WWE Wrestles Its Way Into Indie Film Industry

WWE Superstar Randy Orton celebrates victory during WrestleMania XXVI in March 2010. Orton appears in a dramatic role in That's What I Am, a WWE Studios production coming out in April. i i

WWE Superstar Randy Orton celebrates victory during WrestleMania XXVI in March 2010. Orton appears in a dramatic role in That's What I Am, a WWE Studios production coming out in April. Rick Scuteri/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Rick Scuteri/AP
WWE Superstar Randy Orton celebrates victory during WrestleMania XXVI in March 2010. Orton appears in a dramatic role in That's What I Am, a WWE Studios production coming out in April.

WWE Superstar Randy Orton celebrates victory during WrestleMania XXVI in March 2010. Orton appears in a dramatic role in That's What I Am, a WWE Studios production coming out in April.

Rick Scuteri/AP

World Wrestling Entertainment is well known for featuring large men in small shorts theatrically walloping one another. But you might not know that WWE also runs an independent film studio starring the likes of Danny Glover, Ed Harris and Patricia Clarkson in small, serious films.

But why? As a formidable global entertainment company, WWE's revenues top $470 million last year. Only about four percent of that comes from films. So why should they even bother?

The answer is two words, according to Kevin Eck, an assistant sports editor for The Baltimore Sun, and pro wrestling blogger: The Rock.

"If you know [WWE chairman] Vince McMahon or know his reputation at all, he's clearly a control freak," Eck says. "And I think what he doesn't want to have happen is have anyone get as big as The Rock. Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is no longer property of WWE , so I think they learned from that."

Johnson's small part in the 2001 film The Mummy Returns led to a new career as a movie star. (The film grossed over $400 million.) Now he's left wrestling behind and co-starring with such lofty thespians as Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine. But not every wrestler translates from ring to screen with such ease. Kevin Eck suggests that perhaps wrestlers' spectacular showmanship is ill- served by the small tightly controlled space of movie sets.

Away from the ring, Randy Orton (left) plays a much more subdued role in That's What I Am, which was written and directed by Michael Pavone, executive vice president of WWE Studios. The film also features Amy Madigan (right) and Ed Harris. i i

Away from the ring, Randy Orton (left) plays a much more subdued role in That's What I Am, which was written and directed by Michael Pavone, executive vice president of WWE Studios. The film also features Amy Madigan (right) and Ed Harris. /WWE hide caption

itoggle caption /WWE
Away from the ring, Randy Orton (left) plays a much more subdued role in That's What I Am, which was written and directed by Michael Pavone, executive vice president of WWE Studios. The film also features Amy Madigan (right) and Ed Harris.

Away from the ring, Randy Orton (left) plays a much more subdued role in That's What I Am, which was written and directed by Michael Pavone, executive vice president of WWE Studios. The film also features Amy Madigan (right) and Ed Harris.

/WWE

"You don't get to interact with an audience," he points out. "You don't have that rush of being in front of 15,000 people, millions of people watching you live on TV ... It amazes me that a guy like John Cena has so much charisma oozing out of him when he plays his wrestling character, but I think in the movies he's done so far, he comes across kind of wooden."

Most reviewers agreed. Film critics have not been kind to the handful of WWE movies that have come out since the studio's creation in 2002. But WWE Studios head Mike Pavone says the hope is that its movies will bring a new audience to WWE and expand the company's brand.

"You get so much credibility with a Patricia Clarkson or an Ed Harris," he says.

Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris has the lead in the WWE movie That's What I Am, opening this month. It's the studio's first period film, set in the 1960s. Harris plays a beloved high school teacher facing rumors about his sexuality. But why would an Ed Harris or a Patricia Clarkson do a World Wrestling Entertainment film?

"It's about money," Pavone says flatly. "And it's about availability."

WWE Studios' fast shoots are easily squeezed into the busy schedules of stars. And Pavone says friendship with an A-list casting director helps in terms of getting them scripts.

In the ring, WWE wrestler Ted DiBiase Jr. is a bad guy — a heel, in wrestling parlance. But he played an action star in the 2009 movie The Marine 2. Backstage before a recent match, he considered what he'd like his next movie to be: "I'll be honest with you," DiBiase admits bashfully. "I'm a sucker for chick flicks."

Cage matches. Choke slams. Chick flicks. To make it in show business, it's not bad to have a little something for everyone.

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