WWE Film Slate Shows a Softer Side

WWE reaches beyond its core aud with Halle Berry, Scooby-Doo and holiday-themed fare

The WWE has struggled trying to pin down a successful film business for many years.

(From the pages of the April 9 issue of Variety.)

A slate of horror and action films, featuring the brawny personas of John Cena, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Ted DiBiase Jr. and Kane have performed well on homevideo but weren’t runaway hits. A recent slate of Hallmark-style dramas and cheesy comedies flopped.

Two years after overhauling WWE Studios — expanding genres and casting beyond what you’d expect, while blending brands with Scooby-Doo and a reboot of the “Leprechaun” horror franchise — former Miramax exec Michael Luisi is seeing his first slate embraced by audiences.

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The thriller “The Call,” released by TriStar Pictures, has earned $45.5 million since March 15. “Dead Man Down,” distributed by FilmDistrict, has earned around $11 million since March 8 — not bad for another low-budget thriller — while direct-to-vid releases “The Marine: Homefront” and horror thriller “The Day” have sold well in recent weeks.

Wrestlers are still featured, but in smaller parts, paired alongside more notable names like Halle Berry, Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard and Luke Evans. Instead of footing the bill, WWE also is reducing its risks by co-financing films with partners like Pathe Films, Troika Pictures, IM Global, 20th Century Fox and Anchor Bay. Others are pickups from the Cannes, Sundance and Toronto film festivals.

The division, WWE Studios, generated $7.9 million in 2012, compared with $20.9 million in 2011, although the success of “The Call,” budgeted at less than $13 million, could best both those years single-handedly (WWE funded half the budget). The aim is to release six to eight films a year, with many of the pics expected to get a theatrical run.

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“We start out on these projects with the mindset that there’s no reason these couldn’t get a wide theatrical release if they turn out the way we hope they do,” Luisi maintained.

In addition to “Leprechaun,” starring WWE wrestler Hornswoggle and set up at Lionsgate, WWE has a stake in thriller “No One Lives,” with Evans and grappler Brodus Clay, a Toronto pickup that Anchor Bay will distribute as a limited release May 10; the direct-to-homevid sequel “12 Rounds: Reload” (Randy Orton); and the Scooby-Doo pic, “The Curse of the Ghost Bear!” from Warner Bros.Animation, in which WWE’s wrestlers and chairman Vince McMahon team with the Great Dane’s gang to solve a mystery at WrestleMania.

The WWE also will co-produce the TV movie “Christmas Bounty,” with ABC Family, to air during its “25 Days of Christmas” programming block this winter. It’s eyed as an opportunity to connect with ABC Family’s core female viewer. That’s the same plan for “The Call,” with Berry helping attract more women to WWE, whose audience tends to be 60% male.

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