“We make movies” – Vince McMahon’s surprising response when asked what the ultimate aim of his company is, in the 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat. At the time I, along with most other people, did not have a clue what he was talking about. I just dismissed the remark as another one of Vince’s half-baked attempts at humour. I was aware of the disastrously bad 1989 effort No Holds Barred, but assumed that could be put on a shelf with Hulk Hogan’s Rock n’ Wrestling cartoon series and other Hogan centred attempts at mainstream crossover from the 1980’s.
Fast forward a few years to 2002 and Vince quietly unveiled WWF Films, which was swiftly changed to WWE Films after the company was forced to ‘get the ‘F’ out’ of it’s name. Then for a few years nothing much (in the public eye) happened. Then in May 2006 See No Evil, starring Kane, was released. This was followed by The Marine, starring John Cena, in October of that year and The Condemned starring Steve Austin in April 2007. The Marine did see a little bit of success at the box office, ultimately grossing just under $19 million. It’s just a shame that the movie had a budget of $20 million. The Condemned was a complete disaster, losing over $6 million. See No Evil on the other hand ended up making an $8 million profit, but in fairness it benefited from being the first WWE movie to be released and it had a considerably smaller budget than the other two films.
These initial efforts brought about a change in strategy from the now WWE Studios. They would still cast WWE Superstars in leading roles, but, based on their relative success in the DVD market, they would instead focus on the lower risk, straight to DVD market. Most releases did feature in select cinemas, however the focus was very much on the DVD release that would typically occur just a few weeks after the theatrical release. Also, just as WWE’s wrestling product turned PG, so did it’s films. The Big Show, Triple H and Randy Orton were cast in lead, or prominent, roles in the abysmal Knucklehead, The Chaperone and That’s What I Am respectively. However, the straight to DVD market is not why WWE got into the movie business. The figures, both financially and critically, remained consistently poor.
The last couple of years has seen yet another change of strategy. Firstly, WWE Studios has created separation from its wrestling content by re-introducing R-rated films, which is the equivalent of a 15 certificate here in the UK. Secondly, and more significantly, they have drastically reduced the use of WWE performers within their films.
Just two of the last four WWE films have featured wrestlers, and even then in relatively minor roles. Wade Barrett featured in the bad, but not half as bad as previous WWE films, Dead Man Down. However the losses from this film were recouped by the surprisingly profitable, and surprisingly good, The Call starring Halle Berry (with David Otunga in a supporting role). The Call grossed close to $60 million, which is more than triple WWE’s previous best. This equates to a profit of around $45 million. Couple this with some very impressive DVD sales (It was the #1 DVD upon its release in June) and WWE have some serious encouragement. Granted, The Day and No One Lives did absolutely nothing upon their release, but the relative success of The Call has given WWE Studios hope for the future.
Going forward WWE are likely to repeat this formula, just as they do with wrestlers. It’s no secret that WWE have a thing, justified or not, for wrestlers who have superhero-esque physiques. In The Call they may have stumbled across a winning formula by presenting an R-rated thriller, starring an established Hollywood actress (albeit one in need of a hit), in a bid to tap into the female demographic. Previously WWE had targeted it’s wrestling fans by presenting performers we see every Monday night either blowing stuff up or playing kid friendly roles. Heck, the fact that the films went PG when the wrestling did proves a correlation between the two. Now, along with the reality series Total Divas, WWE are tapping into a new market that doesn’t care (and in some cases may not even know) about the company’s other endeavours. Put it this way, when you go to the cinema do you know and/or care who the production company behind the movie is? By presenting films aimed at wrestling fans WWE were constantly releasing ‘The New WWE Film’. However, by not pandering to it’s wrestling fans – and let’s face it, we’re a cynical lot who, as the figures indicate, obviously weren’t interested in their movies – WWE can promote ‘The New Halle Berry film’, which carries far more weight within the general populous.
All this is well and good but if the films are crap then the profit margins will also be crap. It’s no surprise that their most successful film to date was also their best. Going forward WWE appear to have taken heed, as a sequel to The Call is being talked about. However, they haven’t entirely abandoned their original strategy as Kane is currently absent from TV while he films See No Evil 2. Up until earlier this year there was no doubt that WWE Studios was bad for business. Even accounting for the persistence shown towards the venture it surely still had a finite shelf life. However, in the wake of their first sniff of success all bets are off. WWE Studios has had one hit from fifteen attempts, so I guess only time will tell if it was a fluke or they really have managed to make it in the movie business.