"Saw" horror franchise faces test with 5th movie

Mon Oct 20, 2008 8:10pm EDT
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By Jay A. Fernandez

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Everybody loves a spooky mystery. Here's a good one: How the hell has "Saw," a horror flick made for $1.2 million and nearly dumped straight to video, spawned a franchise that has scared up more than $1 billion?

Given the films' enduring appeal amid a flood of horror product, it's a question whose answer provides insight into how to manage a low-budget franchise. And with "Saw V" opening on Friday, Lionsgate's strategy of releasing a new film each Halloween faces a crucial test. Last October's installment dipped from "Saw III's" $163 million in worldwide box office to $137 million, raising the question of how long the property can keep up its hugely profitable pace.

The "Saw" story is as simple as its premise. Australian duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell wrote a script about a pair of confined strangers manipulated by Jigsaw, a diabolical mastermind who forces them to make ghastly choices. They filmed a seven-minute short featuring Whannell with his head in a macabre bear trap, which the late producer Gregg Hoffman found and brought to partners Mark Burg and Oren Koules of Twisted Pictures in early 2003. They decided to turn it into a feature on the cheap.

The producers showed the short to Lionsgate, which picked up the rights and planned to release it direct to video. Burg and Koules retained ownership of the property, and co-writer/director Wan wisely sacrificed his upfront fee for a cut of the gross.


"It was perfect timing because Lionsgate as a company was just starting to grow," Koules says. "And it was a perfect film that the marketing department could get behind."

The film packed three midnight screenings at Sundance in 2004, and tests in suburban Los Angeles and Las Vegas scored so highly that Lionsgate decided to release the film in theaters, on October 29 as a Halloween treat. It opened at a startling $18.3 million and grossed more than $100 million worldwide.

"Saw II," helmed by music video and commercials director Darren Lynn Bousman, was greenlighted the weekend the first film opened. Then came the kicker: Fans bought more than $70 million worth of videos and DVDs of the first installment.   Continued...

<p>Tobin Bell, who stars as "Jigsaw", poses as he arrives at a screening for the cast and crew of his new film "Saw IV" in Hollywood October 23, 2007. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>