With Orion in bankruptcy, its films float in limbo


When Orion's "Silence of the Lambs" won the five top Oscars last month, it added a bittersweet irony to the studio's current state of bankruptcy. The maker of four of the last eight best pictures -- "Amadeus," "Platoon" and "Dances With Wolves" are the other three -- Orion spent the '80s taking creative risks most studios avoided.

Along with the winners came box-office losers -- "State of Grace," "The Hot Spot," "The Last of the Finest," "She-Devil." By 1990 the studio was resorting to desperate measures like selling off valuable film and video rights at low prices to help shore up its crumbling finances.

Now Orion is in bankruptcy court with operations at a standstill as potential buyers plot their moves. The uncertain situation seems to change with every rumor.

Also unclear is the fate of 10 orphaned films that were left stranded when the studio went broke. Stalled along with these projects are the career plans of the men and women who made them.

Everybody and everything is trapped by economics. Most of the films cost from $10 million to $20 million to produce, and while these costs were met, Orion could not muster all the funds -- usually about one and a half times a film's budget -- to produce the thousands of prints and mount the extensive publicity campaigns necessary for theatrical releases.

While three Orion films -- Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog," Jodie Foster's "Little Man Tate" and Howard Deutch's "Article 99" -- were extricated from the debacle with approval of the bankruptcy court and put into theaters, no release date is in sight for the unlucky 10.

Stuck on the Orion shelf are titles with big names and box-office potential: "Love Field," an interracial love story starring Michelle Pfeiffer; "Married to It," about a trio of couples starring Beau Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ron Silver and Mary Stuart Masterson; "Blue Sky," with Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones, which was the last film directed by Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"), who died in November; "China Moon," a thriller starring Ed Harris and Madeleine Stowe; "Clifford," a comedy with Martin Short; "The Dark Half," a Stephen King story starring Julie Harris, Timothy Hutton and Amy Madigan, and the sequel "Robocop 3."

Also in limbo are "The Favor," a film about friendship with Harley Jane Kozak and Elizabeth McGovern; "There Goes My Baby," about coming of age in the '60s, and "Car 54, Where Are You?", a spinoff of the '60s television series.

The question is how long these movies can survive. New films left sitting around may not be regarded as new for long. More recently made movies crowd schedules and vie for exhibitors' attention.

Events can render films dated. Actors' popularity can decline. There is also the danger that the films will be perceived as not good enough for release. The worst possible scenario, other than never seeing an audience at all? The films could be consigned straight to video.

Tied to a film's perishability are the shifting fortunes of those people who made them. For those just starting out, or those counting on a film, creatively and financially, to advance their careers, the blow can be difficult to absorb.

Take the case of Dennis Haysbert, an actor in his middle 30s who plays opposite Ms. Pfeiffer in "Love Field." Mr. Haysbert has had supporting roles in films like "Navy Seals" and "Major League" (as a baseball player with a voodoo shrine in his locker). "Love Field" represented a large step forward.

"It has the potential to make everything in my career take off," said Mr. Haysbert. "We came so close. I had done over 50 TV interviews and been on press junkets to promote it. The movie really needs a fall release because it takes place on the day of J.F.K.'s assassination, so the earliest now would be the fall of '92."

With "Love Field" unreleased, Mr. Haysbert finds himself in a peculiar situation. If the film is released and it and he are well received, his career could progress. Meantime, though, if he accepts lesser supporting roles in films that appear after "Love Field" is released, he could appear to be regressing.

"If this film had been released in conventional sequence, he would have options that would dictate the rest of his career," said Sam Gores, Mr. Haysbert's agent, who also handles Ed Asner and Charles Durning. "But this situation precludes Dennis from doing many other things that might appear later on to be backsliding,"

Mr. Haysbert recently took a calculated risk and accepted a supporting role as Tom Selleck's teammate in "Mr. Baseball," a film made by Universal. Now he waits. "It's all up to the 'film god' anyway," he said.

Also all revved up with no release in sight is Janet Kovalcik, 43, who wrote "Married to It." Ms. Kovalcik has television movies to her credit, but this is her first feature film. The opening was two weeks away when it was canceled. Ms. Kovalcik was so upset at the news she went to her back yard and chopped down a tree.

"The trailers were out, the posters were up, preview audiences were enthusiastic," she said. "I had people lined up for screenings, which were also canceled. Suddenly, it was all taken away."

Orion's downfall has hung up others in the middle of a career move. John Bailey, the well-known cinematographer of such films as "Ordinary People" and "The Big Chill," was about to make his directorial debut with "China Moon." While Orion gave him a chance as a director, other studios aren't as willing.

Without "China Moon" front and center in theaters, Mr. Bailey finds himself in a Catch-22 situation: he can't pursue directorial jobs until he's a proven quantity as a director, which can't happen until "China Moon" is released.

"I've optioned a novel for a film, but I would have more of a chance of a studio backing me if they could see the film I've already done," he said. Since that's not possible now, Mr. Bailey continues his cinematography career. He bears no grudge against Orion. "If Orion could produce another of my projects, I would want them to do it."

For others, however, the Orion experience has proved frustrating enough to make them consider abandoning film making altogether. "It makes me feel more and more that it's time to get out," said Robert Solo, the producer of "Blue Sky" and "Car 54, Where Are You?"

Mr. Solo is not optimistic about either of these unreleased Orion projects. "It's heartbreaking to see the time pass," he said. "If I had 20 or 30 million, I'd try to buy them back. But whether or not they will ever be released, there are no guarantees. We're all just out here endlessly treading water, waiting for someone to throw us a line."

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