Niche pics fish in big pond

While Lionsgate’s “Punisher: War Zone” shoots it out with several holdovers for the No. 1 spot in the traditionally slow post-Thanksgiving frame, most of the action will be in the specialty market.

Hot limited releases “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Milk” both expand into new markets, while Universal is bowing “Frost/Nixon” on three screens.

Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog,” which took the National Board of Review’s film of the year kudo Thursday, is expanding from 49 to 78 theaters. Most of the growth is coming from existing markets, though the movie is also going into Atlanta, Detroit and Indianapolis for the first time.

Pic has already grossed $3.8 million and last weekend averaged a boffo $27,470.

“Milk,” which opened with the best per-location take of the year last weekend, averaging $40,385 from 35 theaters, is nearly tripling its print count to 99. Biopic of the gay rights pioneer is hitting 11 new markets, including Baltimore, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City. Focus Features is likely to probe grosses carefully, as it did with “Brokeback Mountain,” to see how effectively the pic plays outside of the biggest cities.

“We’re going into strong markets that will further define the broader audience reception,” said Focus distrib topper Jack Foley.

Through Wednesday, “Milk” has grossed a very healthy $2.3 million.

U is starting off its Ron Howard-helmed stage adaptation “Frost/Nixon” conservatively, with just three runs in Gotham, L.A. and Toronto.

“Punisher,” which takes aim at young men in 2,508 theaters, is looking at a tight race with the second weekend of “Four Christmases” and the third of “Bolt” and “Twilight.” All four pics will likely land in the teens.

Studio’s first pic based on Marvel’s gun-toting vigilante opened to $13.8 million in April 2004 in about the same number of theaters.

“Four Christmases” has held a comfortable lead over “Twilight” in the weekday grosses this week.

“Australia,” which bowed to $14.8 million last weekend, has been No. 3. Many will be watching to see whether Fox’s costly epic shows legs or quickly fades.

Also opening somewhat wide is Sony’s music biopic “Cadillac Records,” which will hit 686 theaters. Adrien Brody-Beyonce Knowles starrer is expected to do modest biz.

On the foreign front, Paramount’s “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” is poised to dominate the frame as the toon sequel expands from 24 to 37 markets, including France, Germany, Mexico and the U.K.

“Escape 2 Africa,” which has been launched in a staggered release to coincide with local holidays, had cumed $78.3 million as of Wednesday, including an impressive $2.43 million from its first day in France and an eye-popping $930,079 from its launch day in Belgium. Over half the international total has come from the red-hot Russian market — where it launched a week ahead of the U.S. opening — with nearly $41 million after five weeks.

Paramount’s looking to tap into the same family audience that supported the original “Madagascar” with $339 million outside the U.S. three years ago. The studio’s already scored a massive hit this year with “Kung Fu Panda,” which took $416 million internationally.

Disney’s “Bolt,” which opened last weekend with $7.9 million in Italy, Russia and Poland, expands slightly with launches in Malaysia, Singapore and Spain. The Mouse House will avoid going head to head with “Escape 2 Africa” by waiting until next month to open in many key markets.

“Twilight” is also on a gradual expansion with Spain, Holland, Portugal, the U.A.E. and Lebanon opening this weekend after taking in $24 million from 15 markets. Australia, where the pic opens next weekend, generated impressive numbers with $83,000 from 20 sneak screenings Thursday night.

Other launches include “Changeling” in Greece, Holland and Ukraine; “The Express” in the U.K.; “Four Christmases” in Australia, Germany and Sweden; and “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” in Australia, Greece and New Zealand.

(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)

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