Early last week, the WWF rejected national TV spots from Lions Gate Films Releasing for its soon-to-bow theatrical documentary "Beyond the Mat" about professional wrestling. The WWF sells virtually all national advertising on its "WWF SmackDown!" program, which airs on UPN, as well as national ads on USA Network's WWF wrestling shows, which include "Sunday Night Heat," "Raw is War" and "WWF War Zone."
The commercials were turned down, a WWF spokesman said, because the WWF does not take third-party advertising for competitive wrestling entertainment.
Later in the week, the distribution arm of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. came up with another media plan: buy local TV spots on UPN affiliates -- which are sold by the stations themselves -- during "SmackDown."
Lions Gate, through its media buyer, Palisades Media Group, Santa Monica, Calif., targeted 54 UPN markets to spend some $800,000 in advertising. But at press time, only nine stations had accepted "Beyond the Mat" commercials to run in "WWF Smackdown." Of the nine, one -- WTXX, Hartford, Conn. -- is owned by Paramount Television Stations Group.
Most of the 54 stations are owned by either Paramount or by Chris-Craft Industries; Paramount and Chris-Craft jointly own UPN.
UPN station executives would not give a clear reason for rejecting the spots. But some have openly told Lions Gate they do not want to jeopardize their relationship with the WWF since "SmackDown" has virtually single-handedly revived the entire network this season with high ratings.
A UPN spokesman had no comment about the Lions Gate situation. The WWF did not return calls for comment by press time.
"This is not just restraint of trade; there are serious First Amendment issues," said Tom Ortenberg, co-president of Lion's Gate Films Releasing. "How can the creative community just sit by and let this happen? We are exploring our legal options."
THE FIRST TIME?
Said one media executive: "This may be the first time a supplier of network programming has controlled the local advertising on individual TV stations [the supplier] doesn't sell."
Concerning the WWF's first complaint, Mr. Ortenberg said the film is not competitive since it is virtually all about WWF wrestlers.
Additionally, he said, the WWF committed to the advertising a month before. Lions Gate received written confirmation of the media buy on UPN and for the WWF's syndicated programming in a Feb. 4 letter, a copy of which was given to Advertising Age.
On Feb. 28, when the spots were to begin, Mr. Ortenberg said the WWF told him they were being pulled. "It was choreographed to inflict the most damage possible," he said.
Mr. Ortenberg is confused by what seems to be a late turnabout by the WWF, which cooperated in making the documentary. WWF Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon even appears in the documentary and at one point offered to buy it, Mr. Ortenberg said, but was rejected.
OPENS MARCH 17
"Beyond the Mat" is to open nationwide March 17, and ads were intended to run for three weeks before the movie's debut.
So far, the theatrical producer has only been able to strike national TV deals with Turner Broadcasting, "WCW Wrestling" and the Nashville Network's "ECW Wrestling." Only one-third of its targeted TV dollars -- about $200,000 -- had been placed by Lions Gate.
"Beyond the Mat" isn't a critical documentary about the evils of professional wrestling, Mr. Ortenberg said. Rather, it is a profile of the lives of professional wrestlers. Said Mr. Ortenberg: "The movie is a love letter to wrestling."