For much of its 15-year existence, WWE Studios has been mostly known as an outlet for low-budget action and comedy films starring Vince McMahon’s stable of pro wrestlers.
But in recent years, the studio has been reaching outside of the ring to produce and distribute films that aren’t related to WWE talent, and this weekend it’s taking its biggest leap yet with “Sleight.” The thriller is WWE Studios’ first Sundance purchase; it is co-distributing with BH Tilt, distribution wing of Blumhouse Pictures.
Directed by newcomer J.D. Dillard from a script he penned with writing partner Alex Theurer, “Sleight” stars Jacob Latimore as Bo, a teenage street illusionist and hustler who struggles to make ends meet for himself and his sister after the death of their parents. He gets a little bit of cash from folks who are impressed by his card tricks, but the majority of his income comes from selling party drugs on behalf of Angelo (Dule Hill), a drug lord who seems like a father figure at first, but as Bo finds out, quickly becomes vicious if you do something he doesn’t like.
Soon, Bo’s attempts to escape to a better life put him on a collision course with Angelo, forcing him to use all the skills he’s built on the streets, including one secret ability that gives “Sleight” a very comic-book bent.
Michael J. Luisi, executive producer of “Sleight” and president of WWE Studios, said adding wrestler-free films to the slate had been a part of the studio’s plan since McMahon hired him in 2011 from Miramax, where he was EVP of Worldwide Operations. The idea was that along with sending wrestlers to movie sets, they could also put out genre films that could grab the attention of WWE’s fan base.
“We had a vision that we could do so much more if, instead of just limiting ourselves to making movies with wrestlers, we broaden our opportunities by putting the movies first,” Luisi said.
In 2013, that approach gave WWE Studios their first big commercial success with “The Call,” a TriStar-distributed crime thriller starring Halle Berry as a 911 dispatcher who seeks to save a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) from a serial killer. WWE wrestler David Otunga played a minor role in “The Call,” giving WWE the hook to promote it on their wrestling shows, but the film’s crossover appeal through Berry’s performance allowed it to gross $68 million against a $13 million budget.
The following year, WWE Studios entered a partnership with Blumhouse to co-produce the horror movie “Oculus.” The partnership was a natural fit, as Luisi and Blumhouse founder Jason Blum had known each other from their days at Miramax.
Along with that, Blumhouse had found a great deal of success producing and distributing the sort of adrenaline-pumping fare (e.g. “Split” and “Get Out”) that might interest a wrestling fan, at a price tag that makes such titles low-risk and high-reward. The addition of BH Tilt in 2014 then allowed that partnership between Blum and Luisi to expand their ventures from producing films to distributing them as well.
“We worked with Jason and their team to find films that we were both passionate about, could leverage both our fanbases and get a great creative and commercial result,” Luisi said. “BH Tilt handles all the traditional marketing for the film and we coordinate with them to add that layer of promotion at WWE shows and live events.”
With Blumhouse and BH Tilt, WWE Studios produced and distributed two films: the 2016 horror film “Incarnate” and the 2017 faith-based comedy “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.” But “Sleight” is the first distribution-only project WWE and BH Tilt have taken together, with the film being produced by Diablo Entertainment on a shoestring budget of $250,000. Only the third film WWE Studios has distributed that it did not produce, it is projected to make between $1-2 million from its targeted release in 550 theaters.
Luisi says he had been searching for several years for a Sundance film WWE could promote, and if “Sleight,” which premiered at the Festival in 2016, can turn in some good box office results, it could continue to distribute festival pickups alongside partners like BH Tilt.
Even if that doesn’t happen, Luisi will still have his hands full with another new venture: wrestling biopics. WWE Studios is co-producing “Fighting With My Family,” a drama about Saraya Bevis, the daughter of a wrestling family who went on to become a champion in WWE under the ring name Paige. “Game of Thrones” star Lena Headey will play Paige’s mother and wrestling partner, Julia “Sweet Saraya” Bevis, and Dwayne Johnson is on to both produce the film and star as himself and his famed WWE alter-ego, The Rock.
Then, as revealed earlier this week, WWE will produce for TriStar “Pandemonium,” which will tell the story of how Vince McMahon turned his father’s regional wrestling federation into the WWE and turned himself into a wrestling promoter who made himself a part of his own show.