The clue is in the name; World Wrestling Entertainment. The company is more than just a wrestling promotion and rather than a reason to hurl bile at Vince McMahon, perhaps it is time the masses celebrate the (relative) success that WWE Studios has enjoyed.
Now, there are those who virtually crease up into a ball of vitriol at the merest mention of sports-entertainment, but it would of benefit to remember that this term isn’t a recent phenomenon; Vince McMahon has called his style of professional wrestling “sports entertainment” since before the very first WrestleMania. There’s even that famous retort when Ted Turner called him to say he was now in the wrestling business;
“That’s great, Ted; I’m in the entertainment business”
Through the failed ventures like the WBF and the XFL, McMahon has acquired a reputation for an anti-Midas Touch when it comes to non-wrestling ventures. However, WWE Music and WWE Studios appear to the be the exception to that, with the former making WWE a boatload of cash; first with The Wrestling Album and Piledriver back in the day and then with the entrance theme collections, followed by the more experimental Aggression, Forceable Entry and Wreckless Intent (and now with the iTunes releases of individual themes).
However, it has been the movie division that has been met with the harsher criticism. Seemingly any announcement of a WWE Studios movie has more rolled eyes that an Undertaker Fan Appreciation Night.
My question to you is, “Do you think that’s fair?” and to answer that, I’m going to look at the reasons why it should be appreciated.
Firstly, you have to look back to 1989 and the wonder that is No Holds Barred. Produced under The Shane Distribution Company (which would eventually become WWE Films and eventually WWE Studios) and released by New Line Cinema (the house that Freddy built and more recently the studio behind The Lord of the Rings series), this was a cheesefest of the highest order, but a fun one to boot. Hulk Hogan was playing Hulk Hogan with a different name and Tiny Lister (now a respected character actor who has been in a host of movies, including a prominent – albeit small – role in The Dark Knight) was his ultimate opponent; Zeus.
This led to a number of matches on WWE television (I told you it was sports-entertainment a long time ago), including three big PPV bouts.
Nothing else would happen within the movie world until The Rock was cast as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. WWE Films had a producer credit for this one (although it was generally considered a token gesture – as a surprising number are, even on major movies). The Rock’s performance was so well received, Universal decided to release a prequel in 2002 with Mathayus as the hero, with the story filling in the blanks on what led to his eventual change into the villain. Some straight-to-video sequels followed, but WWE had nothing to do with them, only the first Scorpion King film.
The Rock was in demand as an actor (and 13 years later, that demand has only increased for the man now dubbed “Franchise Viagra” – which, unfortunately, always makes me thing of Shane Douglas v Billy Kidman’s Viagra on a Pole Match from WCW) and WWE Studios were getting their feet in the proverbial door.
After the release of The Scorpion King,with The Rock netting the largest salary for a debut leading role, the man would head up the next two big movies with WWE Studios involvement; The Rundown (or Welcome to the Jungle depending on where you live) and Walking Tall (which was a remake of a 1970s movie of the same name; the true story of Sheriff Buford Pusser and his trusty 2×4 cleaning up his home town). Both were fairly well received by critics and audiences alike.
Unfortunately for wrestling, this was the beginning of The Rock’s ascension in Hollywood, so his wrestling schedule was beginning to wind down as his acting requirements increased.
I firmly believe that WWE Studios effectively deciding to (pretty much) go it alone was due to the fear that other wrestlers would follow suit. In Vince’s mind, I’m sure he though that if they made the movies and gave his wrestlers starring roles in these movies, the wrestlers wouldn’t leave the promotion that made them who they are.
Due to this, Kane was first up to be the star of an in-house movie. A lot of people think it was Cena, but The Big Red Machine beat him to the punch with See No Evil.
Most successful horror movies (from a financial POV) are successful for one main reason; the films are relatively cheap to produce, so don’t take as long to turn a profit. It’s one of the reasons there have been twelve Friday the 13th films, nine Nightmare of Elm Streets, ten Halloween movies, seven Saws, etc, etc. These films find their core audience and that becomes enough to sustain then. Should others come along for the ride, then all the better.
