WWE locks in on DVD first

Will loosen grip on feature films

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 during the near term.

The update came on a day when WWE said pay-per-view buys for WrestleMania 23 likely set a record and its shares hit a new high.

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," she said, adding that the company is looking at a couple of such scripts.

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 that WWE's film strategy is "sound," adding that 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 April 27 release, 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 Kane, which grossed $15 million and also was distributed by Lionsgate, and 20th Century Fox's "The Marine," starring John Cena, which 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 8.3% to $18.47 after hitting a 52-week high of $18.60 intraday.