WWE Films: now with extra cheese

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This column was originaly published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 15th March 2011.

I have a confession to make. I don’t mind watching a little bit of wrestling. Don’t tell my mum.

It has always irritated me when people say that it isn’t real. Of course it’s real. When you see a wrestler fly across the ring, he’s actually doing that. When he jumps off the top rope, that’s what is really happening. The notion that you are watching a legitimate fight is what is not real.

The outcome of the matches may be pre-determined and the storylines may be put together by a team of writers but why should that diminish my enjoyment? I know that Home and Away, Neighbours, House, Doctor Who and A Current Affair are completely fictional and I’m sure that it doesn’t stop anyone from watching them.

What I will concede, though, is that the ability to act is not necessarily a prerequisite to be a WWE Superstar. I would suggest big muscles and the ability to look good in lycra trunks is far more important. Subtlety is not really essential in the larger than life soap opera for (mostly) men that is professional wrestling.

So I find it extremely interesting that World Wrestling Entertainment has set up its own film studio to produce motion pictures vehicles for its biggest stars.

WWE was formally the World Wrestling Federation or WWF until a court case brought by the World Wildlife Fund in 2000 determined that the general public might get confused between bodyslams and pandas. I know I often do.

To date, WWE Studios has produced or co-produced ten feature films to variable box office takings and mixed reviews. There are another five on the way.

The Rock, or as he would prefer to be known now, Dwayne Johnson, starred in the first three, and most successful, WWE Studios productions. The Scorpion King (2002), Welcome to the Jungle (2003) and Walking Tall (2004) were all box office hits and cemented Johnson’s place as a legitimate breakout star. His charisma in the ring carried over to the big screen and although he did not become the Schwarzenegger of the noughties as was expected, he is certainly now a big name Hollywood actor.

The depth of the talent pool became somewhat shallower with the departure of The Rock as he retired his trunks and pursued acting fulltime. Next in line in terms of wrestling stardom was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Arguably the biggest star since Hulk Hogan and responsible for reversing the fortunes of an ailing WWE throughout the nineties, Austin’s vehicle The Condemned (2007), a knockoff of The Running Man (2007) and co-starring Vinnie Jones, was a flop at the box office. Austin has gone on to several direct-to-DVD films as well as appearing as a henchman in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010)  although he is yet to expand his acting range beyond looking menacing and punching things.

With the relative failure of current Superstar John Cena’s two movies, The Marine (2006) and 12 Rounds (2009), WWE Studios changed tactics and chose to focus their productions on the direct-to-DVD market, with most films having a very short cinema engagement before hitting the shelves soon after. There also appears to be a trend of not stretching the limited acting abilities of the wrestlers by ensuring that the roles they play are not far from the grappling world. John Cena plays a former high school wrestling champion in Legendary (2010) and “The Big Show” Paul Wight portrays a dim witted cage fighter in last year’s Knucklehead.

With over six hours of WWE programming a week on pay TV, it could be argued that fans are unlikely to spend money seeing wrestlers in films when they can watch them for next to nothing on the box. However, there may still be some money to be made with low budget movies starring contracted wrestlers and B grade actors.

I suppose the lack of acting ability has never really stopped anyone from making it to the big screen. Just ask Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Jessica Simpson.

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