U pins the Rock to deal

Top wrestler looks to acting

In one of the highest sums paid an actor in his first starring role, Universal has closed a $5.5 million pay-or-play deal with World Wrestling Federation champ the Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson) to play the title role in “The Scorpion King.” Shooting on the PG-13 film begins in mid-March.

The film is a spinoff of “The Mummy 2,” being scripted by Jonathan Hales, who collaborated with George Lucas on the script for “Star Wars: Episode II.” The Rock will topline the film after he completes the annual WWF pay-per-view event “Wrestlemania.”

Though a director still has to be hired, the film will be overseen by Stephen Sommers, who directed the Rock in a small role as the Scorpion King in “The Mummy 2.” Sommers will be involved in a producing capacity as will Alphaville partners Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel. A major production presence in the film will be the Rock’s boss, WWF owner Vince McMahon. McMahon will be executive producer and the WWF will have a production credit. This is a clear signal that the popular grappling alliance will be involved in features that exploit its ring warriors.

“The Scorpion King” will pick up on the storyline from “The Mummy 2,” in which the Rock’s formerly virtuous character becomes evil. It takes place long before the storyline in “The Mummy 2.”

Set in ancient Egypt, the story revolves around a peasant whose town is plundered by a marauding army from the north led by a violent guy out to rule Egypt. The Rock plays the peasant, who attempts to exact revenge for his flattened village and to recover his kidnapped village by joining up with a band of outlaws.

“The Mummy 2” bows in May and “The Scorpion King” will hit theaters in either Christmas 2001 or summer 2002.

“When we watched the Rock in dailies of ‘The Mummy 2,’ his charisma jumped out at us and we created a story that has a pre-history context, adventure and humor,” said U prexy Kevin Misher, who’s overseeing the film with exec Lenny Kornberg. “This is not a premise that’s reliant on his wrestling abilities. It’s a terrific template for the birth of an action hero.”

Bankable name

While the $5.5 million payday seems a lot for an actor who just made his debut in a small role, Johnson might have more bankability than many midlevel actors, particularly in the younger demographic. He’s the top draw on the wrestling circuit, and a guy who had several studios bidding for his movie services (Daily Variety, June 1). A former defensive lineman on the U. of Miami football team, Johnson is a charismatic wrestler who wowed the movie crowd when his Endeavor agents began sending studio execs to matches to meet him. A guest-hosting appearance on “Saturday Night Live” was also an effective calling card.

WWF CEO Linda McMahon, who is Vince McMahon’s wife, said the WWF will be lending its full promotional support to Universal for the film. That clout shouldn’t be underrated, as evidenced by a recent WWF-sponsored voter registration drive that resulted in 105,000 registrants. “The production of television films and theatrical features is part of the total game plan of this media company, but we want to walk before we run,” said Linda McMahon. “This is an excellent way for us to break in and for the Rock to establish his star power.”

The WWF will be squarely involved in marketing, as well as the expected merchandising blitz that will surround the film.

Johnson is repped by Endeavor and attorney Harold Brown.

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