For a first venture, See No Evil had the perfect lead actor in Kane due to the character he portrayed on TV as well as his physical stature. The film itself was pretty much a standard stalk-and-slash, but Kane excelled in the role, the supporting players (while stereotypical) were capable and the effects themselves were pretty damn impressive. It was a good first time at bat, making over double it’s production budget at the Box Office alone. DVD sales are always a strong point for horror films. Case in point; See No Evil had a production budget of US$8,000,000 and took just over US$18,000,000 in cinemas across the globe. Through the DVD sales, the movie made over US$60,000,000 in worldwide sales; a massive profit in anyone’s book.
Cena was up next with The Marine, which had a fine supporting cast (including Robert Patrick, Manu Bennett, Anthony Ray Parker and Kelly Carlson) and it was an enjoyable action romp. Again, this made a profit at the Box Office (less than See No Evil‘s, it has to be noted) and made close to US$40,000,000 on DVD. Even at this early stage, a patter was emerging.
Steve Austin (who had retired from wrestling at this point) had his moment in the sun with The Condemned… and became the star of the first WWE Studios movie to make a loss in cinemas. With an even larger cast than Cena’s film and a more intriguing, in not unique, premise (violent and capable prisoners are dropped on an island and have to fight to the death while it is all shown over the internet as a reality TV show), it was a surprise that this fared so poorly, but as before, the home video market salvaged it and the movie again turned a relatively healthy profit.
On screen, it has become almost a running joke that a wrestler would be injured in some way to give them time to shoot whatever movie they were starring in. The benefit of this though is that it gives at least one wrestler a storyline whereby they put a rival on the shelf and also gives the “injured” party a viable storyline to return to once filming and promotional duties have wrapped.
Cena was stabbed by Jesus (who was originally going to be New Jack) at the behest of Carlito during their US Championship feud and Mr. Kennedy was put out of action so he could film Behind Enemy Lines II, the first straight-to-DVD release of the WWE Studios era.
My personal favourite WWE Studios film (just pipping Kane’s outing) is 12 Rounds. The first movie to be released under the WWE Studios name, it has a fun premise (good cop accidentally kills bad guy’s girlfriend. Bad guy then makes cop jump through hoops to save his own love) and a great actor in Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones and Bane-hunter in The Dark Knight Rises) as the lead villain. Again, it didn’t make a profit in cinemas, but managed to do so through home-video sales and rentals.
It’s at this point the cinema releases all but dried up. The Marine 2 was straight-to-DVD, while Knucklehead (an embarrassment of a movie), The Chaperone and That’s What I Am had contractually-obligated cinema releases (which usually involve a single weekend of screenings in one or two cinemas) to minimal box-office before making their money with DVD sales (That’s What I Am was the first to officially not make more than the production budget via home sales too)
Going back to straight-to-DVD, WWE Studios then churned out Inside Out, The Reunion, Bending the Rules, Barricade and The Marine 3 to less and less fan-fare. It was obvious a change was needed.
That change came with the release of The Day (which actually came between Bending the Rules and Barricade), the first movie related to WWE Studios to not have any of their wrestlers in the cast. Instead, the studio was involved in a distribution role only.
The movie had a limited cinematic release and a stellar cast (Ashley Bell, Shannyn Sossamon, Dominic Monaghan, Shawn Ashmore, Cory Hardrict and Michael Eklund), although due to a severe lack of promotion, failed to do any real business on DVD either.
For WWE though, this presented minimal losses due to the partnership with Anchor Bay and things kept chugging along nicely as there were six films released in 2013 and for the two biggest, WWE wrestlers were kept to supporting roles. Dead Man Down had Wade Barrett as a minor henchman, while the stars of the movie were Colin Farrell, Terence Howard, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, F. Murry Abraham, Armand Assante and Luis Da Silva.
WWE Studios were back in a production role and again while the movie failed to break even at the box-office, it turned a profit once the cash from DVD sales and rentals started rolling in.
From there, it was time for the tree to bear fruit as The Call became their most successful move (at least to date). Another Hollywood heavyweight took centre stage with Halle Berry starring as Jordan Turner, a 9-1-1 call handler who inadvertently causes the death of a girl who phoned in to report an intruder (Michael Eklund in another WWE Studios villain role). Given the chance to redeem herself, she excels in the role as a well-scripted game of cat-and-mouse plays out.
