Oscar hopefuls off and running

'Frost/Nixon' and 'Milk' flex boxoffice muscle

Moviegoers continued to nosh on Thanksgiving leftovers -- last weekend's top film, Warner Bros.' "Four Christmases," easily hung onto the No. 1 slot -- but the real action during the weekend centered on Oscar hopefuls making their initial bows in limited release.

Serious film buffs were in a mood to kick Richard Nixon around once more: Universal's exclusive debut of Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" -- in just three theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto -- pulled in an estimated $180,000 for a whopping per-theater average of $60,049.

"It was a great launch," Universal distribution head Nikki Rocco said. "This is an excellent way of generating fantastic word of mouth." The movie will expand into 23 markets and 39 playdates this coming weekend before moving into the top 100 markets Christmas Day.

Moving into 99 theaters for its second weekend, Focus' "Milk," directed by Gus Van Sant, took home $1.7 million, which translated to a per-theater average of $17,070 and a domestic tally to date of $4.1 million.

In its fourth weekend, Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire" also showed moxie, attracting $1.4 million in 78 theaters for a per-theater average of $18,025 that brought its cume to $5.3 million.

" 'Milk' and 'Slumdog' are sharing a good number of theaters, and there is lots of business going on in the specialized theaters," Focus distribution president Jack Foley said. "It's really exciting to see how energetically people are massing at the boxoffice to see these movies."

The weekend following the Thanksgiving holiday is traditionally one of the slowest weekends of the year. While the top 10 films, which grossed an estimated $74.4 million, were up 10% over the comparable weekend last year, total boxoffice grosses were down. According to Nielsen, the weekend was down by 3% from the same calendar weekend last year and down 5% vs. last year's post-Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Nonetheless, year-to-date boxoffice is still up 2% over last year, and the first 17 days of the holiday moviegoing season are up 15% over last year's first 17 days.

Seth Gordon's "Four Christmases," starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, didn't lose much momentum, though. Grabbing $18.2 million to boost its cume to $70.8 million, it dropped by just 41%, for the best hold in the top 10. "The picture really resonates with audiences," Warners distribution exec Jeffrey Goldstein said. "Our strength is in small towns and mid-size markets, and sometimes small towns lose steam in the second weekend, but the picture held strong."

Summit's "Twilight" and Disney's "Bolt" once again claimed the second and third spots, respectively. The teen vampire movie fell by 50% in its third weekend as it sank its teeth into $13.2 million to bring its domestic purse to $138.6 million. The animated dog movie, also in its third weekend, fell by 64% as it barked up to $9.7 million, bringing its total to $79.3 million.

In fourth and fifth position, Fox's "Australia" and Sony/MGM's "Quantum of Solace" traded places in the standings.

Baz Lurhmann's epic emerged in fourth place after falling by 53%. With a weekend haul of $7 million, it's collected $30.9 million to date. Whether the movie can fend off the coming competition remains to be seen, but Fox distribution exec Chris Aronson, pointing to a healthy 30% bump that the movie's Saturday take enjoyed over its Friday showing, said, "The word of mouth is very solid."

In its fourth weekend, "Solace" dipped by 65% but still picked up another $6.6 million to bring its domestic total to $151.5 million.

Lionsgate launched the weekend's biggest opening as it bowed the R-rated "Punisher: War Zone," with Ray Stevenson stepping into the lead role of Frank Castle, played by Thomas Jane in the 2004 "Punisher." But though the movie, directed by Lexi Alexander, arrived in 2,508 theaters, it attracted just $4 million, which relegated it to eighth place. In fact, it checked in right behind Lionsgate's second weekend of "Transporter 3," which held down the seventh spot with $4.5 million and a total to date of $25.4 million.

Although Sony's release of the musically oriented "Cadillac Records" debuted in just 686 theaters, it still squeezed into ninth place with $3.5 million. The R-rated Sony BMG film -- directed by Darnell Martin, produced for about $12 million and released under the TriStar label -- had the second-highest per-theater average in the top 10 ($5,102) and earned encouraging exit numbers according to the studio.

Freestyle Releasing introduced "Nobel Son," the R-rated father-son thriller directed by Randall Miller, in 893 theaters, where it was mostly ignored, grossing just $371,000.

"Frost/Nixon," on the other hand, jumped out of the gate. The R-rated Uni/Imagine drama, starring Frank Langella in a reprise of his Tony Award-winning performance as Richard Nixon, played older -- 69% of the audience was over 35 -- and slightly more male than female.

On a per-theater basis, "Milk" and "Slumdog," two of the season's critical darlings, were running neck-and-neck. In its second weekend, "Milk" moved up from 36 theaters to 99 houses as it expanded into suburban runs where the gay-themed film found receptive audiences. This coming weekend, it will move from 30 markets into 50 or more.

In its fourth weekend, "Slumdog" added 29 theaters to bring its count to 78. This weekend it will move into an additional 84 theaters in another 47 cities.

Miramax's holocaust drama "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," in its first weekend of wide release, racked up more than $1 million in 678 theaters, bringing its tally to $6.6 million.

Sony Pictures Classics also continued to nurture several awards hopefuls: "I've Loved You So Long," starring Kristin Scott Thomas, picked up $153,776 in 51 theaters to raise its cume to $1.8 million; "Synecdoche, New York" took in $186,498 in 115 theaters for a total of $2.3 million; and "Rachel Getting Married" pulled in $364,692 in 170 theaters for $9.3 million.
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