WWE parts ways with Fox, Lionsgate

Studio inks deal with Samuel Goldwyn, Vivendi

Vince McMahon isn’t giving up on pinning down the box office.

After setting up films at Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox over the last decade, the colorful chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment is taking full control over the distribution of the company’s future slate of movies, inking a deal with Samuel Goldwyn Films to oversee theatrical releases, while Vivendi Entertainment will handle pics across various homevideo formats in North America.

As part of the move, WWE Studios, the company’s film arm, will finance and produce nine movies through 2012, that it can fully own and exploit in theaters, on homevideo, through licensing deals and eventually on its own WWE TV network that it wants to launch.

After self-producing four of its own theatrical releases, “we’ve learned a great deal that brings us to where we are now,” McMahon told Daily Variety. “This is an opportunity for us to completely control everything from the production all the way through to release. We’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

Budgets of each film will hover around $5 million in order to reduce the company’s risk but also increase the potential upside from hits.

The pricetag is far smaller than what WWE’s other films have cost. 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.

It’s saving considerable production coin from tax incentives and startup costs by lensing each pic nearly back-to-back in New Orleans, with crews moving from one film to the next once production wraps.

The slate deal with WWE is a first for Samuel Goldwyn. In the past it’s focused on distributing one-off projects for producers, like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Supersize Me.”

It scored a major win for Sherwood Pictures last fall with the Kirk Cameron-starrer “Fireproof,” that was made for less than $1 million and surprised the biz when it opened to $6.8 million and wound up at $33 million after being heavily marketed to Christians.

McMahon wants to replicate that kind of success by overhauling the way its movies are made and marketed.

That means straying away from having its wrestlers star in traditional R-rated genre fare like actioners or horror films, and instead surround them with more established actors in PG-rated family fare.

It needs to considering it has yet to produce a breakout hit. Previous releases like “See No Evil,” “The Marine” and “The Condemned” have collectively earned $49 million worldwide, although recent direct-to-DVD title “The Marine 2” is performing well.

“We didn’t just want to put (our wrestlers) in just any genre movie where they play cliched characters,” said Mike Pavone, executive VP of WWE Studios. “They have to be used carefully to protect them.”

WWE is now passing on movies like “The Marine 3” and instead making “Brother’s Keeper,” a family drama about a teen, with no apparent athletic talents, who tries to reunite his mother and estranged older brother, a college wrestling legend, by joining the high school wrestling team. Think “The Blind Side” with grapplers that stars John Cena, Patricia Clarkson, Danny Glover and Devon Graye (“Dexter”). Mel Damski (“Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies”) helms from a script by John Posey.

“Brother’s Keeper,” which bows sometime this summer, will be followed in the fall by the comedy “Knucklehead,” starring the Big Show, Dennis Farina and Mark Feuerstein. “Big Red,” a coming-of-age drama that features Randy Orton, as well as a thriller penned for Dave Batista and two more comedies, one with Cena, described as “Midnight Run” with a kid, are also in the works.

Where WWE’s wrestlers had to be the sole star of its movies in the past, “we revamped the idea of what we’re trying to do,” Pavone said. “We put a tremendous amount of pressure on them. We’re now marrying them with parts where they’re surrounded by wonderful character actors and don’t have to carry the movies.”

That strategy was required, in part, in order to work around the wrestlers’ grueling TV and event schedules. “It’s tough to book around it,” Pavone said. “If they’re not in every frame of the movie, it definitely helps. They’re too important to take away for two months to work on a movie.”

Enlisting Denise Chamian, who has cast films for Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay and Tim Burton, among other high-profile filmmakers has helped established actors to WWE’s films.

“If you have great stories and great scripts, great actors will come,” Pavone said.

But will the audience show up?

Taking back control of how WWE’s movies are marketed is key to attract auds, McMahon said. He wants WWE to handle every element of a campaign — from the design of posters to the creation of trailers and other promotional materials — something studio execs have balked at in the past.

WWE has long had a variety of platforms on which it can talk to millions of potential moviegoers, including its four weekly TV shows, live events, pay-per-views, magazines, websites, videogames and DVDs. The TV shows alone reach 16 million viewers.

“That’s a large number but there’s a much larger number that we’re not reaching,” McMahon said. “We have the resources, we just need to leverage all of it. There are so many different things that we can do.”

It will experiment with how films are released, treating them as live events, with WWE’s wrestlers showing up at theaters to interact with fans. Samuel Goldwyn, which will collect a distribution fee for its work, hopes to secure at least 100 screens in the nation’s biggest markets to unspool WWE’s pics.

“Targeting a specific audience is what our business model has been all about,” said Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films. “WWE is a marketing machine. They have a huge fanbase. Theaters are always encouraged by any activity to promote their movies. That’s always music to their ears. Anything that you can do onsite to bring an audience in is very beneficial to them.”

With the time frame between a theatrical and DVD release becoming more fluid, WWE is also experimenting with its DVDs in order to save on marketing expenses. “If you do that, you don’t have to spend marketing dollars twice,” he said. If you promote it once, we don’t need to have the talent do two “Tonight Shows” and burn up resources.”

All of this, of course, is to boost WWE’s bottomline. Movies will help make WWE’s already large library, made up of years of footage from its shows and pay-per-views, more attractive to buyers looking to license new content that features its wrestlers, especially overseas, as well as fill the air of its TV network when it launches.

“Heaven forbid we do anything traditionally,” said Donna Goldsmith, WWE’s chief operating officer. “But we’re a public company and we need to look at the dollars and cents.”

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