A CLASSIC VIEW FROM ROOM 360

Times Staff Writer

Room 360 at the Carlton Hotel isn't much for what, $200 a day? There are two beds, a television that speaks French, a view of the inside wall of the west wing.

But it is serviceable as a makeshift conference room and it is here each morning--for the duration of a Cannes Film Festival that will be better remembered for its weather than its movies--that the three people running Orion Classics get together to plan the day's strategy.

Room 360 belongs to Donna Gigliotti, Orion Classics vice president of acquisitions. And though she and her two colleagues--Michael Barker, vice president of sales, and Tom Bernard, vice president of marketing and distribution--have equal pay and equal say, Gigliotti seems to be the conference conductor.

Their meetings, and similar meetings held by their competitors, are like planning sessions held by professional football teams before the annual college draft. They assess the pictures on display here and decide which, if any, will be useful in their lineup.

Orion Classics, the last of the big studio "specialty" divisions, releases 10 to 14 films a year and Cannes puts a lot of unsigned talent on display.

However, the 1986 Cannes Film Festival has been filled with disappointments. Not only has it been devoid of U.S. stars, there have been few films to inspire much enthusiasm.

This is particularly true of the "art house" films, the smart or offbeat or foreign movies that, if handled with care, can return modest profits to non-greedy distributors such as Orion and Island Pictures.

There has been no "Carmen," no "Paris, Texas," no "Ran"--the hot films of the last three festivals--to create a bidding frenzy.

"This has been a very weak year," Barker said. "Usually, we're looking seriously at five or six films a day over here. This year, there just hasn't been much to see."

Gigliotti estimates that between the three of them, the Orion trio have seen 50 movies at this year's festival. Of those, they have had an interest in only a couple. And they have bought none.

Nevertheless, they continue the hunt, putting in days that start with breakfast in Room 360 and end with the group reconnoitering 12 to 14 hours later.

During the morning meeting, they decide who is going to see which movie, and they decide who will meet with which film makers.

On Friday, their movie schedule included two Australian films--"Around the World in 80 Ways" and "Departure" and the French film "Therese."

Before the movies, they had lunch with Spike Lee, a young director with whom they hope to make future films.

Later, all three went to the competition screening of David Puttnam's "The Mission."

They met for dinner out of town with the French company that handles Eric Rohmer's movies (Orion released the last three of Rohmer's films in the U.S.).

At 1:30 in the morning, they met with a group of Canadian journalists in the bar of another Cannes hotel to get feedback on the Canadian films being shown here.

In between, they met with several European film companies. And they had a promotional session with director Carlos Saura, whose film "El Amor Brujo" closes the festival tonight. Orion picked up Saura's "Carmen" here three years ago and is distributing "El Amor Brujo" in the United States.

The film they thought would be hot before the festival--Nagisa Oshima's "Max, Mon Amour"--has been ridiculed by many critics here, and its stock has fallen. "That's good for us," said Bernard. "We're still interested in 'Max,' and the price has gone down."

In a very real way, film critics have more power while attending the Cannes Film Festival and talking about the movies they see than they have when they get home and actually begin writing about them.

The international value of a movie--the amount its producer can expect to get for its territorial rights--is largely determined by the critics' reaction here.

Discussing the immediate reaction to films at Cannes is a regular aspect of Orion Classics' daily brainstorming session.

Critics also create an interest in films--as they have this year with Alex Cox's "Sid and Nancy," a drama about the late punk rock star Sid Vicious--and the distributors all have had to take a look.

Barker and Bernard disagreed about the prospects of "Sid and Nancy." At Friday's morning meeting, Barker argued that the film would be a big hit in the States and that it would have a high video resale value. Bernard said he was concerned that exhibitors would refuse to play the film, fearing that it would draw a punk audience.

As of Sunday, the American rights to "Sid and Nancy" were still uncommitted.

Gigliotti said Sunday that she thinks Orion Classics will end up with "Max, Mon Amour" but the deal probably won't be closed before the festival ends tonight.

"Max," the story of a woman who falls in love with a chimpanzee, was produced by Serge Silberman, who also produced "Ran," which Orion picked up at last year's festival.

There have only been a couple of films this year where more than one or two American distributors joined in the bidding. "Max" is one; "The Decline of the American Empire," a French-Canadian film with French dialogue, is another. "Decline," which spoofs attitudes toward casual sex, is being compared here with "The Big Chill."

During Orion's Friday meeting in Room 360, several films were discussed, but "Decline" was the only one all three agreed they wanted. Two of the three vice presidents have to agree before making a deal.

Gigliotti was meeting with the producer of "Decline" Sunday night. She said that if Orion Classics is to buy anything here, it would happen at that meeting.

Bernard said Cannes was essential to Orion Classics even if the company came away empty-handed. Because companies make more and more of their film deals before films are finished, the festival has become just as important as a place to cement relationships and plant seeds for future ones.

On Friday, the Orion trio had lunch on the beach with director Spike Lee, whose black-cast comedy "She Has to Have It" is a hit of the Director's Fortnight series.

"We think he's an incredible talent and we want him to know we're interested in working with him," Barker said. "We believe in long-term thinking."

Gigliotti said the American rights to films picked up in Cannes have ranged from zero to $1 million. In some cases, she said, producers have even paid Orion Classics for the cost of prints and advertising just to get a U.S. release.

Every year, it seems, one or two good ones get away. But the Orion trio say it's hard to imagine what those films might be this year.

"Mona Lisa," an English film that was well received by critics here last week, already belonged to Island before it was shown.

Island films has become Orion's major competitor now that the other studios have eliminated or mothballed their classics divisions.

Bernard and Barker say that the studios failed in the specialty business because they did not allow their divisions to operate autonomously and because they expected too much in the way of income. While they were in it, all they did was drive prices up and bring in a lot of mediocre movies that oversaturated a limited market, Bernard and Barker said. The current environment--with fewer but consistently better imports--is creating a wider audience for art-house fare, Bernard said.

"We're delighted with Island's success," Bernard said, referring to the critical and box-office performances of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "The Trip to Bountiful," released last year by Island.

"Those movies are opening more theaters to our kinds of film. We opened 'Ran' in a theater in South Carolina. It's the first time we've ever had a theater in South Carolina, and it's doing well."

But Orion Classics will have to find the next "Ran" somewhere else. It isn't on sale at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Said Gigliotti: "There isn't much here to choose from."

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