Cool yule for 'Doubt' and awards films

Many films with Oscar buzz adopting slow rollouts

As specialty films with awards hopes elbow one another for any advantage they can find, Miramax's "Doubt" made its move into wide release during the weekend and proved it could play with the big boys.

Meanwhile, Paramount Vantage's "Revolutionary Road" bowed in just three theaters Friday but enjoyed a commanding per-screen average, and Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino," adding 65 theaters, motored to the best per-theater average of the top 25.

While most of the year-end awards contenders are taking the slow rollout route, Paramount opted for the mainstream road with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which has been described as a big-budget art house movie. Launching on Christmas Day in 2,988 theaters, it ranked as one of the frame's top movies -- No. 2 over the four days, No. 3 over the three-day portion of the weekend -- as it collected an estimated $39 million.

"It's a gratifying start because it lets people know it's a movie worth seeing," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said. "And you want your movie in the conversation about whether it deserves year-end accolades."

Still, many of the movies "Button" could find itself competing with when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 22 are adopting slower rollouts in their efforts to join the kudos talk.

"Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his play about the dangers of certainty that stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, waited until its third weekend before going wide in 1,267 theaters. Although playing only in about one-third of the locations utilized by the chart-toppers, it edged into 10th place overall with a weekend haul of $5.7 million and a cume-to-date of $8.8 million.

"The grosses kept going up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so I think we're building good word-of-mouth," Miramax distribution president Elliot Slutzky said.

Par Vantage sought to get the chatter started by introducing Sam Mendes' marital drama "Revolutionary Road," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, on Friday on just three screens in New York and Los Angeles.

The cognoscenti rushed to the theaters, which posted a three-day figure of $192,000. That allowed the distributor to boast a per-screen average of $64,024, beating out the $60,236 per-screen average that Universal's "Frost/Nixon" posted in its Dec. 5 opening weekend to claim the highest per-screen average of the year.

"Road" will expand this weekend into the top 15 markets.

Warners was just as heartened by the $29,048 per-theater average that Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" registered in the 84 theaters it played in its third weekend. It could boast the best per-theater average of the top 25 as it prepares to go wide Jan. 9 in about 2,200 theaters. Its cume stands at $4.3 million.

Although playing in just 18 theaters in its second weekend, Fox Searchlight's "The Wrestler," directed by Darren Aronofksy and starring Mickey Rourke, commanded the ring with $381,000, a per-theater average of $21,170 and a new cume of just more than $900,600. It will move Jan. 9 into nine additional cities and another 28 theaters.

Also joining the fray during the weekend was Overture's romantic comedy "Last Chance Harvey" and Sony Pictures Classics' animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir."

"Harvey," starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, found $96,000 in six theaters -- a $16,000 per-screen average -- and a four-day total of $128,500.

"Bashir" took in $51,252 in five theaters, good for $10,250 per screen, and a four-day total of $55,144.

Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire," in its seventh weekend, grossed an additional $4.5 million in 614 locations, bringing its tally to $19.7 million.

Focus' "Milk," in its fifth weekend, attracted $1.8 million in 311 theaters as its tally rose to $13.6 million.

Uni's "Frost/Nixon," in its fourth weekend, added $1.5 million from 205 theaters, bringing its purse to $3.7 million.

"The Reader," from the Weinstein Co., was lodged in 116 theaters in its third weekend and grossed $671,319, bringing its total to $1.3 million.

As for the four-hour "Che," from IFC Films, its roadshow engagements on two screens in New York and Los Angeles resulted in an added $31,786 and a cume of $149,124.