Whither Orion? : The Last of the Mini-Major Studios Finds Itself at a Crossroads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The men who run Orion Pictures from a Manhattan office building usually won't be found shaking hands across the tables at Morton's or Le Dome or any of the other Hollywood eateries frequented by the movie industry's top brass. But last week Orion executives made the cross-country trip to Los Angeles to engage in their own brand of networking.

One by one, Orion President Eric Pleskow and Executive Vice President William Bernstein called on select talent agents and producers to share their unbridled enthusiasm about the studio's future. Wrenching management changes and nagging takeover rumors aside, Pleskow and Bernstein passed the message that Orion is on the rebound.

It was a message the Hollywood community needed to hear. Twelve years after Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin--followed by Pleskow, Bernstein and Mike Medavoy--left United Artists to replicate their filmmaking success at their own studio, Orion is reeling from a run of bad luck at the box office, the loss of Medavoy and a shakeup in its distribution and marketing ranks. Now, the senior troika that remains in New York is counting on two men--Medavoy's replacement, 33-year-old Marc Platt, and new distribution chief David Forbes--to help turn the studio's fortunes around.

Business for "RoboCop 2," the studio's big summer movie, opened very strongly, but declined quickly and overall has fallen short of expectations. On Friday, Orion goes up to bat again at the box office with another action picture--"Navy SEALS," starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn as part of an elite terrorist-fighting military unit.

"Orion is going through a bad patch," said Robert Solo, who produced the 1988 film "Colors" for Orion. "All they need is one hit."

On top of its movie-making problems, rumors continue to swirl about future control of the company. Metromedia chief John W. Kluge--America's richest man, according to Forbes magazine--in the past has indicated that he may sell his 64% share of Orion. Lately, the most persistent buyer's name in that rumor mill has been industrialist Marvin Davis. Kluge is a close friend of Krim's, and it is widely believed that any sale would have the Orion chairman's approval.

These are developments that Hollywood's creative community has watched with keen interest: For all its struggles over the years, Orion--the only so-called "mini-major" still surviving--has allowed directors and writers to flourish without the heavy hand of studio involvement. And while the studio has released its share of crassly commercial fare, like "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," it has built a reputation among filmmakers for taking chances on offbeat projects and artists.

"This is one studio that takes on risky projects and nurtures them," said Jodie Foster, who stars in the upcoming Orion release, "Silence of the Lambs," and is now in Cincinnati directing her first film, "Little Man Tate." Foster is not the first actor to be given an important chance to direct at Orion. Danny DeVito ("Throw Mama From the Train") and Dennis Hopper ("Colors") had directed films before but their careers got big boosts from the films Orion let them make. Now Kevin Costner is making his directorial debut with the film "Dances With Wolves."

Costner remains indebted to the studio, and particularly Medavoy, for taking chances that helped launch him to stardom--first in casting him in "No Way Out"; later in making "Bull Durham," with Ron Shelton directing, even though other studios were already making two other baseball movies. "We were like cheap Santa Monica hookers peddling this script," Costner recalls of "Bull Durham."

Said Susan Seidelman, who directed "Desperately Seeking Susan," "Making Mister Right," and "She-Devil" for the studio: "I always thought that Orion was a special place for directors who weren't making obviously mainstream movies. Hollywood needs a studio for those kinds of movies."

"Orion trusts in the possibility that a script which is not like others can attract an audience by virtue of its uniqueness," said "Married to the Mob" director Jonathan Demme. Added "Mississippi Burning" producer Fred Zollo: "They make films that tend to be about something, that are actor- and character-driven."

But lately the studio hasn't even been getting high marks on that. Perhaps more disconcerting to Hollywood insiders than box-office performance is Orion's recent record at producing quality films. This, after all, is the studio boasting a list of releases ranging from Academy Award winners "Platoon," "Amadeus" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," to the quirkier "Married to the Mob," "Throw Mama From the Train" and "Bull Durham."

But with the exception of Woody Allen's annual releases for the studio--last year it was the critically acclaimed "Crimes and Misdemeanors"--Orion of late seems to be short on savvy good taste.

"They should be making socially relevant movies for older audiences--movies like 'Driving Miss Daisy,' " said one frustrated producer who is close to the studio. "Instead they make 'Madhouse' (a John Larroquette-Kirstie Alley comedy released last February), and they don't do that very well."

Orion's high hopes--both critically and commercially--for its movies over the past year have been routinely dashed. Last year's much-hyped "Great Balls of Fire" was supposed to become a big summer hit and turn Dennis Quaid into a mega-star. It did neither. The pairing of movie star Meryl Streep with TV star Roseanne Barr in "She-Devil" convinced studio executives that they had a big hit on their hands last Christmas. They were wrong. "Cadillac Man," opened last May starring one of the biggest draws in the business, Robin Williams, but ticket sales topped out at only $27 million--and reviews were mixed.

