'Saw' teeth aside, cutbacks prove that genre flicks aren't immune to slashing

When they hit big, genre movies can offer some of the biggest payouts in Hollywood, as Lionsgate demonstrated during the weekend when "Saw V" continued that franchise's bloody rampage by opening to $30.1 million.

The original "Saw," released in 2004, might have been a surprise hit — costing just $1.2 million, it grossed $55.2 million domestically and another $47.9 million overseas — but its future as a reliably lucrative annual offering was by no means guaranteed. After all, the first movie rested on the no-exit premise of two men chained up in a locked room with seemingly nowhere to go.

But working with producers Twisted Pictures, Lionsgate has carefully nurtured the enterprise (if "nurturing" is the right word to apply to a series full of R-rated sadomasochism). While the sequels have come out like clockwork every October, the filmmakers and distributor have worked to keep the plot twists and ad campaigns from becoming stale.

Even as it ballyhooed the opening of the latest installment, Lionsgate was quick to trumpet the fact that the five "Saw" movies, which have now grossed $315.8 million domestically, have surpassed the domestic record of the nine "Halloween" movies ($307.4 million) and are on the verge of surmounting the $317.8 million of the 11 "Friday the 13th" flicks.

Yet even as Lionsgate celebrates its success in the genre field, Universal Pictures has been in negotiations with Ryan Kavanaugh's Relativity Media to sell off its 4-year-old genre division Rogue Pictures. No matter that Rogue enjoyed the biggest hit of its relatively short life this year with "The Strangers" — the R-rated tale of a couple menaced by three strangers grossed $52.6 million after it was released in May — and that the studio insists the genre label, specializing in horror, action and urban films, has been profitable.

In an era when most of the studios are scaling back the number of titles they are releasing each year, genre movies, though they can be produced cheaply, are not immune to cutbacks.

Warner Bros. has downsized New Line, which owed much of its early success to the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies. 20th Century Fox's Fox Atomic label, aimed at the youth market, has released just one title so far this year: the Rainn Wilson comedy "The Rocker," which grossed just $6.4 million domestically. And while the Weinstein Co.'s Dimension Films label claimed two sizable grossers in 2007 — "1408" ($72 million) and "Halloween" ($58.3 million) — its best showing in 2008 has been the comedy spoof "Superhero Movie" with $25.9 million.

Of course, Lionsgate, though it fields a varied slate — ranging from Tyler Perry's films to the occasional documentary — still keeps one foot firmly in the genre camp. And among the studios, Sony's Screen Gems has steered a remarkably consistent course: Under president Clint Culpepper, whose contract was extended this year to 2012, it mixes R-rated horror like the recent "Quarantine" with less threatening PG-13 fare like "Prom Night." The Sony distribution team also is adept at finding release dates away from big tentpole competition, where the Screen Gems titles can prosper; as a result, April's "Prom Night" and last month's thriller "Lakeview Terrace," starring Samuel L. Jackson, opened in the No. 1 spot on their respective weekends.

But keeping genre audiences happy and coming back for more isn't as simple as it might seem.

Genre fans are hardly a captive audience, eager to gobble up any red meat tossed their way. For one thing, any number of studio movies are simply genre movies writ large. By taking its inspiration from a video game, for example, Fox's "Max Payne," which topped the boxoffice two weekends ago, followed the same route already traveled by Screen Gems' "Resident Evil" releases. Since low-budget genre movies don't exist in a world of their own, they must be able to compete with everything from blockbusters like "The Dark Knight" to clever programmers like "Cloverfield."

Further, the genre crowd, which also plugs in to a whole array of Web sites where they dissect movies in autopsy-like detail, can be tough to win over. Their loyalty can't be taken for granted, either. The "Saw" movies first suggested an insatiable hunger for hard-R horror, and Lionsgate's 2006 release of Eli Roth's "Hostel" seemed to underline that point when it grossed $47.4 million. But when "Hostel: Part II" arrived the following year, it had to settle for just $17.6 million.

At one time, genre movies might have looked like a quick way to make a buck. But "Saw's" example notwithstanding, they still can be a scary proposition.

Gregg Kilday can be reached at gregg.kilday@THR.com.