Has Jigsaw Gone to Pieces?

In the 1930s, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the Wolfman haunted moviegoers' dreams. In the 1950's, radioactive creatures and bug-eyed aliens made audiences scream for more. And just as MTV began to kill the radio star, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers slashed their way into horror fans' hearts (and other vital organs). Now, we have the Saw series' Jigsaw and his terrifying philosophy -- appreciate your life, or else -- to chill our collective bloodstreams.

Lions Gate Entertainment (NYSE: LGF  ) scored yet another hit in its Saw franchise this past weekend. Saw IV opened to an estimated $32.1 million take at the domestic marketplace, according to Boxofficemojo.com. The sequel topped a torturous heap of movies, all battling for bragging rights. Steve Carell won't be throwing any office parties over his second-place finish -- Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Dan in Real Life took in roughly $12.1 million. And Sony's (NYSE: SNE  ) vampire-fest, 30 Days of Night, came in third at $6.7 million.

Lions Gate is reaping a bountiful harvest right now. Even as Saw IV lures audiences into theaters, the studio's latest cinematic exercise from Tyler Perry is bringing in some big bucks as well.   

Saw IV's opening gross was roughly the same as Saw III's debut. That isn't encouraging to me in one sense; judging by the data, the films have hit a plateau domestically.

Saw

Saw II

Saw III

Saw IV

Opening Weekend

$18.3 million

$31.7 million

$33.6 million

$32.1 million (estimate)

Final Domestic Gross

$55.2 million

$87.0 million

$80.2 million

N/A

Production Budget

$1.2 million

$4 million

$10 million

N/A

*Source: Boxofficemojo.com

As Fools can see, the trend doesn't look so hot, especially considering the bigger budget for each successive entry in the franchise.

However, there is a nice trend when Saw hits international markets. Parts I, II, and III went on to gross $103.1 million, $147.7 million, and $164.9 million, respectively, on a global basis. That's a testament to the power of the Saw brand.

Lions Gate shareholders obviously had a good weekend, and so long as the trend in international grosses holds up, the Saw series can be considered a go-to franchise for enhancing value. But as I counseled last year when Saw III hit cineplexes, the people who power Jigsaw's vicious plots should strive to keep costs low and return to the first film's low-budget roots. Yes, money's the main reason for this, of course. But, it might also open up an opportunity to once again be on the creative edge -- the first Saw's ending was nothing short of brilliant. The other ones ... eh, not so sharp. If Lions Gate wants to keep the series going, strong concepts and fresh twists are a must.

Lions Gate needs all the creativity it can get to play with biggies like Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) and News Corp. (NYSE: NWS  ) . Someday, one of those bigger fish might take the studio out at a premium. For now, Lions Gate is a worthy long-term play on the movie industry. As for Jigsaw, he's a worthy player of long-term pain and suffering. Try to avoid his games at all costs!

Lions Gate's grisly house of horrors:


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