Awards contenders enter the ring

'Frost/Nixon' bow, 'Milk' expansion share spotlight with newbies 'Punisher,' 'Cadillac'

Can you say "upmarket"? Increasingly, the holiday season's more commercial film releases will start sharing the boxoffice spotlight with year-end "prestige" titles as industry awards programs crank into gear and adult moviegoers gravitate to multiplexes.

That means this weekend's release of Universal's "Frost/ Nixon" in a handful of locations will be closely watched, with director Ron Howard, stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen and writer Peter Morgan already generating kudos- season buzz.

Focus Features' Harvey Milk biopic "Milk," starring Sean Penn, and Fox Searchlight's Indian game show drama "Slumdog Millionaire" also figure in nominations handicapping, and their recent limited rollouts have gone tremendously well. Most observers expect similar success when the art films mount significant expansions this weekend.

Two pics bow in wide release today: Lionsgate unleashes its action sequel "Punisher: War Zone," while Sony trots out its period musical drama "Cadillac Records." But neither looks like a likely No. 1 opener, meaning Warner Bros.' "Four Christmases" could mark a second session atop the domestic boxoffice.

The R-rated "Punisher" sequel should gross more than $10 million, mostly from young male moviegoers. But it might struggle to equal the bow of its 2004 predecessor, which unspooled with $13.8 million en route to a total domestic haul of $33.8 million.

Ray Stevenson ("King Arthur") replaces Thomas Jane in the title role this time.

Opening prospects for "Cadillac" look limited to the single-digit millions, with its firmest support lying with older urban moviegoers. Key cast members including Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright and Beyonce Knowles ensure fan appeal, but a barely wide theater count of fewer than 700 playdates reflects the pic's modest ambitions.

"Christmases" registered a first-weekend tally of $31.1 million and should do at least half as well during its sophomore session.

Disney's "Bolt" looks likely to outpace "Punisher" for the boxoffice silver medal, as the animated comedy should still gross in the teen millions during its third weekend.

Fox's Hugh Jackman-Nicole Kidman starrer "Australia" — one of three films that unspooled the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — rang up $14.8 million during its first Friday-Sunday frame and could compete well for the bronze-medal position this weekend. Lionsgate's "Transporter 3" also enters its second weekend but could fall from the top five with a likely tally in the mid-single-digit millions.

Meanwhile, industryites will be watching for signs that Hollywood's recent spurt of boxoffice gains — which have the year tracking 2% ahead of the same portion of last year — can be sustained into December.

With just five frames left in the boxoffice year, it's still uncertain whether 12-month grosses will outpace 2007. To top its year-ago admissions comparison, 2008's current lead in boxoffice would need to widen to 3% or more to account for ticket price increases since last year. (partialdiff)