Body Slamming The Multiplex: The Future of WWE Studios

When you hear the letters WWE, you instantly think of large men being body slammed and leaping from top turnbuckles to the glee of thousands of adoring fans in arenas across the country (and millions more watching from home). And when you hear WWE Studios you instantly think of large men trying to act in modestly budgeted genre movies to low box office draws and dismal reviews.

Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment has been successful in many endeavors that parallel its main money-maker, but the one thing it can’t seem to crack are the movies. Of course, it's not for lack of trying.

Back in 1989, when it was called the World Wrestling Federation and Hulk Hogan was at his zenith, ol’ Vince looked around and saw action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone dominating the box office and decided that his Adonis could do the same. He went ahead and made the first-ever film produced by the WWF, "No Holds Barred," starring Hogan as, you guessed it, a wrestler going up against a crooked promoter and a psychotic bad guy. Riding Hogan’s popularity, and shrewdly using the weekly WWF TV shows and their Pay-Per View events to promote it, "No Holds Barred" took in a respectable earning of $16 million while in theaters (coming at #2 its opening weekend behind "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"). Wrestling was suddenly a very real player in the moviemaking business.

Well, kind of. WWF, renamed World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002, went silent in their movie endeavors after "No Holds Barred" for the better part of decade. Then in the early 2000s WWE Films (now called WWE Studios) was formed producing action, horror and comedies headlined by WWE talent. I mean, who could forget Triple H in "The Chaperone" or Edge opposite Jamie Kennedy in "Bending The Rules" or Kane in "See No Evil." The films that got theatrical distribution rarely made a dent in the box office, while the others went straight-to-DVD.

However, in 2013 WWE Studios is trying a new formula. With the hiring of former Miramax executive Michael Luisi as studio head, there have been seismic changes, and all the proof you need is to look at the new releases for the next few weeks. "Dead Man Down," the actioner starring Terrence Howard, Colin Farrell, Noomi Repace and directed by original "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" helmer Niels Arden Oplev as well as thriller "The Call," starring Halle Berry, are both co-produced by WWE Studios.

With his relationships in the industry, Luisi, who came on as president of WWE Studios in 2011, has been able to quickly attach the studio to projects that could attract WWE’s fanbase, even if they didn’t feature any wrestling elements (though WWE superstars Wade Barrett and David Otunga have small supporting roles in "Dead Man Down" and "The Call," respectively). The films' marketing campaigns have conspicuously lacked any explicit mention of WWE's involvement.

"The WWE logo is such an iconic and recognizable brand that it brings incredible strength, but it can sometimes bring preconceived notions," Luisi told  "We want people to know the movies are ours, but we want to do it in a way that isn’t potentially creating the wrong impression. The movies come first."

Luisi says the new strategy for the studio is broken down in three segments. There’s the wide theatrical releases that attract broader audiences with the casting of name talent. Then there are the branded wrestler-heavy franchises that will be released direct-to-home, like the upcoming "The Marine: Homefront," the third installment of the WWE-produced action franchise that once starred WWE superstar John Cena (and is one of the few successful franchises in WWE Studio’s stable). For "Homefront" they cast one of their younger stars in the lead role; even those unfamiliar with the wrestling world might recognize Mike "The Miz" Mizanin from his stint on MTV's "The Real World: Back to New York." Finally, there are the acquisitions of titles at film festivals, which will be promoted through the WWE TV programs and other marketing.

Luisi is certainly moving in the right direction to make non-wrestling fans realize WWE isn’t just about making "wrestling movies." "You’re judged by the company you keep," he says. "So hopefully people will say, 'Wow, they’re involved with some tremendous producers and directors and actors. There’s really something different going on.""

But at the same time Luisi knows where his bread is buttered, and there’s no better example of that than an upcoming project he was most excited to talk about: a feature animated film co-produced with Warner Bros. animation that has Scooby-Doo and his gang solving a mystery at WrestleMania.

As much as things change, they stay the same I guess.