fellowship Of The Ring achieved last December. Expectations are that the sequel's launch will be at least 10% bigger."

While Warner Bros has enjoyed the massive opening of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets in the last two weeks (the sequel had grossed£30m as of Nov 24) the company has only Clint Eastwood's thriller Blood Work (poorly received in other territories where it has played so far) to come. It is unlikely that the Harry Potter sequel alone could bridge the gap. Warner had grossed£74.6m as of Oct 27. Last year Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone had grossed£54m by the end of December.

Equally, while in the lead with a narrow margin by the end of October, BVI is not expected to hold the top position once Entertainment launches The Two Towers. The company has six titles yet to be released before the end of the year but none are on the blockbuster scale of The Lord Of The Rings sequel.

BVI's slate includes Sweet Home Alabama (Reese Witherspoon's last comedy Legally Blonde claimed£6.1m in the UK), The Santa Clause 2 (the 1995 original managed£6.4m); The Quiet American and Dirty Pretty Things and limited releases The Lion King (showing in Large Screen Format) and Chicago (which opens in London's West End on Dec 26 but does not go wide until Jan 17, 2003).

The greatest, and possibly insurmountable, competition comes from 20th Century Fox. The company, which has enjoyed strong figures for Danny Boyle's apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later during November, released Die Another Day to take£9.1m in its first five days. If the James Bond title can keep up its early strength in the coming weeks it will almost certainly give Fox the edge they need as Entertainment has just 13 days for The Two Towers to make up the difference.

By December 1 early estimates were showing a new order of dominance with Fox in the lead with approximately£130m; Warner Bros in second with£112m; Entertainment in third with£108m and Buena Vista in fourth with some£106m.