WWE will loosen grip on theatricals

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NEW YORK -- On the heels of weaker-than-hoped boxoffice revenue for its third feature, "The Condemned," World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. said Thursday that it will focus on direct-to-video releases over the near-term.

During the sports entertainment powerhouse's first-quarter earnings call, CEO Linda McMahon said that while the WWE film team will continue to evaluate all sorts of scripts, no theatrical features are planned.

"We are now able to move more into direct-to-video production, and that will be the next focus," said, adding the company is looking at a couple of such scripts.

Despite the change in focus, McMahon noted that the WWE is in talks with a major studio on a potential deal for direct-to-video or theatrical distribution on a first-look basis.

The CEO said she still feels WWE's film strategy is "sound," adding its first three theatrical releases were important to get a foot into Hollywood and expand the visibility of the firm's brand beyond its traditional fan base.

McMahon also predicted that all three movies will "make money or at worst break even."

"Condemned," starring "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, has grossed about $4.4 million since its release on Friday, which is "below our aspirations for the film," she said. "We clearly were disappointed with the first weekend." The film was distributed by Lionsgate.

McMahon said WWE is looking at the reasons for the weaker-than-expected performance, with the movie's R rating being one potential factor. She emphasized, though, that her company expects "Condemned" to perform well in the home video market.

The other WWE big-screen efforts were 2006 releases "See No Evil," starring the WWE's Kane, which grossed $15 million and was also distributed by Lionsgate, and Fox release "The Marine," which starred John Cena and took in $18.8 million.

McMahon said that the April 1 WrestleMania 23, WWE's latest edition of its biggest annual pay-per-view event, drew about 1.2 million PPV buys based on preliminary estimates by cable and satellite operators. That would be a WWE record and a 15% increase over WrestleMania buy rates of the past three years, the CEO said.

WWE on Thursday reported higher first-quarter earnings, driven by revenue gains in all business segments.

The firm posted a profit of $15.1 million, up from $9.5 million in the year-ago period. Revenue rose to $107.4 million from $95.1 million, exceeding Wall Street estimates.

WWE shares jumped more than 8% during Thursday trading to approach their 52-week high of $18.54.
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