'Australia,' 'Christmases,' 'Milk' among openers

Gus Van Sant’s Sean Penn topliner “Milk” is one of a handful of titles opening Wednesday in advance of the long Thanksgiving holiday sesh.

Focus Features unspools the limited release in 35 theaters. Count grows by two on Friday.

Opening nationwide are 20th Century Fox’s Nicole Kidman-Hugh Jackman epic “Australia,” New Line/Warner Bros.’ Reese Witherspoon-Vince Vaughn holiday comedy “Four Christmases” and Lionsgate’s Jason Statham actioner “Transporter 3.”

Trio of new entries could face some tough competition from Summit Entertainment holdover “Twilight,” which debuted to a boffo $69.6 million over the weekend on the strength of girls and women. Tween and teenage girls are generally repeat viewers, giving “Twilight” ongoing strength.

Disney 3-D family toon “Bolt,” which debuted over the weekend to $26.2 million, and Sony/MGM’s “Quantum of Solace” also should see good Thanksgiving biz. “Quantum’s” gross through Sunday — its 10th day in release — was $108.8 million.

Despite the economic crisis, the box office has been up substantially the past two weeks. Hollywood hopes that trend continues through the holidays. None of the Thanksgiving bows are expected to score mega-openings, as “Twilight” and “Quantum” did, but rather do solid business.

“Australia,” directed by Baz Luhrmann, is appealing primarily to older women, according to tracking. Sweeping epic could put Fox back in the awards game.

Both “Australia” and Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which opens Christmas Day, are big studio pics with Oscar aspirations. In recent years, it’s generally specialty pics that hog the kudos limelight.”Australia” isn’t expected to score a big opening. For the five days, box office observers expect “Australia” to gross in the mid to high teens.

Fox insiders say Luhrmann’s films have strong legs. “Romeo and Juliet” opened to $11.1 million on its way to grossing $46.4 million. “Moulin Rouge,” which began as a limited release, grossed $57.4 million at the domestic box office.

“Australia” cost $130 million to produce, but the studio says its investment is $78 million after tax rebates offered by Oz, where the pic lensed.

In terms of the Thanksgiving releases, “Four Christmases” is the broadest offering and should lead the pack. Directed by Seth Gordon, film was made at New Line before the company became a label within the Warner fold.

“Four Christmases” is appealing to both younger and older women, according to tracking.

Last November, Vaughn holiday starrer “Fred Claus” debuted to $18.5 million when it debuted over the Nov. 5-7 weekend.

“Four Christmases” marks Witherspoon’s return to romantic comedy for the first time since “Just Like Heaven,” which opened to $16.4 million in September 2005.

“Transporter 3″ has an advantage as the only new title appealing directly to men, and it is tracking strongly among that demo.

Franchise has been a lucrative one for Lionsgate. “Transporter” debuted to $9.1 million on its way to grossing $25.3 million; “Transporter 2″ opened to $16.5 million on its way to $43 million domestically.

On the specialty side, Focus opens “Milk” in 19 major cities. Pic, which also stars James Brolin, James Franco and Emile Hirsch, is getting great reviews.

Film has taken on added relevance in the wake of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which forbids gay marriage. Only weeks before Milk, then a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, was assassinated by Dan White, Milk led the fight to defeat Proposition 6, which would have voided laws protecting gay rights.

“Milk” opens as the specialty box office picks up steam. Over the weekend, Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” scored a per-screen average of $29,619 as it expanded to 32 theaters in its second sesh. Miramax’s limited release “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is doing notable business as well and landed in the top 10 this past weekend, lifting its cume to $2.6 million.

The Thanksgiving holiday traditionally has little impact on the foreign front, where the upcoming frame’s likely to see “Quantum of Solace” score its fifth consecutive win. The Bond pic’s adding New Zealand and should reach the $350 million mark by the end of the weekend.

“Twilight,” which opened impressively with $9.6 million at 1,275 playdates in five markets, expands into Belgium, the Middle East and three smaller territories. The vampire romancer hits Australia on Dec. 11 and opens eight days later in the U.K.

“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” doubles its markets to 24, led by Portugal and Spain. The toon’s delivered impressively so far with $59 million — two thirds of that coming from the red-hot Russian market.

Disney’s launching “Bolt” in its first foreign markets in Italy, Poland and Russia. Disney toons usually play strongly outside the U.S., with “Wall-E” topping $264 million near the end of its run.

Fox is going day-and-date with “Australia” in Oz. Most major markets will see Luhrmann’s epic open at Christmas.

Warner Bros. will expand “Body of Lies” into Brazil and Mexico. The actioner’s taken in a moderate $32 million from 35 markets midway through its foreign run.

And Universal’s expanding “Changeling” into the U.K. after totaling more than $8 million from four markets.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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