Orion's share of the U.S. box-office dollar has dropped from 10.4% in 1987 to 5.5% as of June, according to Variety analyst Art Murphy. The company remains profitable but primarily because of revenues from ancillary markets that continue to flow in from past hits, according to Wall Street analysts. "The current deficit is being offset by old productions," said Elizabeth A. Cameron, research associate at Smith Barney. "More and more they are capitalizing on their achievements of the past. That doesn't bode well for the future."

Orion executives declined to be interviewed for this story. But spokesmen for the studio say they have high hopes for its upcoming slate of films. "Mermaids," starring Cher as the free-spirited mother of a 15-year-old played by Winona Ryder, is set for a Christmas release. That will be followed by "Silence of the Lambs," an unusually serious venture for director Demme that is based on the best-selling novel of the same name.

This fall, critical hopes are high for "State of Grace," Phil Joanou's new film with Sean Penn, Ed Harris and Gary Oldman as members of an Irish mob in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Costner's "Dances With Wolves," set for release in November, has created a lot of interest in Hollywood because of its scope and its subject matter (a frontier story set against the European migration into Native American territories). The finished film will come in at just under three hours, but Orion won't force Costner to cut it. Instead, the studio plans to market it as a "Dr. Zhivago"-like epic.

Dennis Hopper, who directed the Orion hit "Colors," says his upcoming film "Hot Spot" is his best work to date. And Woody Allen is finishing his next film, "Alice," starring William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Joe Mantegna, Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, Judy Davis and, of course, Mia Farrow.

Krim, Pleskow and Bernstein (Benjamin died in 1980) remain very much involved in the day-to-day operation of their studio. But much of the success of Orion's future rests with the much younger Platt.

Platt, who was promoted to Medavoy's job after two executives ahead of him left the studio, starts off without the benefit of his predecessor's ties to talent. When Medavoy joined UA as production chief at age 34 he had already built important associations as a talent agent. By the time Medavoy left, his web of relationships was one of the widest in town, bringing such stars as Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer into the Orion fold.

"Mike is a very charismatic figure," said Costner. "It will be up to Marc to create those relationships. It's the hot spot." Already Dennis Quaid is expected to follow Medavoy over to Tri-Star; Costner, Lange and Pfeiffer are working on Orion projects for the time being.

It is Krim, however, who holds the key to Orion's most important actor and filmmaker--Woody Allen. Allen started making movies for Krim in the early 1970s when Krim ran UA and has stayed wit him ever since, working under almost unprecedented autonomy with his films.

Allen's contract, which calls for one more film to be made after "Alice," is currently up for renegotiation. Given his close personal friendship with Krim, it's likely Allen will renew his contract there. But what happens if and when the 80-year-old executive retires is anybody's guess.

Those who know Platt--an attorney who worked as business affairs adviser to International Creative Management's Sam Cohn and as vice president at RKO before joining Orion--say he is already fast at work building relationships for Orion. "Marc is a quick study," said Medavoy. "He is very likable. I think he's going to get those relationships. If he doesn't have them, he'll get them."

Added Scott Rudin, who is producing "Little Man Tate" for Orion: "There is a lot of good will for Marc."

Many in Hollywood consider Platt's youth an important counterbalance to the tastes of the older Krim, as well as 66-year-old Pleskow and 56-year-old Bernstein. 'Marc has a taste for more contemporary, commercial kinds of things," said "Throw Mama From the Train" producer Larry Brezner.

Although Orion's management is run by consensus, Platt so far has been instrumental in green-lighting "Clifford," a comedy produced by Brezner and starring Martin Short and Charles Grodin, as well as two movies based on TV shows that baby-boomers grew up with--"The Addams Family" and "Car 54, Where Are You?"

He also was involved in the ongoing productions of "Little Man Tate," the story of a 7-year-old genius; "Love Field," an early 1960s interracial love story starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert; an Arthur Hiller comedy called "Married to It"; and "Blue Sky," starring Jessica Lange. And the studio is producing the usual round of sequels--"F/X 2" "RoboCop 3," and possibly even "Bull Durham 2."

As Orion's new point man in Hollywood, Platt faces some critical decisions about how the studio should do business. One is whether he should tinker with the studio's hands-off policy with artists. "Orion is a director's company," said actor/director Dennis Hopper. "They don't bother you on location. When you do a first-cut, they talk about it. But it's your decision."

