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From a thriller to legal drama

Times Staff Writer

Every few years a couple of filmmakers with talent to burn but almost nothing to show for it seem to come from out of nowhere to make a surprise hit movie. Then their film goes to DVD and sales soar even higher. And, also seemingly overnight, a franchise is born.

At least that’s the way it happened for “Saw,” a horror-thriller released last year by Lions Gate Films starring Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover and Monica Potter. The film was made on a shoestring budget of $1.2 million and went on to gross $102.9 million worldwide -- $55 million of it in North America.

But now Elwes is claiming that while some of those around him were feasting on lucrative back-end deals, he got only financial crumbs.

The boyishly handsome British-born actor, whose credits include “The Princess Bride” and “Ella Enchanted,” filed a lawsuit Aug. 8 in Los Angeles County Superior Court against his management firm, which also was involved in producing the film, alleging breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

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Elwes’ suit illustrates how producers of low-budget movies can attract name talent and how well-known actors often forgo big upfront paychecks for the chance to collect more money on the back end if the film becomes a hit.

The suit names as defendants Evolution Entertainment, Evolution Management Inc., Saw Production Inc., Twisted Pictures and producers Gregg Hoffman, Mark Burg and Oren Koules, who are also executives of the firm that manages Elwes.

Elwes alleges that in September 2003, while the film was being cast, he was assured that he would receive “favored nations” status with all cast members. There were also promises, according to the suit, that he would receive a minimum of 1% of the producers’ net profits from the film, that during a conversation about a “start date” for the movie, Koules informed Elwes that they were “going to make a sweet deal on the film” and that during a September 2004 press junket publicizing the movie, Burg told Elwes that he “would make more money [on ‘Saw’] than he had ever made before.”

The suit maintains that Elwes has received only $53,275 -- in addition to a salary of $2,587.20 for his performance. The suit maintains “favored nations” meant that payments to Elwes “should have included box office bonuses equal to the highest paid an actor who performed in ‘Saw’ ” as well as a percentage of profits “equivalent to the highest paid actor” in the film.

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Glover, one of the best-known actors in Hollywood and who starred in the blockbuster “Lethal Weapon” movies with Mel Gibson, stands to receive 2% of the gross profits from “Saw,” according to the lawsuit.

Potter, who starred in “I’m With Lucy” and co-starred with Morgan Freeman in “Along Came a Spider,” has received more than $250,000 for her work in the film, a total that the suit alleges “was for box office bonuses against 1% of the producers’ net.”

And, the suit claims, Whannell, who starred in the film and co-wrote the screenplay with director James Wan, is believed to have received a “higher percentage of ‘Saw’s’ gross profits than they agreed to pay Mr. Glover.”

Attorney Martin D. Singer of the Century City law firm Lavely & Singer, who represents the defendants, said the suit “clearly has no merit.” He noted that Elwes was never coerced into signing the contract and that, in fact, his own attorney and agent submitted the deal.

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“The back-end deal was proposed by Cary Elwes’ own agent and attorney,” Singer said. “My client never proposed the back-end deal at all.” He added that Elwes “is still getting paid his share of the producers’ net profits.”

Elwes’ suit, which seeks in excess of $500,000 in damages, was filed by Lee W. Cotugno of the Beverly Hills law firm Kalisch, Cotugno & Rust, LLP.

The movie has been a rags-to-riches story for Whannell and Wan, who both hail from Australia.

They found success by making a four-minute, $4,000 DVD that was shot in a basement as a pitch for their project. The DVD showed their potential at a time when producers and studios were willing to put money behind novice filmmakers making their feature debuts.

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The movie spawned a hastily greenlighted sequel, “Saw II,” which stars Donnie Wahlberg, Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith and is scheduled to open Oct. 28.


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