After a slow start, a fast finish

Overview: Universal struggled through a lackluster 2004 — then auds decided they were ready to “Meet the Fockers.” Pic’s boffo year-end box office — $70 million in the first week alone — arrived just in time to impress new corporate parent General Electric. After releasing 12 new titles in 2004, U revenues managed a middling $753.9 million, good enough for a sixth-place finish, or 8.5% of market share.

Winners and Losers: No doubt GE will be keeping a close eye on the inner workings of its new long-term investment, which produced bloated-budget washouts like the nearly $200 million “Van Helsing” (domestic gross: $120 million) and “The Chronicles of Riddick” (domestic gross: $57 million). There were also mid-budget pics that failed to connect, like “Thunderbirds” and “Wimbledon.” Successes included the second “Bourne” pic, which took in $176 million domestically, and the Ben Stiller comedy “Along Came Polly,” which grossed a respectable $88 million domestically.

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Award Prospects: It’s all about Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” — particularly for topliner Jamie Foxx’s transformative perf as Ray Charles — and to a lesser extent Peter Berg’s “Friday Night Lights.” The small town gridiron drama, evocative of “The Last Picture Show,” impressed many critics and Acad voters.

The Year Ahead: U vice chairman Marc Shmuger has big hopes for Imagine release “Cinderella Man” (a Ron Howard drama Shmuger calls “one of the great American underdog stories”) and Gulf War pic “Jarhead” from Sam Mendes. Then there’s the studio’s 800-pound (and then some) gorilla, “King Kong.” Peter Jackson’s massive effort to modernize the great ape unspools in December. Otherwise Universal’s slate is largely free of big-budget tentpoles. In their place are comedies like Will Ferrell soccer pic “Kicking and Screaming” and Hilary Duff romantic comedy “The Perfect Man” as well as middle-budget sci-fi pics such as the Rock starrer, “Doom,” and Joss Whedon’s “Serenity.”