Studio gets first-look at wrestler pics

World Wrestling Entertainment has found a tag-team partner in 20th Century Fox, inking a first-look deal that gives the studio rights to distrib pics headlined by the company’s pro wrestlers.

Beginning next year, WWE Films plans to develop, finance and produce at least one theatrical release and up to four direct-to-video titles annually, with Fox receiving a distribution fee should it release the pics in theaters, on homevid or digitally. It’s similar to the pact comicbook giant Marvel Entertainment has with Paramount and Universal on the upcoming “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.”

Going forward, though, WWE will focus on making movies across all genres that appeal to a broader audience and land a PG-13 rating, vs. the hard R it had been going after with its previous pics.

“We had to refocus where we wanted to go,” said Michael Lake, prexy of WWE Films, a former Village Roadshow exec who took the post in October, and quickly began reworking the company’s development slate. “There’s a strong audience base that is ready for movies that star our guys. A lot of our audience is in the PG-13 area.”

First pic out of the multi-year deal with Fox is “12 Rounds,” an actioner toplined by John Cena that bows in 2009 and will be released under the Fox Atomic label. Production on the pic, with Renny Harlin at the helm, begins this month in New Orleans.

WWE is looking to spend around $20 million for theatrical releases while direct-to-DVD titles would be made for around $3 million to $5 million.

The wrestling org has had mixed success since forming its film division in 2002, releasing three pics, “See No Evil,” featuring Glen “Kane” Jacobs; “The Marine,” also with Cena; and “The Condemned,” with Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Fox distribbed “The Marine” in 2006, WWE’s biggest earner to date, that collected $22 million at the worldwide box office. Lionsgate handled the other two releases. While ticket sales were less than expected, the pics performed well on homevid, which has proved a lucrative revenue generator for the company.

Fox sparked at the chance to work with WWE on “12 Rounds” because the Fox Atomic label is essentially going after the same young male demo that WWE has been able to attract to its live events, pay-per-view broadcasts, TV shows and DVDs.

The Fox Atomic banner won’t necessarily release each WWE pic.

Either way, the films would be promoted across WWE’s various properties, putting them in front of millions of potential moviegoers.

“This partnership allows Fox to capitalize on this global audience and the WWE brand’s continued expansion into the filmed entertainment medium,” said Tom Siegrist, senior VP of production for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 

WWE’s hoping to use the pics to raise the profile of its stable of stars and entertain existing fans, while attracting new auds and boost its bottom line.

The film deal comes as the WWE finds itself facing increased competish from mixed martial arts and leagues like the Ultimate Fighting Championship that are winning over wrestling’s fanbase.

WWE enjoyed a surge in popularity with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who succesfully made the transtion from the ring to the bigscreen.

“There’s a real depth of talent we can use,” Lake said. “These guys are action stars anyway. We want to fashion movies to fit their personalities. We’ve got to establish these guys not to our audience so much but to the other moviegoing audience, so that they cross over.”

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