That policy paid off handsomely at United Artists, where Krim and Benjamin made dozens of important films like "High Noon," "The African Queen,""Marty," "Some Like It Hot," "Fiddler on the Roof," and on and on.

In the mid- to late '70s, the UA banner flew over an almost unprecedented string of films that were both commercial and prestigious, and for three straight years won the Oscar for best picture with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), "Rocky" (1976) and "Annie Hall" (1977). It might have been five in a row, but "Lenny" lost out to "The Godfather Part II" in 1974 and "Coming Home," which was green-lighted by the Krim group but released after they left, lost to "The Deer Hunter" in 1979.

At Orion, success has been markedly more mixed. They had a UA-sized run in the mid-'80s when they won Oscars for "Amadeus" in 1984 and "Platoon," which they co-financed with Hemdale, in 1986. One of "Platoon's" chief competitors that year was another Orion success, Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters."

But, overall, the hits-to-misses ratio has not been good. Moreover, some of Orion's biggest commercial hits--"The Terminator," "First Blood," and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"--were movies produced by other companies and distributed by Orion.

The studio's spotty record commercially and critically has led even some studio allies to conclude that studio executives should get more involved in filmmaking. "Not everybody is as self-critical as Woody Allen," said Rudin. "Taking a greater role in the direction of film projects would not be as unwelcome as they think. Half of parenting is exercising discipline."

Orion's darkest moment may have been its investment in Francis Coppola's "The Cotton Club," a production marked by delays and massive cost over-runs that opened to generally bad reviews and disappointing business. But there have been numerous other films since that 1984 release where critics say Orion should have exercised more control over the filmmakers.

In an interview discussing Orion's history, Medavoy attributed two of Orion's recent box-office disappointments--"Great Balls of Fire" and "She-Devil"--to the fact that the studio went along with the director's vision. Still, he stood firmly by Orion's policy.

"The guy who is making the film is on the firing line," Medavoy said. "He's the one that should make the decisions . . . Perhaps we should exert more influence, and I think we tried to. But in the final analysis, it's the vision of the filmmaker, and that's why people work there. That's why Woody Allen works there, and that's why all the people throughout their careers--and there have been thousands of them--have worked for both United Artists and Orion."

Platt also will be faced with the question of how to find good scripts. Historically, the studio has not developed its own material. Neither does the studio participate in bidding wars for scripts written on speculation.

Producer Solo recalls recently bringing "The Ticking Man" to Orion. The script was considered a hot property and studio executives around town immediately called the writer's agent with hefty offers. "The bidding was up to $500,000," said Solo, before Orion could even produce a story synopsis for its top executives. In the end, Orion sat out the bidding.

Unwilling to pay top dollar for scripts, and unwilling to develop scripts at the studio, Orion has had to "bottom-fish" too often, relying on material that is second-hand and often second-rate, many Hollywood insiders say. "They may have to change their ways and reach out for million-dollar screenplays," said Solo.

Orion is already hard at work changing the way it does business through its much-maligned marketing operation. The studio recruited the 44-year-old Forbes from MGM/UA to shore up marketing, as well as distribution.

Forbes replaced domestic distribution chief Joel Resnick, who left in February. Shortly after his arrival, marketing chief Charles O. Glenn resigned. Departures throughout the studio's distribution and marketing ranks followed.

These changes, combined with the emergence of Platt, are critical to attracting top talent to the studio, Orion allies insist. "Things got too complacent," said Hopper, who added that the management change at Orion "is the best thing that's ever happened there."

Orion executives had better hope so. Those close to the studio say that it takes more than an offer of creative freedom these days to attract top talent and material to a studio. With competition among the studios growing ever fiercer, they note, a studio like Orion needs to find innovative ways to persuade audiences that its movies are worth seeing.

The UA formula worked brilliantly in its time. But many in Hollywood are saying that as Orion's senior troika enters the 1990s, they may have to rethink their way of doing business.

Brezner summed up the obstacles that a small, undercapitalized company faces when he described the thinking of many Hollywood artists today. Comparing Orion to the most hands-on and aggressive marketing company in the business, he said: "Maybe Orion will give you creative freedom, but Disney will give you a hit."

ORION'S HITS AND MISSES

A Sampling of Films (Domestic Gross in Millions of Dollars) "Platoon": $134 "Amadeus": $52 "RoboCop": $53 "Bull Durham": $50 "Colors": $47 "Cadillac Man": $25 "Great Balls of Fire": $14 "She-Devil": $15 "Everybody Wins": $1.3 "Valmont": $0.9

SOURCES: Entertainment Data, Exhibitor Relations and Baseline

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