Q & A: Vince McMahon
Few entertainment moguls have hit a rival over the head with a trash can. Vince McMahon, however, has taken the role of a hands-on executive to a new level. The chairman of the publicly traded, family-run World Wrestling Entertainment mostly has given up the tights to focus on growing his business into a global brand. In addition to producing (soon) six hours of TV a week, WWE Films last year inked a first-look deal with Fox to distribute theatrical films and direct-to-DVD releases. And on April 5, McMahon will preside over WWE’s 25th edition of WrestleMania, which scores about 1 million pay-per-view buys every year. He spoke with THR’s Georg Szalai.
The Hollywood Reporter: How has your business changed since the first WrestleMania?
Vince McMahon: WrestleMania is not just national but international. We have grown into stadiums. It’s built into the lexicon now not just of Americana but almost every place. So the business has changed, but it has always been our Super Bowl, Emmys, Oscars, World Series.
THR: WWE has been a pioneer in migrating content across multiple platforms. How diversified are you now?
McMahon: There is no entertainment company in the world that is in every media form the way we are. We distribute our own music, and musical acts that associate with us are extraordinary, from AC/DC to an act we’re breaking. We’re also in the film business — not just with feature-length releases but also DVD. We have 21 hours of TV in the U.S. alone every week when you add in Spanish-language and reruns, plus we are on-demand. Our shows, of course, also put us in the live-event business. We have our merchandising and licensing, from toys, video games, apparel, books — you name it. And we publish magazines in English, Spanish, German, French. We are also online with our Web site and e-commerce, and we are on digital mobile services. Whether it’s Disney or anyone else, no one does it like we do.
THR: Some have said your TV ratings were a bit weaker than hoped for in the past few weeks. Is that a cause for concern?
McMahon: Quite frankly our TV ratings have been very good. We averaged over a 4, I think, three weeks ago. Last week and the week before it was a bit less so because of a number of factors: how many people watched TV and one-off events. What you have to look at is our overall reach in the course of a week. On TV, we reach over 15 million people each and every week, 52 weeks a year.
THR: How has the success of UFC and other mixed martial arts programming impacted you?
McMahon: Most people thought at one point that we would be competitors. But it turns out they are not competition to us at all, or hardly at all. They are sport, we are entertainment; it’s a huge difference. The revenue they have cut into is that of boxing.
THR: Any concern about TNA Wrestling, which has had lower ratings on Spike but is another organization that competes for your audience?
McMahon: My concern with TNA is not in terms of competition. My concern with TNA is that they are TV-14, and we are PG. They have to change with the times. I think some of the things they do on television are reprehensible, but it is a TV-14 rating. That’s the only bone I have to pick with them. Their TV ratings are a fraction of ours.
THR: But you recently had an episode of "Raw" where one of your champions, HHH, went to his WrestleMania opponent Randy Orton’s house with a sledgehammer. That is OK to show?
McMahon: Right. What we try to do in situations like that is use things that you can’t find around the house. You will never see us use a baseball bat. You don’t find folding metal chairs around the house. We are very selective. You can go up to the line. It’s storytelling; that’s how our business thrives. If you have well-defined characters and put them in the right story line against other characters, people care about their welfare.
THR: How many features and direct-to-DVD releases should we expect each year under WWE Films" new deal with Fox?
McMahon: We would do two to three theatricals a year. That way you can really key on your projects. And we would maybe do six to seven direct-to-DVD titles as a max. It’s a natural extension to what we do. We have already developed characters for our audience. John Cena’s film "12 Rounds" comes out Friday. He has been built as a character in WWE; he is part of our intellectual property. Here we have a built-in advantage. Nobody else in Hollywood has that. When he goes on "The Tonight Show," he can talk about WWE and "12 Rounds." And we can turn our global promotional machine on to promote the film across our various platforms.
THR: Have you made profits in film?
McMahon: Yes, we are profitable. We had one film that was not profitable at all: Stone Cold Steve Austin’s "The Condemned." There are a lot of reasons for it, none of them relating to Steve. Notwithstanding that setback, we have made money off "The Marine" (with Cena) and "See No Evil" (with WWE superstar Kane).
THR: What is the biggest non-U.S. market for you, and where do you see the biggest growth opportunity?
McMahon: Outside the U.S., the U.K. is the largest market. Europe, including U.K., probably accounts for about 70% of our international business. We are also in Australia and Japan. Our biggest potential growth market is China; we are in three or four provinces there. We are growing our base that way — brick by brick, just like we built the United States back in the syndication day.
THR: There has been talk that Mickey Rourke will be in Houston for WrestleMania 25. How key are such celebrity tie-ins to broadening your audience?
McMahon: We will have Kid Rock doing a medley of his tunes at WrestleMania. The lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls will sing "America the Beautiful." Mickey Rourke is going to be, in all likelihood, in attendance. And if you have heard what (WWE superstar) Chris Jericho has said, he is likely to slap Mickey right in the face. That could be interesting television. Sometimes such stuff does broaden our audience in terms of people talking about the event. But some of our highest (PPV) buys have been with our talent as the only celebrities. You have to keep things organic in deciding when to do this. You can’t just reach out and use an outside celebrity. That can feel artificial.
THR: You have an Indian superstar, the Great Khali. A lot of entertainment companies are trying to develop regional content and use regional stars. How key is that for WWE?
McMahon: It’s not necessarily important. The reason is that I like to say we are America’s greatest export. The WWE just smacks of fun; it smacks of freedom of expression. It’s like the old Wild West days. It’s outrageous but within good taste. When we go to another country, they don’t want to see their own stuff. Often there is local stuff. But they want to see, in essence, Hollywood. They want to see the real deal. So it doesn’t really matter whether or not you have a Chinese star or Korean star; they want to see WWE stars. Now, if you do have a WWE star who is indigenous like Khali in India, all the better. But they would judge Khali based on any other top guy.