NEW YORK – Who's afraid of a couple of gay cowboys? Not moviegoers, who helped "Brokeback Mountain" post the highest per-screen average over the film-flush holiday weekend.
The Ang Lee film, which follows the 20-year forbidden romance between two roughneck ranch hands, earned $13,599 per theater, compared with $9,305 for weekend winner "King Kong" and $8,225 for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
The big question is whether "Brokeback" can maintain its momentum as it moves from selected cities, where audiences are receptive to the subject matter, to suburbs far and wide, where that might not be the case.
Early numbers — and early awards buzz — establish the picture's staying power, industry insiders say. "Brokeback" earned a leading seven Golden Globe nominations.
"It delivered very strong growth in what is truly a highly unforgiving, competitive, cruel market at this Christmas period," said Jack Foley, president of theatrical distribution for Focus Features. "It showed it has breadth beyond the gay community."
Distributors planned to roll out the film slowly. It opened in just six theaters, where it earned an "unprecedented" $109,000 per venue, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.
The film expanded to 69 theaters the following week, then to 217 over the holiday weekend, reaching suburban audiences in Portland, Dallas, Denver and Atlanta.
The gradual release allows moviegoers to talk up the film's appeal, Foley said.
And it seems to be working.
"This is a film that builds through word of mouth and critical acclaim," Dergarabedian said. "People want to see what all the fuss is about."
Response has been so robust that distributors are expanding the film's rollout ahead of schedule. It will show on 269 screens this Friday, and reach an additional 80 markets the following week, Foley said.
Still, he acknowledges that bringing a homosexual love story to the Bible Belt presents its own set of challenges. Various Christian groups voiced opposition to the film before its release.
Ted Baehr, who reviews films for the Christian Film & Television Commission, called the film "abhorrent" and "twisted, laughable, frustrating and boring neo-Marxist homosexual propaganda" in a review on the Commission's MovieGuide Web site.
But based on the film's reception in Atlanta and Dallas, Foley said he expects it will be well received in other markets.
"We're rolling it out ahead of schedule because the demand is there," he said.
Ever-building buzz can only help "Brokeback," Dergarabedian said.
"This film has so much buzz going for it and so much critical acclaim going for it, it will transcend any limits the subject matter has placed on it," he said. "If you want to be a well-informed viewer on Oscar night, you should probably see this movie."