Potent first quarter offsets weak summer B.O.

The major studios aren’t in trouble at the box office.

Thanks to a potent first quarter that has offset a weak summer, the majors and mini-majors, have taken in $4.333 billion at the domestic box office. Through the same point in 2004, their receipts had amounted to $4.301 billion.

This weekend, total box office of $148.9 million — led by the surprising $56.1 million bow for 20th Century Fox’s “Fantastic Four” — was higher than last year’s figure, if only by the slimmest of margins, snapping an oft-cited 19-week weak streak. That run has also been mirrored by a soft foreign half-year.

The weekend-to-weekend comparison has never been the best measure of box office strength (during the so-called “slump” there have actually been several weeks, for instance, where 2005 has outpaced 2004), but the streak has been the basis for many cavalier pronouncements that Americans were no longer interested in going to the movie theater.

So, why is total box office down for the year? Look at the indies. Last year, because of the runaway success of “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” independent distribs took in $633 million through the second weekend of July. This year, without a blockbuster to match those titles, the sector has grossed $189 million, a difference of more than $440 million.

That shortfall is the sole explanation for why this year’s box office is trailing 2004 by 8.4% or $4.522 billion to $4.934 billion.

There is no question that the summer has so far been lackluster at best. The summer season, typically the most lucrative of the year for Hollywood, is off sharply from last year, with total box office off 11.2% from last year.

And as far as the studios are concerned, this will be largely a summer to forget. Last year, on the backs of huge franchise sequels like “Shrek 2,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Spider-Man 2,” the summer set a record, with the majors taking in $2.15 billion through this point. So far this summer their titles have grossed $1.9 billion. (Majors include 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Sony, Paramount, Universal and Walt Disney, DreamWorks, MGM and New Line and their subsidiaries.)

Given the summer downfall, how could the studios be up for the year? It turns out the winter and spring this year were hugely lucrative for Hollywood, far outpacing their perf in 2004. Sony’s “Hitch” took in $179 million, Fox scored $128 million with “Robots,” Disney saw $113 million for “The Pacifier.” Plus, there was a steady stream of big opening horror titles, including “White Noise,” “The Amityville Horror,” “The Ring Two,” and “Alone in the Dark.”

All told, this winter and spring the majors grossed $2.4 billion, compared with $2.1 billion last year.

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