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THE BIZ / ALAN CITRON

Marketing 'Helena' Will Test Orion's Mettle : Movies: Controversial film is being portrayed as a love story.

September 03, 1993|ALAN CITRON

They've boxed Helena, litigated Helena, even argued the artistic merits of Helena. Now comes the hard part. Selling Helena.

Orion Pictures opens the much-publicized "Boxing Helena" in 30 major cities today, with plans to go wider if an audience materializes.

While other distributors passed on the story about a not-everyday guy who stows his lover in a box after hacking off her arms and legs, Orion saw the movie as a chance to prove its marketing mettle.

That's a risky move for any company--especially one that only recently emerged from bankruptcy reorganization--but President Leonard White says the movie's core eroticism is a selling point. "Helena" is being distributed through its Orion Classics division.

"This is not a horror movie; it's a woman's movie and a love story," White said.

"Helena" was directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch, the daughter of iconoclastic director David Lynch. It made headlines earlier this year when actress Kim Basinger was ordered to pay Main Line Pictures more than $8 million for backing out of the lead role. Madonna also passed on the part that eventually went to Sherilyn Fenn.

Orion acquired all North American rights to the $4-million film shortly after the Basinger trial. The trick for the company now is to is play up the controversy without playing into the negative preconceptions about "Helena," including some early critical drubbings.

Said John Hegeman, vice president of Orion Classics: "We want people to go to the movie, not just talk about the controversy. That's where the real challenge is."

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Orion could certainly use a hit, or even a modest art house success. Since emerging from Chapter 11 earlier this year, it's racked up three box office disappointments: "Love Field," "Married to It" and "The Dark Half." "Boxing Helena" is its first pickup.

If people in the industry are skeptical of its chances for success, its because "Helena" is so completely unusual. Even Carl Mazzocone, the producer, conceded recently that it's not a movie for the masses, despite its unusually high profile.

Still, Hegeman said there's nothing particularly risky in the decision to distribute "Helena."

"We wouldn't have taken the movie on if were were worried about embarrassment if it fails," he said. "If you worry about failing, the theatrical distribution business is not the right business to be in. You weigh the pros and cons and decide what's viable."

Orion's marketing strategy is two-pronged. It began by highlighting the sensual, quirky nature of the movie, when "Helena" was slapped with an NC17 rating for sex. (It was later edited to obtain an R rating.) The second phase of the campaign, which is under way, also touts "Helena" as a "must-see" event movie, based on the controversy it engendered almost from the start.

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Ads for Helena are running on all three late-night talk shows, partly in an effort to capitalize on the war between Jay Leno and David Letterman. The rest of the marketing effort is pretty routine, with "Helena" popping up everywhere from cable TV to bus benches and the stars making promotional appearances.

Orion will not say how many millions it's spending on the campaign. But Basinger's name doesn't appear in any of the promotions.

"We didn't mention Basinger because people will want to see the picture that was made, not the one that was not made," Hegeman said.

Meanwhile, Orion is slowly crawling out of its financial hole. It recently announced release plans for a series of films, most left over from its pre-Chapter 11 days.

Orion has also formed an off-balance-sheet production company with Metromedia chief John Kluge, Orion's majority shareholder, since it's prohibited from funding new production under its reorganization plan. Kluge's investment so far is only $1 million, but White insists that's only seed money and that the company is serious about getting back into production.

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A proxy statement filed in June said Kluge also put up $2.35 million to help pay print and advertising costs on "Helena." Analysts see all of those moves as an effort to fatten up Orion for a sale.

German-owned Bertelsmann Music Group is said to be taking a close look at the company. While BMG is open about wanting to acquire a film company, it also has been slow to move on other possible deals. Executives from both companies have declined to comment on sales rumors.

Orion's stock closed at $7.375 on Thursday in NASDAQ trading, up 25 cents. The stock has rallied from about $2 earlier in the year and recently traded as high as $7.875.

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Trade War? Sources say tensions are heating up between the industry's trade papers, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. The growing rivalry is the subject of an upcoming Wall Street Journal story, in which the papers are said to take some pretty strong shots at one another.

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