Sunday, August 14, 2011

WWE Studios rethinks its strategy after shooting seven films in New Orleans


Movies WWE Studios WWE Wrestling

WWE Studios rethinks its strategy after shooting seven films in New Orleans...

WWE Studios' New Orleans experiment might not be down for the count, exactly. But the wrestling-linked outfit's unique local strategy -- in which it shot seven films in town in less than two years, including the just-wrapped "No One Lives" -- is definitely changing.

WWE Studios chief Mike Pavone, who had been a near-constant presence in New Orleans for the better part of a year and a half, is leaving the company "to pursue other opportunities," according to a report this week in the trade paper Variety. That follows by days remarks from WWE honcho Vince McMahon that the company is rethinking its film strategy.

Taking advantage of Louisiana's filmmaking tax credits was a key to that strategy, which was Pavone's brainchild, dreamed up after the locally shot, bigger-budgeted 2009 action film "12 Rounds" performed poorly at the box office in the wake of a marketing push by distributor 20th Century Fox that was lackluster at best.

The Pavone plan was intended to keep the budgets of the studio's films -- mostly family-friendly fare on his watch, ranging in genre from comedies to a period drama -- in the $5 million range, a bargain by Hollywood standards. In addition to taking advantage of Louisiana tax credits, it signed a new deal with independent distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films that gave the studio more say in marketing strategy.

Another key to it all, though, was Pavone's mass-production concept, in which production on one film cranked up just as its predecessor was wrapping, allowing the studio to roll much of its crew over from film to film and tamp down startup costs.

That was great for local film-industry workers hired by the studio, as they saw steady work with largely the same group of people for more than a year. And local movie buffs got to see New Orleans on the big screen. (Particularly memorable: Michael Rappaport's black-and-gold Super Bowl XLIV shirt in the forthcoming "Inside Out," albeit a shirt of questionable copyright.)

WWE's bean counters didn't have much to complain about, either -- at least not at first.

"This whole idea is based on a television model," Pavone said in a September interview on the New Orleans set of the forthcoming "Bending the Rules," starring Jamie Kennedy and wrestler Adam "Edge" Copeland. "Amortizing your costs over several movies, you roll the same crews over and over, you don't have to spend all the money for startup and shutdown costs, which could be to the tune of six grand a day to start up in a new place and hire new people and hire stage space.

"We make all of our deals based on multiple movies, so they give us some better rates and on and on. We found out we save a million dollars a movie."

Unfortunately, while all of that meant savings on the production side, it didn't necessarily translate into quality at the box office. Pavone tried to lend his films credibility by signing established actors -- including Ed Harris, Patricia Clarkson, Danny Glover, Michael Rappaport and Parker Posey -- to star alongside a selection of WWE wrestler/actors. But audiences didn't respond.

The new distribution deal didn't help matters. It was built around a cost-cutting plan to give each film a limited theatrical release followed just weeks later by DVD releases -- meaning WWE Studios would foot the bill for just one, rather than two, advertising campaigns. But the results apparently weren't much different than when Fox had the reins.

Although WWE Studios generated $4.3 million in the past three months, its latest release -- the coming-of-age comedy "That's What I Am," starring Harris and directed by Pavone -- lost $3.3 million during the second quarter after mustering only $6,400 from 10 theaters in three days at the box office, Variety reported.

After getting an exclusive DVD release at Walmart on May 17, "That's What I Am" -- shot mostly in Jefferson -- gets a wide home-video release on Tuesday (Aug. 16).

As for what direction the studio will take next, a hint could be in "No One Lives," which just wrapped production on the north shore.

That film saw the studio team with Pathe U.K., part of a strategy to share costs with other production partners. As a horror flick directed by Ryuhei Kitamura ("Midnight Meat Train"), it also might signal a shift toward more genre fare, Variety speculated, after Pavone's slate of mostly feel-good dramas and family fare didn't appeal to the company's fan base.

And, it's worth noting, Louisiana is apparently still part of the picture.

WWE Studio's Snapshot...

A look at WWE Studios' films shot locally under the supervision of recently departed executive Mike Pavone:

"Knucklehead," available on DVD now.

"Legendary" (working title: "Brother's Keeper"), available on DVD now.

"The Chaperone," available on DVD now.

"That's What I Am" (working titles: "Big Red," "Big Ginger") available Tuesday on DVD.

"Inside Out", set for limited theatrical release Sept. 9.

"Bending the Rules," release date unannounced.

"No One Lives," just wrapped production.

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