Pic unit expands into TV production

World Wrestling Entertainment has renamed its film division WWE Studios as part of a move to expand into the production of scripted series and pics for television.

“We’re now in filmed entertainment, not just the film business,” said WWE Studios prexy Michael Lake. “If we’re going to be in this business, we need to be in the business.”

Company is in production on the Renny Harlin-helmed actioner “12 Rounds,” starring wrestler John Cena. Pic bows March 13, with 20th Century Fox distributing through its Fox Atomic label.

Movie was shepherded by Lake, who left Village Roadshow late last year to overhaul WWE Films, which had already produced three other pics — “See No Evil,” “The Marine” and “The Condemned” — that failed to spark with fans or cross over with general auds at the B.O.

Lake and former Dimension Films exec Steve Barnett are overseeing several pics in the development pipeline, including the comedy “Suckerpunch,” which will star the Big Show (aka Paul Wight). Adam Rifkin (“Underdog”) is penning the project that revolves around bare-knuckle fighting.

WWE is also a producer on Fox’s direct-to-DVD sequel “Behind Enemy Lines 3,” which will be released early next year. Ken Anderson, better known as Mr. Kennedy to WWE watchers, co-stars.

Company aims to self-finance two films per year budgeted at $10 million-$20 million. Pics will range across all genres but won’t go after the hard R rating the WWE sought for its previous releases.

It also will produce four to six direct-to-DVD movies per year at up to $5 million each, with one of its first projects set to be a sequel to “The Marine.” That pic, which starred Cena, was WWE Films’ biggest earner so far.

Despite smaller sales numbers for the rest of the biz, DVD is still strong for WWE, with titles selling about 250,000 units per release.

“It’s still a good opportunity for us,” Lake said.

In addition to the film projects, WWE also intends to expand into scripted TV — a move that makes sense for the company given that it already produces five hours per week for U.S. auds and nine hours for international viewers.

“The biggest area we’re concentrating (on) now is television,” Lake said.

Company’s in talks with a cabler to air a series of made-fors each quarter before pushing them out on DVD. WWE is also developing scripted action hours, half-hour comedies and reality fare that would air in the U.S. but could also travel overseas.

“We’ll do brand-based entertainment,” Lake said. “People come to us expecting action and humor, bigger-than-life characters, outlandish stories.”

Projects would feature wrestlers who appear in the company’s three weekly shows, “Monday Night RAW,” on USA; “Friday Night Smackdown,” which airs on the CW but will move to MyNetworkTV; and “ECW: A New Breed Unleashed” on Sci Fi Channel.

Projects won’t necessarily star the WWE athletes but rather feature them in guest roles, as secondary characters or in cameos, as the grapplers already have hectic schedules appearing on three shows per week and live events year round. Instead, projects might star former WWE wrestlers, such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Roddy Piper and Ric Flair.

“Current stars can’t be everywhere,” Lake said. “The legends are a real asset.”

WWE also expects its production arm to become a strong revenue-generating asset, and the company will use its marketing muscle to make sure auds know about the projects it produces.

Company will promote the film and TV releases across WWE’s various media properties, such as the three weekly TV shows, as well as magazines and websites. Projects would also be pushed in front of Fox releases in theaters and on DVDs.

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