'Milk' draws big b.o. despite limited release

Biopic draws $1.4 mil from 36 engagements

The specialty market featured an especially impressive opening this weekend, as Focus Features milked its limited release of Gus Van Sant's "Milk" with stunning success.

The biopic about assassinated San Francisco gay pol Harvey Milk tabulated $1.4 million in three-day boxoffice from just 36 inaugural engagements, or a landslide $38,375 per location. "Milk" carries a cume of $1.9 million since unspooling on Wednesday.

"It's a sensational opening," Focus distribution topper Jack Foley said. "It's a record opening for a film opening in this many theaters, and there were lots of sellouts wherever it was playing."

The "Milk" debut represented the best per-venue average of any film opened with 30-40 engagements, Foley said. Its bow outpaced the December 2007 opening for "Atonement," which Focus unspooled with $784,145 from 32 playdates or a then-record $24,505 per engagement.

"Milk" pours into 60 theaters in 32 markets on Friday. Foley said he believes Focus' marketing campaign has dovetailed well with nationwide publicity over California's Proposition 8, the recently passed anti-gay marriage ballot initiative.

"Milk" will likely remain one of the awards season's most closely watched releases, with Sean Penn's performance in the title role generating early plaudits. James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna are also featured in supporting roles.

Elsewhere in the specialty market, Fox Searchlight added 17 theaters for a total 49 for Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" -- another prestige title seeking kudo-season glory -- ringing up $1.4 million, or a terrific $27,890 per venue. Cume reached $3.6 million for the dramedy about an Indian game-show contestant, with "Millionaire" set to expand to more than 75 locations on Friday and 600 sites by Dec. 19.

Miramax added 176 locations for a total 582 for its Holocaust drama "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and grossed $1.7 million. That represented an acceptable $2,903 per site and moved "Boy" cume to $5.2 million.

Sony Pictures Classics added 17 playdates for a total 52 for its French-language drama "I've Loved You So Long" and grossed $227,682. Translating to a sturdy $4,379 per engagement, the performance boosted cume on the Kristin Scott Thomas starrer to $1.6 million.