With Hollywood gearing up to launch “Thor,” and reboot “Conan the Barbarian” and “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” as potential new franchises, the big question is, who do producers cast?
The wiry or geeky stars of “The Matrix,” “Spider-Man,” “Transformers” or upcoming “Wanted” just won’t be able to pull off playing a muscled-up Norse god who wields a massive hammer. No, not even Shia LaBeouf.
And that has the biz quickly realizing it’s short on uber-buff action stars, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone out of contention, and even Dwayne Johnson dropping “The Rock” alter ego as he slims down and turns his attention to comedies.
So when World Wrestling Entertainment announced last week a first-look distribution deal with 20th Century Fox for a slate of pics, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Its 150-person roster is made up of charismatic, overly-muscled athletes who don outrageous costumes and are embroiled in storylines that could out-soap any sudser on daytime TV. And they’re only eager to make the leap to movies.
Some like John Cena, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Glen “Kane” Jacobs already have made the transition in three pics — “See No Evil,” “The Marine” and “The Condemned” — that WWE has developed, financed and produced since forming its film division in 2002.
Its fourth pic, also to star Cena, is “12 Rounds,” an actioner that bows in 2009 under the Fox Atomic label. The production, with Renny Harlin at the helm, begins this month in New Orleans.
The idea is that theatrical releases will bolster WWE’s lucrative DVD business, and increase interest in the company’s half-billion-dollar-a-year-business of live events like Wrestlemania, pay-per-view and TV broadcasts, its websites, as well as videogames, music, and sales of other merchandise, including a growing book biz.
Bringing the tough guy back to the bigscreen hasn’t been an easy task, however.
“The Marine,” WWE Films’ biggest success to date, only earned $23 million at the box office. The other two releases collected a combined $26 million in coin worldwide.
WWE says the problem was that it focused on making movies that went after a hard R rating — violent horror or action pics that would appeal to the males that make up much of the company’s fanbase.
But then Stamford, Conn. execs started paying attention to the types of people who fill arenas to watch its events or tune in to its shows like USA’s “Monday Night Raw” and “Smackdown” (which recently moved from the CW to MyNetworkTV) — kids, women and families.
Its target may be 18- to 24- year-old males, but the core aud is actually a broader 12-24 age range, with the rest made up of families. Women make up 30% of its viewership.
Because of that, WWE will now focus on a slate of PG-13 pics that could include broad comedies.
“There’s no reason why, going forward, we couldn’t do a ‘Game Plan’ type of film,” says Michael Lake, prexy of WWE Films, and former head of production at Village Roadshow, who took the post in October, and reworked the company’s development slate and tossed out proejcts.
“We had to refocus where we wanted to go,” he says. “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.”
Vince McMahon, the colorful chairman of WWE says, “The films we’re going to make are fun. Everything we do is about selling fun. We put smiles on people’s faces. Everything we do is about doing that.”
Upon taking the job, Lake says he immediately began screentesting wrestlers and realized “there’s a real depth of talent we can use. We want to fashion movies to fit their personalities.”
WWE plans to release one pic per year in theaters at a pricetag of $20 million or less and up to four direct-to-DVD titles made for around $5 million each.
All will star WWE athletes, and each pic would be heavily promoted across the company’s media properties.
“These guys are action stars already,” Lake says. “People still want solid action heroes.”
The company has proved successful at creating a crossover star with Johnson launching his film career as a WWE wrestler.
To replicate that kind of success, the company has been pushing its wrestlers outside of the ring in unusual ways.
Its female fighters, known as the Divas, recently appeared on Bravo’s “Project Runway.” WWE stars also turned up on NBC’s “The Apprentice” and “Deal or No Deal,” ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “Fast Cars and Superstars.”
“At the end of the day, we want to be present where our customers are,” says Geof Rochester, WWE’s exec VP of marketing. “If we can lend our brand and participate in a fun and interesting way, we’ll do it. We’re looking for things that are family friendly, fun and positions our superstars in the appropriate light. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
It can’t. Not when its wrestlers go by names like Undertaker, spit out bites of apples like Carlito or when its chairman body slams an Irish midget named Hornswoggle, otherwise known as Little Bastard.
McMahon describes WWE’s productions as “producing the Olympics on Broadway,” or the last real variety show left on television.
“For us, it’s all about our superstars,” Rochester says. “They are our intellectual capital. That’s what attracts fans to the product.”
What could also attract fans is scripted TV, another area, in addition to films, that WWE will pursue, as a way to “establish these guys not to our audience so much but to outside audiences,” Lake says.
McMahon says WWE’s athletes would lend themselves well to films or script TV shows.
“First and foremost, they’re performers and some of them secondarily are athletes,” McMahon says. “They’re really both, but the emphasis is on entertainment. Producers are often overwhelmed with how cooperative our guys are, how prepared they they are. They’ve been indoctrinated in how to be performers, especially in front of a live audience, which is a tremdendous advantage. The only thing they have to do is bring down their emotions a bit.”
WWE needs to try something new to keep existing fans interested and attract new ones.
Company’s facing some fierce competition from mixed martial arts and leagues like the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Intl. Fight League that are amassing millions of new fans each year and stealing viewers away from WWE.
“We’re not worried about UFC,” Rochester says. “We’re an entertainment product. There’s room for everybody. Our brand has been around for over 50 years and we’ll be around for another 50.”
Yet WWE is in expansion mode, especially overseas in markets like Latin America (it’s been courting Hispanic viewers with wrestlers like Rey Mysterio and Batista). It’s also going after China heavily with “the same brand, same characters, same product,” Rochester says. “It translates well and travels well.”
Says McMahon, “We like to think of WWE as America’s greatest export. It’s understood in any language. The largess, the grandeur, the spectacular nature of our brand plays well everywhere. It really says Americana. It’s Western culture. It’s like the old Wild West stuff.”
Further marketing efforts include WWE’s website with 17 million uniques per month, with fans logging on to access exclusive videos and other content. It’s also on YouTube, Facebook and MySpace.
Additionally, it will launch animated, web-based programming aimed at 6- to 8-year-olds in order to compete with Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
“You have to reinvent yourself over and over,” McMahon says. “We’ve always have the creative ability to do that. You change with the times. Our audience is a very active and vocal focus group. They vote with their wallets. If they don’t like what they’re being presented, they don’t come. You have to judge their reactions.”
The reactions to its films so far has been a learning lesson, McMahon says.
“We’re going to have a much greater Hollywood business,” he says. “We’re looking forward to learning from everyone out there. That will allow us to have better writers, better scripts.”