Dialogue: Mark Burg & Oren Koules
Award in excellence in producingShoWest's rationale for bestowing the Award of Excellence in Producing to Twisted Pictures partners Mark Burg and Oren Koules can be explained in one word: "Saw." It's the title of a little horror-suspense film they made for $1.2 million in 2004 that earned $102.9 worldwide and spawned a pair of successful sequels, 2005's "Saw II" and 2006's "Saw III." As both producers and financiers of the "Saw" films -- which, to date, have grossed more than $400 million globally -- they get to keep the lion's share of the profits, and they're putting that money back into a slate of films that includes "Saw IV" (set for domestic release through Lionsgate in October) and the horror-musical "Repo! The Genetic Opera." At the same time, the duo has been enjoying small-screen success as the executive producers of CBS' "Two and a Half Men," starring Charlie Sheen (a client of their management firm Evolution Entertainment), which is currently the highest-rated sitcom on television. On the eve of their ShoWest honor, Burg and Koules spoke with Todd Longwell for The Hollywood Reporter about the genesis of "Saw," the secrets of their success and the future of their creative partnership.
The Hollywood Reporter: People are often confused about exactly what a producer's job entails. What do you guys do?
Oren Koules: We do everything. We're a complete company, and there's two guys. I mean, we're still working on different projects for (the) "Saw" (franchise). We not only have the daunting task of making six films in the next 18 months, we're also dealing every single day with supporting and running a franchise, which includes video games, merchandising, box sets and music. It's a 12-month-a-year job, just "Saw" alone.
THR: How did you two hook up?
Koules: We were friends for years. I'd call Mark for advice. He was the president of Island (Pictures), and then I took a job as senior vp (production) at Paramount, and after a year, it kind of wasn't working out. And, at that time, Polygram had bought Island, and they were selling all of their assets to Universal, which shut down all of their labels except for Working Title. So, we both found ourselves facing unemployment at the same time, and we decided to throw our lot in and start a management company and a production company.
THR: How do you work as a team? Are you similar? Complementary? What's the dynamic?
Koules: We have no method. We both respect each other and try not to be in the same place that the other one is.
Mark Burg: And trust each other.
Koules: We don't have this monster business plan or this great division of duties. We kind of just do a little bit of crisis management and both jump in on each other's stuff all of the time.
THR: How did "Saw" come into your lives?
Koules: It came to us as a short with a script attached. (Twisted Pictures partner) Greg Hoffman, who has since passed away, came in and said, "Close the door, turn your computer off. You've got to watch something." We watched it, then we picked it up, walked into Mark's office, and he watched it. We read the script that night, and literally the next day, we made a deal and (greenlighted) the movie. We financed it ourselves.
Burg: We'd made movies for various studios, and we had received a profit-participation statement for a (2002) movie called "John Q" that we did with Denzel Washington for New Line. We made the movie for under $30 million. It grossed $100 million worldwide -- and our statement showed that the movie was a giant loser. It just takes the wind out of your sails when you bust your butt for a year, and you get something in writing that says, "Sorry, there's no money here. We lost money on your movie, as a matter of fact." So, we both made the decision at that point that we were going to look for a small movie that we were going to finance. We'd do it our own way, and if we're that good, let's prove it to ourselves and take the risks.
THR: Has the success of "Saw" changed your lives, both personally and professionally?
Koules: Yes. We'll make six movies in the next 18 months, and only one of them will be financed by a studio, and that was a pre-existing deal. The other five we'll finance ourselves.
THR: Do you see the partnership lasting indefinitely?
Koules: Absolutely. I can say unequivocally that this is the last partner I'll ever have.
Burg: We've had more people come to us wanting to take the company public and wanting to invest. Could we do this? Could we do that? And I'm like, "Why?" We're doing well, we're having fun, we don't have to answer to anybody but ourselves, and we're making the movies we want to make and making them for prices we believe in. If people want to be in business with us and share the upside, great. But our company is not based upon hoping we get Tom Cruise to say "yes" to a movie.