By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated January 02, 2004 09:05 AM

It was a big year for water in Hollywood, given that the top two movies of the year – at least, until the tally for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” comes in – were the No. 1 “Finding Nemo” and No. 2 “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

“Nemo” made $340 million domestically, while “Pirates” swashbuckled its way to $305 million, reports the Associated Press.

Even so, notes the news service and just about every amateur and professional industry observer, it is only a matter of time until “The Return of the King” will overtake “Nemo” as the top-grossing film released in 2003. In less than two weeks since its release, director Peter Jackson’s final chapter in the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy has brought in $224 million at the domestic box office. (The cumulative tally is based on original release date, and “King” is still in release.)

But overall, Hollywood’s earning sagged for most of the year, says the AP. Ticket prices were up about 3.97 percent while total earnings fell 0.45 percent from the previous year, the first downturn since 1991, according to box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. And total attendance was down 4.25 percent.

All told, 2003 movies made an estimated total of $9.275 billion, compared to the 2002 total of $9.317 billion.

“The Matrix” saga enjoyed a huge opening weekend in the spring for “The Matrix Reloaded,” which rang up an impressive $281.5 million total, $114 million more than the Wachowski brothers’ groundbreaking 1999 original.

But disappointment quickly sank in as “Matrix Reloaded” left many fans cold. The final chapter, “The Matrix Revolutions,” opened in November to far weaker numbers and is limping toward $140 million, the lowest gross of the three movies, says the AP.

Other hits included Jim Carrey in “Bruce Almighty”; “X2: X-Men United”; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines”; Will Ferrell’s “Elf”; Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson’s rage farce “Anger Management”; and the racehorse tale “Seabiscuit.”