'Frost/Nixon' bows big in limited release

“Four Christmases” kept auds laughing while the Punisher fired blanks during the traditionally slow post-Thanksgiving frame.

The real action was in the specialty market, where an ex-president joined a gay rights pioneer and an Indian gameshow contestant to keep theaters packed.

Universal’s “Frost/Nixon” bowed to an estimated $180,000 from just three theaters in Gotham, L.A. and Toronto, giving it a per-play average of $60,000, the second highest of the year.

That’s about 50% higher than the per-screen average that “The Queen,” scribe Peter Morgan’s last revisiting of historical events, achieved in its opening, which the studio had been aiming to match.

“The ‘definite recommends’ are eons above the norm,” noted U domestic distribution prexy Nikki Rocco. “Audiences are liking what they see.”

Ticket buyers were overwhelmingly old enough to have been alive during Nixon’s presidency, with 69% over 35.

On Friday, the pic will expand to 39 theaters in the top 23 markets, then about 350 in the top 100 on Christmas Day.

“Slumdog Millionaire” and “Milk” also continued to do very strong biz on a small number of screens. Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog,” which just won the National Board of Review kudo for film of the year, grossed $1.4 million at 78 locations, averaging $18,031. Grosses rose 4% as the studio added 29 playdates.

Cume after four frames is $5.3 million for the Danny Boyle-helmed inspirational tale set in India. On Friday it will hit 47 more cities and approximately double its print count. By Dec. 19, Searchlight is aiming to expand “Slumdog” to about 600 playdates.

“Milk” was close behind, averaging $17,076 at 99 theaters, giving it a gross of $1.7 million on its second weekend. Focus added 63 plays and saw grosses grow by 16%.

Biopic did its best biz in big cities where it played last weekend. Declines at existing playdates were a very modest 29%. Expansions into the suburbs of San Francisco, New York and L.A. were also very strong.

But results were mixed in the new cities “Milk” hit, such as Albuquerque, Baltimore and Las Vegas, casting some doubt as to how broadly the film will play. Nonetheless, the Sean Penn starrer has already cumed a very healthy $4.1 million, and Focus is planning to expand it to more than 250 theaters on Friday.

Weekend’s only new pic in wide release was Lionsgate’s “Punisher: War Zone,” which bowed to a dismal $4 million at 2,508 locations. That’s less than a third of what the studio’s first “Punisher” pic took when it opened in 2004.

Diskery Sony BMG’s first pic, “Cadillac Records,” distributed under the TriStar label, opened at 686 playdates and grossed a decent $3.5 million.

“Four Christmases” was No. 1 for the second frame in a row, dropping a modest 41% to $18.2 million. Decline is particularly impressive given the tough comparison to last Friday, a holiday. New Line’s comedy has cumed $70.8 million in 12 days.

Summit’s “Twilight” was No. 2, as it dropped 50% to $13.2 million, bringing its cume to $138.6 million. Disney toon “Bolt,” which came in third, was hurt much more by the holiday comparison, falling 64% to $9.7 million. Total take so far is $79.2 million.

Fox’s costly epic “Australia” didn’t show the strong legs the studio was hoping for, dropping a typical 53% to $7 million after its so-so debut over Thanksgiving. Its $2,573 per-play average was lower than those of other pics, including “Four Christmases,” “Bolt” and “Twilight,” that have been out as long or longer and are in more theaters.

Despite a heavily promoted wide release last frame, Baz Luhrmann-helmed pic has cumed just $30.9 million so far and will likely finish below $50 million domestically.

Studio’s hopes for the pic now lie primarily overseas, where it has opened solidly in Australia and won’t open in other territories until Christmas.

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