In Lightning trio, he's Mr. Hollywood

Hockey player, day trader, movie mogul — Bolts owner?

By JOHN BARRY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007

Oren Koules showed up at a Los Angeles hockey league about 15 years ago saying he had come to Hollywood to make movies and play hockey. His hair hung down the back of his leather jacket. Player Mike Butters was unimpressed. He noted Koules had "all his Chiclets." Could a guy with all his Chiclets really play?

Butters hadn't noticed the dental bridge behind Koules' lower lip. Koules had lost three Chiclets from a punch he took as a high school dropout trying to fight his way into the National Hockey League. He could play, all right.

Among the three men collectively bidding for ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Oren Koules, 46, is the outsider, the unknown. Everyone knows South Florida developer Jeff Sherrin, the sphinxlike moneybags, and Stanley Cup finalist Doug MacLean, the fiery coach. Oren Koules is what? The dropout who made himself into a Hollywood horror-movie mogul? What would he be here?

All Oren Koules knows is he's coming to Tampa, and he plans to play.

The best part of Oren Koules' only-in-Hollywood story begins in 2003, a decade after he joined that L.A. hockey league. He learned the movie business, married an agent, had a son, and compiled a resume topped by a vice presidency at Paramount. He and two friends started their own production company, called Evolution Entertainment. They were looking for a movie to make all by themselves.

In his office sat two unemployed film students from Australia. They had just stepped off a plane with a script about sawing off body parts. One had hair hanging down to his nose.

Koules and his two partners promised to invest $1-million in the boys' script called Saw. Koules told one boy, "You can be the star." He told the other, "You can be the director."

The boys nudged each other under the table. One whispered, "This is just like a movie -- real Hollywood a--holes!"

Saw earned $103-million, 100 times its investment. Even the Australian boys made piles of money and themselves joined the ranks of, as they say, "real Hollywood a--holes."

* * *

Mother Evelyn says baby Oren was nicknamed "the White Tornado." He was born with platinum blond hair, walked at nine months and ran at one year.

A grandson of Greek immigrants, he grew up in a mixed ethnic neighborhood outside Chicago. His school lacked a gym. To burn off energy, the White Tornado was sent to figure-skating classes.

But neighborhood pickup hockey on Sunday mornings fed a passion for checking, not spins and axels. He joined junior hockey leagues, let hockey take over his life, dropped out of high school and got his teeth knocked out. Why bother with school? He was headed for the NHL.

Koules gave it a go from 1979 to 1983. In '79, he played on three different Western Hockey League teams, some with beautiful names: the Medicine Hat Flyers, the Brandon Wheat Kings. His best year was 1980; he scored 28 goals for the Spokane Tigers. In '82, Koules played for the Hampton Roads Va. Gulls (six goals). On the same roster was 24-year-old John Tortorella -- the same Tortorella who is now Lightning head coach.

* * *

The unheralded winding-down of Koules' hockey career in 1983 left him back where he started -- a dropout living with his parents in Chicago. "But my parents were tremendously smart," he says. Says his mother: "Oren got my book smarts and my husband's people smarts."

Those proved to be all he needed to succeed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Oren Koules became a commodities trader. You've seen the prototype, down in the pit, madly shouting prices for eggs, butter and meat. Koules had swapped his hockey stick for pork-belly futures.

"He did very well," his mother says. In eight years, he earned enough to buy a ski house in Basalt, Colo., where he met vacationing Hollywood executives. His parents did well, too. He gave them the house.

Koules soon made enough to make another move -- this time to Hollywood -- bringing along a savings cushion he figured would last one year -- long enough to become a big-time movie producer.

Don't forget, this is the White Tornado.

* * *

"If I had known then what I know now, " Koules says proverbially. "I didn't have the sense to be scared."

He didn't know movies, but he knew how to circulate. He got himself introduced to Dale Pollock, an ex-Los Angeles Times reporter also trying to make it in the business. They formed Peak Productions, and soon produced Mrs. Winterbourne and Set It Off. Those led to a vice presidency at Paramount.

He married agent Rita Shapiro. They had a son in 1994.

Koules day-traded on the side. USA Today took notice in 1997 when he plunked $140,000 on tech stocks one roller-coaster market day. He bought Dell, Yahoo and Rambus. He had never heard of Rambus (a tech stock that has sold as low as $3 and as high as $150). Koules caught it on a good day. All three stocks took off.

* * *

All of Hollywood was about to notice Koules. He teamed with another producer, Mark Burg, to form Evolution Entertainment in 1998. Right off, they produced the Denzel Washington movie John Q. In 2003, they dug into their own savings to gamble $1-million on the two boys from Australia.

The boys' script, and a sample gory snippet of one scene, had found no takers. But then Koules' friend Gregg Hoffman saw the snippet. A producer, Hoffman had fond childhood memories of Night of the Living Dead.

Hoffman brought the snippet to Burg and Koules. It circulated the office and secretaries gagged. It featured a man with a bear trap locked on his face. Fortunately, a key could release the trap. Unfortunately, the key rested inside the bowels of a corpse (well, almost a corpse).

It's difficult for Koules to explain in a rational way why that eight-minute clip made him form a spinoff company with Burg and Hoffman called Twisted Pictures and spend $1-million on Saw. He talks about originality and energy. Or it may simply have been that everyone who saw it wanted to barf.

They shot Saw in 18 days. Koules gave hockey pal Mike Butters a part. He got flayed alive with razor wire. They changed Australian dialogue into American dialogue. "Don't bloody move, mate!" became "Freeze, a--hole!" They entered the Sundance Film Festival. The Australian boys had no warm clothes for Utah. Gregg Hoffman's wife loaned them her winter coat.

Saw, its two sequels and a third coming this fall now constitute a $420-million franchise.

Koules' life spun in dozens of directions, good and bad. His wife divorced him. He produced the TV series Two and a Half Men. He bought a minor-league hockey team in Montana.

After Saw II, Koules and Burg threw a 45th birthday bash for Hoffman, surprising him with a Maserati. Two weeks later, Hoffman suffered an overwhelming bacterial infection. He died of sepsis within a few hours.

"I can't think of any way to put it that's not a cliche," Koules says. "Gregg was my best friend for 14 years. His death made me look at things differently. It sounds like a cliche, but it made me appreciate every day."

* * *

Typically, Koules had heard about the Lightning bid via the show business grapevine -- Doug MacLean's brother John told a music-studio friend in Toronto who told Koules. The word was: Investors wanted.

That was all Koules needed to hear. He's on his way to Tampa. He plans to buy a home, as do his parents. He wants to walk out of the Forum after games, like any hockey fan. He won't predict his role with the team. If MacLean is Mr. Hockey, and Sherrin is Mr. Money, "I guess I'm the hybrid." He won't accept the role of silent partner. "Right now," Koules says one morning from Los Angeles, "the only thing I have on my desk are player evaluations."

The first time he spoke to MacLean, Koules told him about watching a hockey draft on TV for three hours. Most folks would rather dig a key out of a corpse's bowels than watch a hockey draft.

"I knew," MacLean says, "I had a hockey fanatic on my hands."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

FAST FACTS: Oren Koules
Age: 46
Family: Divorced, one son
Home: Los Angeles
Occupation: President of Evolution Entertainment, a Hollywood movie production company. Owner of the Helena, Mont., Bighorns hockey team.
Career highlights: Vice president, Paramount Studios; commodities trader in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; minor-league hockey player.