Domestic revenues for the four-month summer season from early May to Labor Day in September reached $4.2bn. That's a box- office decline of 1% from 2007 with admissions down by about 7%. At first glance, then, the overall picture appears disappointing.

Considerable money has been spent on pumping up old franchises (Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull, The Dark Knight) as well as creating new ones (Iron Man, Wanted). There have been high-profile star vehicles such as Hancock and a couple of big dice rolls for animated offerings Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E.

But on closer inspection, facts emerge that are both heartening and troublesome, depending on where you place the emphasis. Most clearly, it was (with modest caveats) a buoyant year for the Hollywood majors. Four of them saw revenues increase by double digits. Total box office for the majors increased by around 14% from last year and their movies sold more tickets.

However, the perspective changes when you take into account the fact that New Line was shut down as a distributor and its parent Warner Bros absorbed the company's summer movies - including Sex In The City: The Movie and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth - into its own release schedule, boosting its own numbers.

From a bang to a whimper

Even leaving aside those figures, the gross picture for the big six companies is still 6% up year-on-year. However, admissions were roughly level with 2007. The numbers suggest the opening months of the summer season were commercially formidable, but ended with something of a whimper.

A year ago the curve had the opposite shape, with an August surge spurred by The Bourne Ultimatum, The Simpsons and Rush Hour 3. This was not replicated by this year's Tropic Thunder, The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and Pineapple Express.

For a mature market such as North America where theatre and screen numbers are close to saturation point, there is little room for misses. It may be encouraging that film-going more or less holds its own against all manner of competing entertainment options, but the costs of producing and promoting films continue to escalate and that has been reflected in the shrinking margins of the US studios.

The decline of the 'others'

The other key factor in the 2008 seasonal decline can be boiled down to the 'others' - those films outside the main blockbusters.

The studio specialised divisions and the independents amassed a summer box office of about $205m. With New Line out of the equation, that reflects a 56% drop on 12 months ago. It's the kind of shift that cannot be attributed solely to quality or commerciality.

The most conspicuous indie titles included The Visitor, Brideshead Revisited and the late-season entry of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. However, the main competition for space in the non-blockbuster market (and a key factor in growth for the majors) comes from studio-backed films such as Mamma Mia!: The Movie and Sex In The City. In addition to the struggle for attention over the noise from mainstream marketing, the presence of studio movies with niche appeal served up close to a knockout punch.

Potential growth in film-going continues to hinge on wooing audiences who never or rarely go to the cinema. On the evidence of summer 2008 and the projected 2009 slate, this is a situation that is not yet receiving enough attention.