WWF goes to the mat for Artisan

Potential buyout at $150 mil, sources say

NEW YORK — Don’t look now, but Artisan’s Amir Malin and Bill Block may be slamming their rivals onto the canvas with the atomic knee-drop.

That’s because the Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation is in serious talks with the indie to buy out the “Blair Witch” wonders.

Sources place the cost of the potential buyout at $150 million, a far cry from the $300 million-plus that Artisan was demanding after “Blair Witch” conquered the box office with a $146 million domestic gross.

Artisan has had trouble in the last year with its attempted IPO, which was looking to bring more than $100 million into the company.

The IPO has since been put on hold and the value of the company has dropped significantly from 18 months ago when at least one offer was made for $250 million by Barry Diller to potentially unite Artisan with his USA Films.

That offer was summarily dismissed by the Artisan board, which thought it could garner more if it held out.

In 2000, Artisan struggled theatrically with such underperformers as “Blair Witch 2” and “The Way of the Gun.” But Malin has been able to maintain a steady course for the company through its powerful video distribution division as well as its family home entertainment arm.

Artisan absolutely denies any discussions — or take downs — with McMahon and his wrestling maniacs.

But the company, sources said, has been involved in lengthy discussions to handle video product for McMahon and the WWF.

McMahon’s spokesman Gary Davis would only admit that the WWF is looking to expand into TV and film. The WWF already has a partnership with NBC and TNN on the XFL, which provides it with prime-time exposure for its struggling upstart football league.

An Artisan deal would provide a video distribution and theatrical production outfit for McMahon and the WWF, an attractive proposition given the star quality and marketability of such wrestlers as the Rock.

SINGING ‘SOPRANO’: At “The Sopranos” premiere Wednesday, more than 3,000 crowded into Radio City Music Hall to watch two new episodes and the most fascinating post-screening discussion topic was easily the awkward digital recreation of Nancy Marchand for the role of Soprano’s nasty mother.

Marchand died last year, but the producers, never wanting to admit defeat with the disappearance of a popular character, digitally had her face transplanted onto someone else’s body for two separate scenes, leading to some knowing titters from the crowd of several thousand at Radio City Music Hall. The mind boggles at the technology.

The party, meanwhile, in a cavernous New York Hilton ballroom could have been an outtake from the wedding scene in “The Godfather” with big hair ad nauseam and star James Gandolfini looking very presidential with his bevy of personal bodyguards with strange earpieces.

SPEAKING EASY: Paul Speaker, who left his job at Shooting Gallery as prexy of worldwide entertainment in December, has been quietly circulating a proposal to create a feature film arrangement not unlike the Shooting Gallery deal with Loews Cinema.

That deal allows for indie feature pics to be distribbed through Loews on a limited number of screens in key cities around the country. Last year, Shooting Gallery connected with “Croupier,” which went on to gross $6.2 million domestically.

The proposal initially included Shooting Gallery Pictures prexy Eamonn Bowles and general counsel Jonathan Marshall. Both, however, have taken their names off the paperwork because they’re under contract to Shooting Gallery, which is the midst of a buyout from the Canadian company.

Speaker, who could not be reached for comment, has already had discussions with Robert Redford and Sundance about pairing up, but no deal has yet been struck.

GAMBLING ON THE XFL: As the XFL looks to boost its sagging ratings with more XFL-rated T&A, the nascent football league is getting a boost from an unlikely source — Las Vegas.

The struggling footballers have had no trouble persuading gamblers to take them seriously despite being run by the World Wrestling Federation, which is not exactly known for its realistic warfare.

A spokesman from the Mirage Hotel & Casino sports book said betting on the XFL has been steadily growing and the types of bets and the cash limits have been increased in recent weeks.

Even XFL spokesman Jeff Shape, who clearly states that XFL employees are not allowed to have any links to gambling, admits that when he’s been in Vegas to help launch the Las Vegas XFL franchise, “There is definitely action.”

As for the league’s relationship with the media, which more or less ignores it in major cities, Shape says the smaller town papers like Birmingham, Orlando and Vegas put beat reporters on each XFL squad and allow them to travel with the team.

Shape, however, likes to put a pretty face on ugly ratings. Though it started with phenomenal ratings, the numbers have plummeted. He maintains that they’re averaging out at 5.8 with an 11 share. “The demos for Saturday night programming are tracking well ahead of season to date on NBC,” Shape says.

SPY VS. HOLLYWOOD SPY: How soon will it be before Hollywood climbs all over the Robert Philip Hanssen spy story out of Washington? Already, high-end agents are clamoring to even find someone to represent in any potential deal. A quickie book has been set up for Adrian Havill to write for St. Martin’s Press. Hanssen was a quiet, methodical family man/double agent who sold top U.S. secrets for 15 years to Russia. Now, he may be bringing his double-crossing sensibilities to a town that thrives on the double cross.

FEST FOCUS: The 17th annual Israel Film Festival, which opened in Gotham last night, is up to its eyeballs in controversy with last week’s bus ramming in Israel.

Despite the crash, which some political insiders claim could lead to war between Israel and the Palestinians, fest founder Meir Fenigstein maintains that the festival is nonpartisan despite potential uprisings that potentially could erupt at screenings at the Clearview Cinemas on Gotham’s East Side.

“We are apolitical,” Fenigstein says. “It’s not a question of showing a political film. We’re not doing a political film festival. It’s supported by the Israeli government, but it’s not a government festival.”

One pic likely to stir up feeling is “The Lineup,” a docu about the hordes of Palestinians who line up to collect government benefits in Palestine, directed by Israeli Amir Har-Gil.

Fenigstein has seen the festival through wars, he says, from the 1982 Lebanon war to the Intifada. “This fest has never had any problems. We’re just trying to show the Israeli film industry,” he says.

At the Hamptons Film Festival, Palestinian directors were closely guarded last October after violence erupted in Israel during the fest.

Fenigstein downplays any similar notions about his fest.

Though he declined an invite for the fest, newly elected Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon apparently has a soft spot for film.

Fenigstein says that as minister of trade nearly a decade ago, Sharon tried to create a U.S.-Israel co-production film company. It never took.

Arnon Milchan, take note.

If you have information or just gripes, please contact Dan Cox at dcox@cahners.com.