Wrestling co. to release pics simultaneously in theaters, on DVD

World Wrestling Entertainment is the latest company looking to shatter traditional release windows, saying it will bow DVDs for its films shortly after they unspool in theaters.

WWE chairman Vince McMahon has been hinting for some time that WWE would adopt the strategy when it starts releasing a new slate of pics that it is self-financing and distributing through Samuel Goldwyn Films this year. With WWE’s movies still trying to find a broader audience at the box office, the company has been eyeing theatrical releases as a way to prop up DVD sales and didn’t want to spend more money to “promote and market the (films) twice.”

With that in mind, WWE will experiment with when to release DVDs, with some expected to hit store shelves before others. Overseas, DVDs will be released day-and-date with the films’ bow in theaters. In the U.S., however, pics will play in theaters for multiple weeks before getting the homevid treatment. The DVD launch is still expected to be shorter than the 12 weeks Disney considered for “Alice in Wonderland,” which raised the ire of some exhibitors.

“We’re going to be in the theatrical business, but the windows will be collapsed considerably going forward, more so than anyone else in the history of the film business, therefore we can promote these movies once and get the benefit from all that promotion,” he said as he spoke to investors Thusday to discuss WWE’s first quarter earnings results.

WWE Studios is currently producing nine films back to back with budgets hovering around $5 million, with the first, the sports drama “Legendary,” set to bow Sept. 10, followed by the comedy “Knucklehead” on Oct. 24 and “Big Red,” now tentatively called “Eighth Grade,” early next year. The films feature some of the company’s bigger names, including John Cena, the Big Show and Randy Orton in supporting roles. It’s currently filming a fourth pic, “Killing Karma,” with Triple H, whose name is also being changed to “Inside Out” for now.

The company took control over its film slate earlier this year after pairing up with 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate over the past decade to co-produce pics (Daily Variety, Jan. 19).

Last year’s actioner “12 Rounds,” helmed by Renny Harlin and produced with the now shuttered Fox Atomic banner, was made for $24 million, but only earned $17 million worldwide.

But McMahon says the company hasn’t really been in the film business until now. “You can’t be in the film business if you do one film every year-and-a-half,” he said. “You have to be in it. You have to have a slate of films.”

The film efforts are coming together as WWE is also making moves to launch its own cable channel as early as this year.

“We are pursuing that stronger than ever,” McMahon said, adding that the company is currently talking to cable providers to carry the new network, which would be made up of a variety of shows that don’t revolve around the kind of in-ring wrestling that it currently airs each week on USA Network, Syfy, MyNetwork TV and WGN.

“It’s not going to take the place of anything we do now,” McMahon told shareholders last week.

The network would serve as a way to appeal to a broader audience than it currently does now, which has become heavily focused on families and kids of late. WWE has seen its fanbase grow among women, in particular.

“Many times, they are the gatekeepers of the future on whether they encourage kids to watch our program,” McMahon told shareholders. “We haven’t appealed in terms of our product to our older audience as our younger audience.”

In addition to serving as a new revenue stream, the channel would also provide a platform to push WWE’s other businesses, including its TV shows, new line of toys sold by Mattel, three new videogames planned by THQ and offer marketing outlets for promotional partners, which include Burger King, which will offer up kids meals this summer.

Naturally, it would also help tubthump its pay-per-views, of which it has 13 skedded for this year, including WrestleMania 26, that took place in March in Phoenix.

The event is the company’s highest-profile PPV each year, but Glendale, Ariz. wasn’t as hot for WrestleMania as WWE had hoped.

WrestleMania 26, which attracted more than 70,000 ticket buyers, generated 885,000 PPV buys this year, down from the 960,000 that ordered last year’s 25th anniversary, hosted from Houston. The 2008 show sold 1.06 million buys and 1.18 million in 2007.

The event still earned $19 million from the PPV buys for WWE. Last year’s show earned $21 million in revenue and $13 million in profit.

McMahon attributed the decline to more viewers gathering to watch the event at viewing parties in order to pool their dollars and save on the $55 fee to order the show, compared to $45 for standard PPVs. The company had already been seeing signs of that taking place with its other shows (Daily Variety, March 21), and has been raising the price of its PPVs by $5 in order to compensate for the communal viewing and a 10% drop in PPV buys compared to 2008.

But this year’s Mania also happened to take place a day after UFC hosted its own PPV, which generated 770,000 buys.

McMahon downplayed UFC’s impact on WWE, saying “You’re talking about two completely different audiences. The UFC audience is more of a boxing audience than an entertainment audience.”

But McMahon also was down on the creative aspects of this year’s Mania: “As with anything in the content business, sometimes you’re on and sometimes you’re not,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s a failure, but it didn’t measure up in terms of budget and it didn’t measure up to last year. It was a good attraction, but it wasn’t a great attraction.”

On a more positive note, two other PPVs, “Royal Rumble” and “Elimination Chamber” saw buys increase by 13,000 for each, attributed mostly to oversees auds.

Overall, WrestleMania still helped boost WWE’s bottomline for its first quarter, with the company posting profits of nearly $25 million from revenue of $139 million. It earned profits of $10.3 million last year and nearly $108 million in revenue during the same three-month period last year. Mania’s earnings were reported during WWE’s second quarter last year.

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