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


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.

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