For a decade, WWE has wrestled with the kind of movies it wants to make, shifting from actioners and horror fare headlined by wrestlers John Cena, Kane and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to silly comedies and treacly dramas that seemed more at home on the Hallmark Channel. But over the past year, the company's film arm, WWE Studios, appears to have found its footing.
Its biggest hit to date, the Halle Berry thriller "The Call," earned nearly $69 million at the worldwide box office. Produced with Troika Pictures and released by Sony's TriStar banner last year, the film represents the kind of projects WWE now wants on its slate: movies with notable names it can pair with other producers on and offset the financial risk that has dragged down so many others in Hollywood.
In March, that included co-producing the latest Scooby-Doo caper -- set at WrestleMania, of course -- with Warner Bros.' animation and homevideo arms, and in April, it joins horrormeister Jason Blum and Relativity Media to release the supernatural thriller "Oculus," which generated buzz at last year's Toronto Intl. Film Festival and SXSW.
Both films signal the diverse audience WWE Studios is looking to lure with its big- and smallscreen outings -- families and older fans of genre fare -- the same broad group that watches its weekly TV shows.
"Our brand and our fanbase gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility in the types of films we can be involved with," says Michael Luisi, president of WWE Studios since late 2011. Films like "Scooby-Doo" "will play for every segment of our audience," he adds, "but there will also be movies that a significant portion of our fans will respond to and goes to, such as supernatural and horror. There's a great opportunity to take advantage of that."
Its releases this year also include a reboot of the "Leprechaun" horror franchise, starring WWE's Hornswoggle, and the Soska Sisters' "See No Evil 2," both to be distributed by Lionsgate.
It also has started production on a fourth installment of "The Marine" and "Jingle All the Way 2," with Larry the Cable Guy and longtime partner 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, and will follow up "Scooby-Doo" with a "Flintstones" movie starring prehistoric versions of WWE's wrestlers. With Blumhouse Prods., it has the Aaron Eckhart horror thriller "Incarnate," and is working with Hyde Park Entertainment on a bigscreen version of TV show "The Fall Guy."
While homevideo titles typically star one of its wrestlers, theatrical releases tend to feature them in supporting roles. "Oculus" does not, given that it was picked up from a festival.
"What comes next is the ongoing evolution of what we're doing now," Luisi says. "We're playing for singles and doubles, but we'd love the home run."
That could come with "Oculus," given that it's slated for the first pickup to get a wide release ("The Day," distributed by Anchor Bay received a very limited run in theaters before hitting homevideo in 2012).
Having come from the independent film world, Luisi keeps a close eye on the bottom line -- he has to, with just $20 million to spread out across multiple releases a year, hence the increased interest to co-finance projects with other producers.
Partners are drawn to WWE's promotional reach. It touts its ability to promote movies across its various platforms, from weekly TV shows to websites, magazines and the new WWE Network, and a massive social media following.
"We firmly believe that our ability to open a movie is truly unique and the co-branding allows us to raise awareness within our fanbase gives us a competitive advantage," Luisi says.The partnership with Blumhouse Prods came after Luisi and Blum discussed ways to work together and connect their brands.
"Jason is very consistent in terms of the movies he makes and the way he makes them," Luisi says. "We try to employ a very similar discipline in what we're doing. We're huge fans of his movies. For his movies to be our movies collectively is appealing."
Last year, WWE's marketing push got behind five films and the ABC Family movie "Christmas Bounty," all of which increased WWE Studios' revenue to $10.8 million, compared to $7.9 million in 2012. Pics released during the period included the theatrical releases "The Call," "No One Lives," "Dead Man Down" and direct-to-DVD titles "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" and "The Marine 3: Homefront." The disappointing box office of "Dead Man Down" and other low-performing films forced the division to report a $12.7 million loss due to $11.7 million in impairment charges.
Still the studio arm generated sales of $5 million during the fourth quarter, up from $600,000 during the same year-ago frame, with earnings coming mostly from "Christmas Bounty."
With Warner Bros. Consumer Products, the "Scooby-Doo" and "Flintstones" films are the first films to launch a line of merchandise that includes apparel, coloring books, action figures and other toys around its movies, another revenue-generating opportunity for WWE Studios.
"That's a different well for us," Luisi says, "and another reason we're making these movies."
WWE chairman Vince McMahon remains bullish on the future of his film arm.
"We have a new business model," he said during a fourth-quarter earnings call with analysts in February. "It's our third model. This one is working. We're a content company. We understand storylines. Going forward, we believe (film) will be a considerable contributor to the bottom line."
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