Sandwiched between two great horror movies is Randy Orton’s misjudged sequel 12 Rounds 2. Retreading the premise of the first is one thing (hey, it’s what a lot of cheap sequels do well), but do such a poor job was disappointing; both for me as a viewer and for the company from a financial standpoint.
The same can’t be said for the two horrors. Before Orton’s debacle was No One Lives (featuring Brodus Clay and starring Luke Evans) a cheap, but nasty-in-a-good-way film about revenge-driven violence and after was the critically-acclaimed Oculus, starring Karen Gillan, Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff in the spooky tale of a haunted mirror.
Oculus was a huge success at the box-office and made a killing through the home-media market (including streaming services such as Netflix). At the same time, Miz starred in a Christmas-set TV movie and the first animated feature from WWE Studios was released with Scooby Doo! WrestleMania Mystery.
Maintaining their commitment to distribution-only projects, Road to Palomo starring Jason “was Khal Drogo and soon to be Aquaman” Momoa, it was made for just US$600,000, had a limited cinema release, was critically acclaimed and made money once the home market became involved (a lot of which can be attributed to Momoa’s Game of Thrones popularity).
Even more obscure than that is Queens of the Ring; a French movie about a criminal single mother who decides to train to be a wrestler. It seems that the company decided to support the film in France only due to the wrestling connection.
As with 2013, there were six releases in 2014, with horror again featuring in the shape of Leprechaun: Origins, which, while having the “why did it take so long to get around to this one” casting of Hornswoggle in the title role, is the absolute worst movie on WWE Studios’ filmography. Yes; it’s even worse than Knucklehead.
Luckily, there was also See No Evil 2, with Kane reprising his role as Jacob Goodnight, the Soska Sisters helming the film and current-generation horror icons Katherine Isabella (who will always have a seat at my table, if you catch my drift) and Danielle Harris starring alongside Michael Eklund (making his third appearance in a WWE Studios film). A straight-to-DVD follow-up, this picks up exactly where the first movie left off and was generally well received by critics.
Rounding out the year, was Jingle All the Way 2, which traded in Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad for Santino Marella and Larry the Cable Guy… to predictable results. Following on from that was another cartoon crossover as The Flinstones joined forces with WWE for The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown. As you can imagine, this had the most wrestlers in the cast (as they were playing “Flinstoned” versions of their on-screen personae.
All in all, (as well as the rather fantastic The Mania of WrestleMania documentary looking at WrestleMania XIX), WWE Studios have been involved in the production and / or distribution of 33 movies, with the most recent of those being The Marine 4 as The Miz becomes the first marine to get a second outing.
This one was a straight-to-DVD release (available from April 21st), with an on-demand release 11 days prior.
33 films over a period of thirteen years has shown that WWE Studios is not a flash-in-the-pan to be mentioned alongside the XFL and WBF. It is a viable arm of the company and opportunity for the talent to spread their creative wings in ways that might not be afforded to them otherwise.
Now, are all the movies great? Of course not; some are awful. But there hasn’t been a movie studio that hasn’t released the odd critical clanger (even Marvel Studios had a stutter with Iron Man 2) and with the majority of the WWE Studios output turning a profit eventually, it has been a worthwhile venture over the bigger picture.
For WWE, their wrestlers don’t have to venture outside the promotion to live their dreams of being in a movie (and for WWE it also gives them a chance of keeping the stars on the roster instead of them becoming bigger than the company as what happened with The Rock).
Meanwhile, for the wrestlers, it actually gives them a chance to take a break from the punishing schedule they keep while active in the ring. We always hear about how WWE has no off-season and there have been a number of discussions in how to give wrestlers time off without hurting their momentum or the product as a whole. The movies from WWE Studios (on a small scale) give a wrestler a break from the physical toll being a wrestler incurs and allows them to slot back into the roster with a ready-made angle because they were written out with a injury.
For me, WWE Studios has been more hit than miss and, if you’re still not convinced, I’ll leave you with this final thought; without WWE Studios we would have no A-Lister Miz and without A-Lister Miz we would have had no Damien MizDow.