WWE film unit tries capitalizing on top-tier talents

Once Dwayne (formerly the Rock) Johnson made the successful leap from the wrestling mat to the bigscreen, it was only a matter of time before Vince McMahon threw his hat into the filmmaking ring.

“Movies are a logical extension for our company,” says the World Wrestling Entertainment topper. “We know how to tell stories.”

Yet while telling those stories on television three nights a week consistently generates strong ratings, doing so at the megaplex has proved to be tougher.

After releasing three underwhelming performers at the box office since 2006 — “See No Evil,” “The Marine” and “The Condemned,” which earned a collective $49 million worldwide — WWE is trying to land its first big hit with “12 Rounds,” a Renny Harlin-helmed actioner that stars John Cena, easily the company’s most popular wrestler.

“Before we were foundering a bit, but we’re starting to crank some good things out,” McMahon says.

This year, that includes not only “12 Rounds” but an action comedy that would put Cena in front of the cameras this summer as well. WWE also co-produced the third installment of “Behind Enemy Lines” that was released direct-to-DVD earlier this year, as well as a sequel to “The Marine.” “Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia” came out in January, with domestic sales in the vicinity of 150,000 units, according to WWE.

Essentially, “12 Rounds” is a second attempt at putting a spotlight on WWE’s athletes in more creative ways while also developing a major revenue stream to boost the company’s bottom line and promote its brand worldwide.

“There’s a real depth of talent we can use,” says WWE Studios prexy Michael Lake of the company’s roster of wrestlers. “These guys are already entertainers. They’re used to taking direction. We want to fashion movies to fit their personalities.”

Lake, a former Village Roadshow exec, has headed up the turnaround of WWE’s movie efforts since 2007, when he began developing a fresh slate of features and DVD titles together with Dimension Films alum Steve Barnett.

Upcoming theatrical projects include not only the Cena pics but also laffer “Suckerpunch.” There’s also a sequel to “12 Rounds,” a Western, a reboot of the Chuck Norris franchise “Missing in Action” with MGM and a “Scorpion King” sequel at Universal. All are planned for straight-to-DVD.

Budgets have gone up, with WWE spending around $20 million for theatrical releases and roughly $3 million-$5 million for DVD projects. Just as its TV shows have gone PG, its movies are also shying away from the expected R rating for genre fare.

Landing a distributor was fairly easy. WWE has a relationship with 20th Century Fox, which released “The Marine” in 2006, and will distribute pics via the Fox Atomic label. (WWE also is on Fox’s MyNetworkTV.)

“They want to deliver movies that we’re going to get behind,” says Debbie Liebling, Fox Atomic’s prexy of production. “They’re very selective in what they put forward and decide internally who’s a wrestler and who’s a movie star. … John was great, and we wanted to see him morph into an action star and build him up outside the wrestling world. There’s nothing in the movie that speaks to his day job.”

WWE’s promotional platforms also should be a major asset in marketing the film projects.

The company produces five hours of TV each week watched by tens of millions and has live events, pay-per-view broadcasts, websites, magazines and DVDs it can use to push pics.

“They’re great partners because they speak to their audience through so many forms of media on a very consistent basis,” says Jeffrey Godsick, exec VP of marketing and digital content at Fox. “They bring the fanbase.”

Yet convincing Hollywood the WWE can deliver wasn’t easy, mainly because of the mixed results of previous projects.

“We had to educate people on what it is we were going to do,” Barnett says.

That effort’s worked, in part, because of the types of projects WWE wants to make, which have attracted producers such as Mark Gordon, but also because the company is one of the few that’s financing its own films.

“Once Vince says go, we go,” Lake says. “There aren’t another 20 people to go through.”

Going forward, however, WWE knows it needs to make movies that appeal to the masses, not just its core fans, to perform at the box office. The once-lucrative DVD market just isn’t as strong as it used to be.

“For our films to be successful, they need to cross over,” Barnett says.

To expand its aud, WWE Studios is also branching into television, developing several scripted projects that would feature wrestlers or promote the brand it hopes to start shopping around to not only U.S. networks but overseas channels as well.

But for now, the attention is on “12 Rounds.”

Lake says that while WWE’s had a lot of meetings around town, laying the foundation of its film division, “you have to back it up with something. With Vince we have a champion who wants to succeed in the movie business.”

If “12 Rounds” strikes a chord with audiences, Lake says, “it would say to Vince that he was right.”

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