Good news for specialty box office

The specialty box office is thankful indeed after a lengthy and troubling downturn.

In its debut over the five-day Thanksgiving frame, Gus Van Sant’s Sean Penn topliner “Milk” broke into the B.O. top 10.

The Focus Features title, which opened Wednesday, posted a whopping per-screen average of $52,627 for the five-day stretch, grossing an estimated $1.9 million from 26 runs to land at No. 10 overall.

Of that, “Milk” earned an estimated $1.4 million for the three-day weekend for a per-location average of $38,375. Pic was co-financed by Focus and Michael London’s Groundswell Prod.

Fox Searchlight holdover “Slumdog Millionaire” was nipping at “Milk’s” heels, grossing an estimated $1.8 million from 49 theaters for a five-day theater average of $36,482. For the weekend, pic grossed $1.4 million for a location average of $27,890 and cume of $3.6 million in its third frame.

Miramax’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” playing in 582 runs, stayed on the top 10 chart in its fourth frame, grossing an estimated $2.2 million for the five-day holiday frame for a per-screen average of $3,763. Of the five-day total, $1.7 million was earned over the weekend for a per-screen average of $2,904. Cume is $5.2 million.

Up until now, the specialty release calendar has been generally light in terms of awards fare. Distribs decided to save most of their contenders for the Thanksgiving-New Year’s corridor.

“Slumdog” and “Milk” mark a promising beginning to the specialty crush.

Focus Features prexy of distribution Jack Foley said “Milk” was sold out in a number of the cities it played, and not just in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Other markets included Dallas, Denver, Atlanta and Chicago.

Film, also starring James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin, was released nearly 30 years to the day after gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White at City Hall.

“It was the perfect opening. The audience was a really great blend versus just appealing only to the gay community,” said Focus Features prexy of distribution Jack Foley. “It’s the cast and the story. And in the California markets, you could see an element of Prop. 8 at play.”

Femmes made up 48% of the audience.

Foley said “Milk” will expand into an additional 11 markets Friday, which will up the theater count to roughly 60.

Based on its success, “Slumdog Millionaire” will step up its expansion. Searchlight intends to increase the film’s theater count to 600 by Dec. 19.

Sony Pictures Classics’ Anne Hathaway drama “Rachel Getting Married” grossed an estimated $613,965 from 216 runs over the five-day Thanksgiving frame for a cume of $8.9 million in its ninth week in limited release.

On Friday, Universal unspools limited release “Frost/Nixon.” Awards screeners of the film are already circulating.

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