Milk: Biopic of Harvey Milk Underperforming

“Milk,” one of Oscar’s five Best Picture contenders did not gain box-office momentum as it expanded nationwide over the past weekend.


So far, “Milk,” like two other Oscar finalists, Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” and Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” has not seen the kind of commercial bump that art/specialty films have often enjoyed after landing a spot in Oscar’s most coveted category, Best Picture of the Year.


Their position stands in sharp contrast to Fox Searchlight’s ‘”Slumdog Millionaire,” which was the only Oscar nominee to be included among the weekend’s top ten grossing films.  Placing No. 6, the picture declined only 28%, generating $7.7 million from 1,633 runs for a cumulative of $67.2 million in its second week in wide release. 


As noted earlier, “Slumdog Millionaire” has won every major award so far, including the SAG, WGA, and most recently the DGA top honors for helmer Danny Boyle. “Milk,” from Focus Features, grossed only $1.4 million from 882 runs for an average of $1,603.  The film’s total figure is about $23.4 million since opening in November.


The best thing about “Milk” is Sean Penn’s sympathetic, ebullient performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician, who was slain in 1978 in San Francisco. Penn has won many critics awards, as well as the SAG Actor kudo last week.


Enjoying critical support, the movie had played well to its two core audiences: gay men and urban viewers (there’s of course overlap between the two categories).  According to Rotten Tomatoes, “Milk” has received 93 percent positive reviews, which makes it one of the most acclaimed films of 2008. 


“Milk” opened Thanksgiving Weekend (November 26) in a few cities and broke records with its primary target audience. But now that the film is playing outside major urban centers, it is not doing well.  Is the film “too gay” for Middle-American audiences  Is the film not good or entertaining enough  Is it dealing with issues that are not perceived to be of primary interest to our national agenda and in our grim economy and social depression  Has “Milk” lost the momentum that it had back in November, right after Barack Obama’s victorious elections.  Did Focus Feature wait far too long with its wide distribution


Some of us critics thought that “Milk” would benefit from the relevancy of its issues and the debate that Proposition 8 generated a few months ago.  But that scenario also did not materialize.


Milk Vs. Brokeback Mountain


As my review pointed out, “Milk” was a good but not great film (It was number 10 on my Ten Best List).  As far as gay-themed movies go, “Brokeback Mountain,” which Ang Lee directed in 2005, was superior on any number of levels.  And, ironically, despite a harsher treatment of gay life and gay identities, the movie not only received Best picture nomination, but also swept many more awards than “Milk.” Moreover, despite explicit sexual scenes, “Brokeback Mountain” found a huge audience, generating over 80 million at the nation’s box-office. 

If the current trend continues, “Milk” might end up grossing less than $30 million, far below the commercial record of “Brokeback Mountain.”  With all my artistic reservations over “Milk” as a movie, and Gus Van Sant’s work as a director, I think it deserves to be seen, and not just for Sean Penn’s performance.