last we checked in on the Harvey Milk biopic race, it appeared that Gus Van Sant was hugging the inside track with his then untitled-and-unfunded project based on a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (best known as a staff writer for HBO’s Big Love). Well, now that script has a title (Milk), producers (Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen and damGroundswell Productions’ Michael London), a movie star (Sean Penn*) and a start date (January). Advantage: Van Sant.

As for The Mayor of Castro Street, the competing project about the life and times of the openly gay San Francisco city supervisor who (along with Mayor George Moscone) was shot to death by a rival politician, it’s on hold until its director, Bryan Singer, finishes up Valkyrie. Seeing as how that film isn’t slated for release until June 27, 2008, it’s unlikely that Singer will get around to casting and all that noise until next spring. And that’s only if the strike is settled: Christopher McQuarrie didn’t get his Castro Street script turned in prior to the deadline.

And then there’s this: is there room for two Harvey Milk biopics? I think I’m being more pragmatic than cynical when I suggest that there’s no way audiences outside of the target demographic (Male Inuits 15-39) will show up for stylistically different treatments of Milk’s life. And while both of these movies are prestige propositions, the memory of Capote/Infamous lingers. Will awards contention be enough?

While the fate of Castro Street is debated, Van Sant’s Milk will shoot on location in San Francisco. There is no distribution deal in place, but, with Penn aboard, there will be soon.

EDITED TO ADD that there is a distributor in place.  It’s Focus Features.  And it’s worldwide. (And thank you, Mr. Moats, for this salient info!)

*The previously announced Matt Damon is not mentioned in today’s Variety article.