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Fox is this summer’s big box-office winner, sort of

With just one more long weekend left before the unofficial end of summer, it looks like Rupert Murdoch and Fox will soon be lifting the championship belt as winners of this year’s summer box-office.

The five films Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox division put out this summer season (which runs from the first weekend in May through Labor Day in the entertainment industry) grossed $783 million as of earlier this week, according to film revenue-tracking website Box Office Mojo. That makes for a pretty good per-film average of more than $156 million.

Last year, Fox hauled in $595.9 million with six films averaging $99 million each. The company didn’t really put out any blockbusters in 2013, though. Female-buddy-cop comedy The Heat offered the best returns at almost $160 million in ticket sales, while The Wolverine and animated film Epic both crossed the $100 million mark.

Fox is one of just two of the “Big Six” film studios that can actually boast of improving on last summer’s receipts. It had two films gross more than $200 million domestically (X-Men: Days of Future Past and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), while How to Train Your Dragon 2 brought in $172 million. Perhaps most impressive may have been the $124.5 million raked in by the young-adult weeper The Fault in our Stars, which was produced for only around $12 million – but still made more than a number of high-priced bombs like Warner Brothers’ (TWX) Edge of Tomorrow.

Of course, in a way, winning the summer box-office title this year is little more than a consolation prize at this point. Overall, the 2014 summer box-office totals are down about 24% from last summer with just this final holiday weekend left to try to make up some of that difference.

Only 13 films released this summer have grossed more than $100 million, which is six fewer than last summer.

Hudson Square Research analyst Jeffrey Logsdon points out that this year’s movie crop is smaller than in the summer of 2013, but the bigger factor behind the current summer slump could be quality. “The commercial appeal of the films this [summer] certainly didn’t have the same kind of dynamic as the commercial appeal of the films last year,” Logsdon says.

Last summer was a record-setting season with movie ticket sales up 12% from 2012, buoyed by smash hits like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2 . But this year’s summer season is still roughly 15% down from the summer of 2012, itself bolstered by the release of Marvel’s The Avengers. (The Avengers was the highest-grossing film ever for Disney and the third-highest ever, behind Avatar and Titanic.)

Only a surprisingly successful month of August (when the usual stream of summer blockbusters often turns into a trickle) has helped the industry recover from a month of July that did not reach $1 billion in total gross for the first time in a dozen years. Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot was one of August’s surprise successes with $149.6 million in ticket sales, while The Walt Disney Company (DIS) scored the hit of the summer with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which broke the opening-weekend box-office record for August on its way to grossing $258 million in the U.S. and more than $500 million worldwide within less than a month of its release.

Still, while Guardians of the Galaxy has vaulted past its summer of 2014 competition, the movie is still barely inside the top 20 grossing Disney films of all-time and it entered Labor Day weekend slightly behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the company’s (and the industry’s) best-performing film of the year. Even if Guardians of the Galaxy continues to reel in customers this weekend, it is not likely to come anywhere close to the $400 million-plus domestic windfall reaped by Iron Man 3, last summer’s top movie. (Or, even the $368 million haul of the second-place Despicable Me 2 for that matter.)

In recent years, there have been claims that movie ticket sales would decline as more people opt for watching at home via streaming. However, Logsdon contends that the cinema can still thrive alongside its entertainment alternatives and that this summer’s sales decline isn’t simply a matter of people having better things to do. “I don’t think its [because] kids are playing more video games,” he says. “I think people go to the movies and they use Netflix or Amazon. I don’t think Guardians only did [$258 million] because everybody else was sitting at home, watching Orange is the New Black.”

The success of Guardians, no matter how relative, has helped Disney settle into second-place, behind Fox, in the summer box-office race as the company’s five summer films have made a total of $624.6 million, at an average of almost $125 million per film. Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, was Disney’s other big summer hit, making $237 million in a season surprisingly lacking when it comes to kiddie fare. But, Disney’s total gross is down 27% from 2013, despite the fact that the company put out only four movies last year.

(Logsdon does point out, though, that Disney might end up with better profit margins this summer because the company will not have to worry about writing off a major, big-budget flop like last summer’s The Lone Ranger, which cost $215 million to make but made only $89 million domestically).

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers sits in third-place in a summer where its total gross slipped a whopping 43%, to $537 million, after blowing away its competition last year by churning out six different movies that grossed at least $100 million apiece. So far this year, just one Warner Bros. film has crossed that mark – Godzilla, with $200 million while the Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow has come painfully close to crossing that threshold with $99.99 million entering the weekend.

Viacom’s Paramount is the only major studio other than Fox to post a stronger summer this year than in 2013 and even it is only up 8%, to $464.9 million, mostly on the strength of TMNT and Transformers: Age of Extinction, which had the summer’s strongest opening weekend. Sony (SNE) dipped 2% this year, to $431 million, but Comcast’s (CMCSA) Universal Pictures has fared the worst year-over-year. Universal has seen its total gross basically cut in half, down to $407 million.

Universal would likely have fared much better this year had it not been forced to delay the release of Fast & Furious 7 following the death of lead actor Paul Walker last fall. The franchise’s latest sequel had been scheduled for release this summer, but was pushed back to next year following Walker’s passing. The previous installment in the franchise, Fast & Furious 6, made Universal $238.7 million last year to become it’s second-best performer for the summer of 2013, behind only Despicable Me 2.

In fact, the rescheduling of Fast & Furious 7 likely played at least a small part in the overall disappointing summer for the film industry as it completely removed what was expected to be at least one additional, reliable blockbuster. The same can probably be said of the decision by Disney’s animation powerhouse Pixar to not release a film this summer, instead pushing its next animated film back to next year.

This summer’s box-office totals have also suffered from the expansion of blockbuster season as a handful of films likely to be among the year’s biggest releases are slated to come out this fall, among them best-selling novel adaptation Gone Girl, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and the latest Hunger Games installment.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this year’s top-grossing film so far, came out in early-April and the scattering of big movies around the calendar is one reason why all 2014 films have only grossed about 5.4% less than all films had last year at this point.

And, it looks like the borders of the summer blockbuster season will continue to be blurred in coming years, as Fast & Furious 7 is expected to be released in the first week of April 2015 while the highly-anticipated Warner Brothers release Batman vs. Superman is scheduled for early March of 2016. Logsdon says there should be no strict rule for releasing a potential blockbuster: Quality movies can be released at any time without hurting ticket sales.

Of course, if box-office totals experience a major rebound next summer, then any concern over the state of the summer blockbuster may go out the window. Logsdon points out that the slate of films lined up for 2015’s summer season is impressive, with a sequel to the wildly-popular Avengers franchise expected along with reboots to the Mission Impossible, Terminator, and Jurassic Park franchises.

What is certain is that next year’s crop of summer movies will not have a particularly tough act to follow. “How do you get a better year next year?” Logsdon asks. “Well, you just have to show up.”