New Wrestling Film Shows Imagine Goes to Mat for Friends


What in the heck is Imagine Entertainment--one of Hollywood’s most successful production companies, with such mainstream hits as “Liar, Liar,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Bowfinger”--doing producing a feature documentary on wrestling?

It’s certainly not for the money, since the box-office dollars documentaries ordinarily generate would hardly cover lunch for Imagine partners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and President Michael Rosenberg.

Rather, the Imagine executives agreed to produce “Beyond the Mat”--a behind-the-scenes chronicle of three famous pro wrestlers--essentially for one reason: to support a longtime relationship with a valued screenwriter.


Hollywood is an industry built on relationships, and movies often get made based on the loyalties between talent and the studio executives who call the shots.

Barry Blaustein, who wrote and makes his directorial debut with the wrestling documentary, co-wrote such Eddie Murphy hits for Imagine as “The Nutty Professor,” its forthcoming sequel, and “Boomerang.”

Grazer said that Blaustein had “accrued such goodwill with Imagine and was so passionate about the subject matter” that the company decided to back the project “for the relationship with an artist we value.”

After seeing Blaustein’s documentary for the first time last week Barry Blaustein

and being impressed with its quality, Grazer said, “I will definitely give him a directorial job” on a future, major Imagine movie--something the writer has long desired.

“This wasn’t the first time Barry asked me to direct,” said Grazer, referring to the documentary. “And I’ve always said no. I knew Barry as a sheer sketch comedy writer, so when I saw this, I was blown away. I had no idea he had this emotional storytelling side to him.”

Blaustein, 44, worked as a staff writer on “Saturday Night Live” in the early 1980s, helping create such classic Murphy characters as Gumby and Buckwheat. He also has a screenplay credit on Murphy’s 1988 comedy hit, “Coming to America.”

In addition to fostering its relationship with Blaustein, Imagine can also benefit from the potential prestige producing a documentary can bring.

Universal Studios, which as a favor to Imagine--its most successful movie supplier--financed the $500,000 documentary, plans to book the film for a one-week, Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles. A studio official said plans for subsequent distribution are being formulated now.

About two years ago at a breakfast meeting at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City, Blaustein--who’s been a wrestling fanatic since he was a kid--pitched the idea of making a documentary to Imagine’s Rosenberg.

“He came to us with a great, passionate vision, and it wasn’t going to cost that much,” said Rosenberg, who loved the idea and immediately placed a call to Universal Studios Home Video Chief Louis Feola to see if the studio would underwrite it.

“He bought it in 20 minutes, because it turned out that he [Feola] was a closet wrestling fan,” said Rosenberg.

Blaustein, busy in the editing room finishing the documentary, said he can recall as a kid sneakily reading wrestling magazines, watching matches on television and being taken to live events by his father, but never fully admitting his fascination with the sport.

“It’s embarrassing to say you like this stuff,” said the writer, who grew up in Westbury, N.Y., and readily acknowledges, “I’m not athletic whatsoever.”

But Blaustein said he has always been intrigued by the “theatricality, bizarreness and outrageousness” of wrestling, not to mention “the anti-establishment and political incorrectness of it.”

While wrestling was hugely popular in the 1950s, it has seen a major resurgence in recent years and has become a huge business thanks to cable TV and pay-for-view. For years wrestling has driven ratings and today remains the highest-rated programming on cable.

“Thirty million people watch wrestling every week,” said Blaustein. “And the average fan spends $10 dollars just for souvenirs--it’s a huge, huge business and is also No. 1 in licensing in the country.”

Two major players are competing for the business’ reported $1 billion a year in revenue: World Wrestling Federation, founded in 1980 and run by promoter Vincent McMahon, and World Championship Wrestling, a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting System.

Blaustein said his documentary doesn’t deal with the WCW “because they wouldn’t sign my releases to film there without editorial control,” whereas WWF, he said, “gave me full access.”

Howard introduced Blaustein to McMahon, who lives near the Imagine founder in Connecticut. WWF is headquartered in Stamford.

Howard said he too was a wrestling fan as a kid and has fond memories of attending matches at L.A.’s famous Olympic Auditorium.

The director, who is prepping his next movie, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” starring Jim Carrey, said Blaustein was “able to offer a very humanistic, behind-the-scenes look at the world.” Howard said not only is the film “accessible and emotional,” but it’s “truthful, very dramatic and hard-hitting” about a brutal business “without being castigating or an indictment.”

Blaustein, who first met Howard in the late 1970s when the director guest-hosted “The Mike Douglas Show” (on which he was a staff writer), said he first became interested in wrestling after meeting some pros through a friend, manager Barry Bloom.

He said Bloom, whose first client was Jesse Ventura, is like “the Michael Ovitz” of sports management.

The documentary follows the lives of famed wrestlers Terry Funk, who finally began considering retirement at 53; Jake “the Snake” Roberts, one of the biggest stars of the 1980s and ‘90s who now works for $75 a night in Nebraska; and Mick Foley, a.k.a. “Mankind,” who in real life is anything but the crazed personality he portrays ringside.

“This is the first time a documentary has been done by a real fan, and I wanted to capture their lifestyle and the effect their work has on their families without being condescending,” said Blaustein, who shot the film over two years--in between writing the sequel to “The Nutty Professor”--filming in 14 states with a three-person crew, including his co-producer, Debra Simon.

While this is the first documentary Imagine has produced, it’s certainly not the first time Grazer and Howard signed on to do a project in the name of a relationship.

When Tom Hanks, who starred in Imagine’s “Apollo 13,” approached the producers about wanting to do a major TV miniseries on space, Imagine jumped aboard.

“We didn’t make any money, but it was artistically fulfilling and won us all an Emmy last year,” said Grazer, referring to HBO’s 13-part miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.”

Similarly, when Murphy came up with the concept for Fox’s TV series “The P.J.s,” Grazer said, “I loved the idea but I didn’t think it would sustain itself. We did it for the relationship.” Fox recently picked up the show for 22 more episodes.

“I’m a documentary junkie,” said Grazer, “but I never thought to make one.”