EXCLUSIVE: In an age where books routinely get tiny movie options and languish in development, one could do worse than make a deal with wrestling mogul Vince McMahon’s WWE Studios. In a mid-6 figure outright buy, WWE acquired the 2008 John Capouya book Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Popular Culture. Not only was the deal brokered by Justin Manask generous for the author, but WWE Films has committed to a 2011 start date for a film about a journeyman wrestler who remade himself into a preening, vamping villain and became a national TV star at a time when there was little on the boob tube but wrestling and Milton Berle. WWE Films set John Posey to write the script for a film that will be the last of nine features WWE will generate in less than two years. The fourth, Killing Karma, is shooting now.
While early WWE films were schlocky action showcases for its spandex stars, WWE Films head Mike Pavone said the company has morphed into a family film factor with better scripts that draw actors like Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Patricia Clarkson, Danny Glover and Parker Posey to work alongside ring fixtures like Triple H, The Big Show and John Cena. Each film costs around $7 million after rebates for location shoots in Louisiana and Pavone said they save about $1 million for each film by never really wrapping production. Crews get a couple weeks rest after each film completes its 20-25 day shoot, and then the next one gets going.
A Gorgeous George film was McMahon’s idea, an exception to his unwritten rule not to make pictures about wrestlers. Pavone said George’s flamboyant persona not only set the tone for future stars like Hulk Hogan and The Rock, but also helped Bob Dylan come out of his shell and influenced the likes of Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Liberace.
“George Wagner was a good wrestler who couldn’t get over the top until he developed this character that people loved to hate,” Pavone said. “He had this effeminate, aristocratic persona that he and his wife Betty created from whole cloth, down to the robes and platinum blonde hairstyle his wife copied from Betty Grable. George realized that they don’t come to see the good guy win, they come to see the bad guy lose. He paraded as this effeminate man in the 40s and 50s in Texas and the South, with 12,000 people screaming and throwing things.” Wagner, who made his entrance to Pomp and Circumstance, rubbed elbows outside the ring with Hollywood stars, and made as much–$100,000 per year–as Joe DiMaggio. His fortunes flagged, though, and George stayed too long in the ring. His final payday: a humiliating match, pre-arranged for him to lose and have his signature blond locks shaved in the ring by his opponent, Dick the Destroyer.
Pavone said McMahon is committed to fully finance the Gorgeous George pic as well as the other eight WWE Films. It’s a bold play, because McMahon won’t know if the film program works until the pics start getting released in September. Samuel Goldwyn distributes the first few, and WWE Films will handle the marketing.
“We’ve been making these movies in a vacuum, confident that our model will prove itself,” Pavone said.