Takes reins of division after joining wrestling enterprise in January

WWE has tapped Michael Luisi, the former Miramax exec who joined the company earlier this year, to head up film division WWE Studios, which self-finances and produces the company’s growing slate of pics.

Luisi, enlisted as WWE’s exec VP of biz development and general counsel in January, replaces Mike Pavone, who ankled the film division post last month after shepherding the production of eight projects that lensed mostly in Louisiana (Daily Variety, Aug. 10) over the past two years.

Luisi is interested in acquiring films at festivals and markets, not just for theatrical release but to boost WWE Studios’ straight-to-homevideo library. After traveling to Cannes in May, Luisi said he would take meetings at the Toronto fest, signaling an increased presence for WWE’s film arm.

“I’m pretty easy to find,” said Luisi, who spends a week a month in Los Angeles, working with WWE Studio’s team that includes exec VP David Calloway, in charge of physical production; director of development Richie Lowell; and Lori Lewis, in charge of post production.

Unfortunately for WWE, many of the film banner’s early releases — comprised of mostly feel-good dramas and family fare — struggled to find an audience. The film division generated $400,000 in profit last year through previous releases and Pavone’s first titles. Its most recent pic, the drama “That’s What I Am,” starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, earned just $6,400 from 10 theaters in three days at the box office.

The drama “Inside Out,” which stars Triple H, Parker Posey and Michael Rapaport, bows Friday. It will be followed by “Family Reunion” in October, then “Bending the Rules” and “Barricade.” The company previously released “Legendary,” “Knucklehead” and the Stephen Herek-helmed comedy “The Chaperone.”

The pics that WWE produced, for budgets of around $5 million, didn’t necessarily star its wrestlers but featured them in smaller co-starring roles opposite more established thesps such as Harris, Patricia Clarkson, Danny Glover, Mark Feuerstein, Dennis Farina, Jamie Kennedy and Eric McCormack.

Luisi had already been developing a new strategy for WWE Studios for months, pairing up with Pathe U.K. in May to co-produce the thriller “No One Lives,” which stars Luke Evans (“The Three Musketeers,” “Immortals”). Ryuhei Kitamura (“Midnight Meat Train”) helms. Luisi brought that project to WWE shortly after joining the company in January, reporting to WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon.

Before that move, Luisi spent 12 years at Miramax Films, ankling the company as exec VP of worldwide operations. While there, he served as the indie’s principal business and legal advisor and liaison with Disney.

Frustrated with how WWE’s films have been received by the banner’s fanbase, McMahon has been vocal about the need for change at the studio arm.

“Michael’s vast knowledge of, and experience in, the motion picture industry make him a tremendous asset for WWE Studios,” McMahon said. “I am confident Michael will continue to expand our motion picture business on all platforms worldwide.”

Luisi told Daily Variety that, going forward, more co-productions with companies like Pathe will be key to building WWE’s new slate — deals that “allow us to partner on great content but take advantage of distribution,” Luisi said.

It will revisit the action, horror, thriller and even science-fiction genres, as well.

“We believe that we can have a diversified portfolio of motion pictures and ones that appeal to a broad demographic,” Luisi said. “It depends on the opportunity. The key is to have a flexible business model moving forward.”

Future films also won’t necessarily lens in Louisiana, with “Barricade” having been produced in British Columbia, for example.

The Samuel Goldwyn Co. has been distribbing WWE’s slate since the company began self-financing its pics in early 2010, after partnering with Fox and Lionsgate in the past. While SGC will release several more films as part of its original pact with WWE, other titles may be released by other distributors down the line.

WWE gives its pics limited theatrical releases in certain markets, using them as promo pushes for launches across homevideo platforms shortly thereafter. Walmart, the company’s primary retail partner, has been giving the films prominent displays and shelf space.

Either way, WWE is high on films as a revenue stream and source for programming as its readies to launch the WWE Network, a TV channel the company hopes to launch within the next 12-18 months.

They would be promoted across WWE’s TV shows that air all year, pay-per-views, live events, magazines, websites, music label and videogames.

“We have a loyal fanbase,” Luisi said. “There’s an enormous opportunity here and I’m looking forward to taking advantage of the assets we have.”

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