Monster profits for Hollywood after its best ever year at the box-office

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Despite recession and the trauma and soul-searching caused by 11 September, the Hollywood film industry has enjoyed its best year.

The outstanding success of five major movies has ensured box-office records. Harry Potter, Shrek, Monsters Inc, Rush Hour 2 and The Mummy Returns took more than $200m (£137.5m) each, and Lord of the Rings, which was released later in America than in Britain, is also expected to top that figure.

British box-office figures for the whole year have not been released. But the success of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shrek and Bridget Jones's Diary are likely to make it a record year here too.

Indeed, UK box-office revenue for the first 10 months of 2001 was £569m, a rise of 6 per cent on last year. And that's before you add in the massive takings of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Figures from box-office analysts Exhibitor Relations show ticket sales in America for 2001 will total an estimated $8.35bn (£5.75bn), breaking last year's record of $7.7bn. Admissions were up by about 5 percent, the first increase since 1998, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations.

And there looks like being no let-up in the welcome trend for families going to the cinema together, which Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings enjoyed. This year will come the next instalments of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Austin Powers, James Bond, and possible sequels to Shrek, Spy Kids and Legally Blonde.

There were flops in 2001, including Scary Movie 2, which grossed less than half the $157m the first film took in, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which grossed just $32m.

But the anticipated massive shift in Hollywood attitudes after 11 September has not happened. Nor is it now likely to, with war films postponed after the terrorist attacks being rapidly rescheduled.

The two biggest postponements, Arnold Schwarzenegger's terrorist-themed Collat- eral Damage, in which he stars as a firefighter who sees his family die in a terrorist explosion and vows revenge, and Tim Allen's Big Trouble, a comedy whose plot includes a nuclear device on a aircraft, have been rescheduled for release this year. Now Schwarzenegger's film is likely to be released next month.

Britain is inevitably following American film-distribution patterns. This weekend, Behind Enemy Lines, an American war movie starring Gene Hackman, will be released. It has been doing good business in the US after Twentieth Century Fox brought forward its release date by two months in a successful gamble that audiences might be craving traditional Hollywood fare. It opened six weeks after the terrorist attacks and recouped its £28m budget in three weeks.

In other words, normal service has been resumed. Certainly, the big studios remain wary of disaster movies or any screenplay involving an actual plane crash. But equally certainly, there is now no prospect of Hollywood regressing several decades to a diet of feel-good films and wholesome family offerings.

Studio queasiness over how audiences would react to violent films after 11 September has unquestionably eased. In the months since, violent movies such as Training Day, Don't Say a Word and Spy Game performed well at the box office, softening worries about the action films and thrillers that are among Hollywood's regular moneymakers.

"For a while there, you had to be concerned," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal, which released Spy Game. "Our job is to give audiences what they want, satisfying their needs.

"You had to sit back and ask, is this appropriate, because everybody's very depressed and we're at war. I think we've found everybody made the right decisions."

Behind Enemy Lines, with Hackman and Owen Wilson, is directed by former documentary-maker John Moore. Hackman is a commanding officer who must save Navy pilot Wilson who has been shot down over enemy territory, in this case, Bosnia.

Mr Moore said: "After 11 September, I thought that's it, two years of work is down the drain. But the studio took a gamble; they rolled the dice. We sneaked the movie to an audience and their reaction went through the roof. We caught an emotional wave."

Besides an all-time revenue year, the industry had a record summer season on the strength of heavily promoted, widely distributed movies. Hollywood mastered the method of front-loading, which is marketing films to ensure monster debuts and packing in as many viewers as possible in a movie's first few days. A different box-office record seemed to fall almost every weekend, but few films had staying power.

Movies such as Planet of the Apes, Pearl Harbor and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider opened to huge takings, then nose-dived spectacularly, grosses falling by 50 percent or more in subsequent weekends.

Only Shrek, Rush Hour 2 and some smaller hits including The Others, Legally Blonde and The Princess Diaries held up well week after week.

"People went to see things opening weekend, then migrated to the next big movie," Mr Dergarabedian, of Exhibitor Relations, said.

"But regardless of how big those drops were, movies were making money so fast they were still big blockbusters. It's not a marathon to $200m any more. It's a sprint."