Today we have the latest entry in the “They made so many cool movies so how did they fail” sweepstakes with the bearer of that iconic constellation logo, Orion Pictures. Like so many indie studios, they lived movie to movie, with further financial backing depending on the parent company or millionaire that owned the studio. The financial rollercoaster got to the point where Orion would release the biggest hits of the studio’s existence, but they weren’t enough to save the studio from bankruptcy.
Who Were They?
Orion was founded in 1978 by five former executives from United Artists. The execs formed a partnership with Warner Bros, who would distribute their films but Orion retained creative control. In 1982, Orion split with Warner Bros and struck out on its own. Orion’s initial going was shaky, but it began to score big by distributing Mario Kassar’s First Blood in 1982, and then struck gold in 1984 when it released the Academy Award winning Amadeus. The studio also snagged Woody Allen for a few films like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, and served as a distributor for some of Hemdale’s titles, including The Terminator, Hoosiers, and Platoon. It wasn’t long before Orion was a major player in the film market, releasing movies that both audiences and critics enjoyed.
What Were They Known For?
The only major film bio of Mozart, two of the decade’s most iconic movie cyborgs, and that cool constellation logo. Also, that Hannibal cannibal guy.
The Studio’s Peak Moment
1986-1987. Orion was on top of its game, with a steady stream of hits that included Back to School, Robocop, Platoon, Hannah and Her Sisters, and No Way Out.
You would think it would be late 1990-early 1991, the period when Dances With Wolves and Silence of the Lambs were released. Arguably, none of Orion’s other movies had such an impact on pop culture, in conjunction with their great critical acclaim and Oscar wins, but the studio was actually in dire straits. Read on further, and you’ll see what I mean.
The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie
Clifford, starring Martin Short. *Shudder*
A good runner up is Car 54, Where Are You?, a film adaptation of the TV show. This was part of the first wave of TV show-to-film adaptations, and the fact that it didn’t kill the trend off is a miracle. Sigh…and to think Orion sold off The Addams Family to Paramount.
Orion only distributed, not actually produced, the E.T. rip off/McDonalds infomercial Mac and Me, but it deserves a mention.
Finally, RoboCop 3 is notorious for being a watered down PG-13 entry that killed the franchise. Also, RoboCop 2 is sometimes criticized for its fowl-mouthed child drug dealer character. Actually, one could say RoboCop suffers from “Highlander syndrome” in that none of its sequels or remakes are as beloved as the original.
The Studio’s Up and Comers
Bo Derek made her film debut in 10, one of Orion’s first movies and also one of that year’s biggest hits.
Most of the cast of the 1981 hit Excalibur, including Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, and Ciaran Hinds, none of which were as well known then as they are today.
Likewise, some of the cast of Amadeus, including Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham, and Jeffrey Jones.
Star Trek II & VI director Nicholas Meyer made his directorial debut with the 1979 film Time After Time.
The 1983 sex comedy Class saw the film debuts of Andrew McCarthy, John Cusack, Virginia Madsen, and Alan Ruck.
Orion co-produced Caddyshack with Warner Bros (but not its sequel), so it gets some of the credit for the boosts that film gave to Rodney Dangerfield’s film career and Harold Ramis’ directing career.
The 1985 surprise hit Desperately Seeking Susan starred Madonna, when she was hitting her peak as a pop star.
The Fugitive director Andrew Davis made the well received Chuck Norris vehicle Code of Silence for Orion.
Paul Verhoeven, for directing Flesh and Blood, and two years later, Robocop.
Finally, the biggie of the bunch would be Kevin Costner. Orion gave us 80s Costner entries No Way Out, Bull Durham, and then distributed Costner’s produced Dances With Wolves.
Amadeus, Arthur, Sharky's Machine, Lone Wolf McQuade, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig, The Woman in Red, The Cotton Club, Desperately Seeking Susan, Flesh and Blood, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Haunted Honeymoon, Radio Days, Robocop I-III, Back to School, Prancer, Three Amigos, Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Johnny Be Good, Colors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Cadillac Man, Mississippi Burning, F/X 1 and 2, Throw Momma from the Train, UHF, Farewell to the King, Valmont, Great Balls of Fire!, Little Man Tate, The Silence of the Lambs, Original Gangstas, and Ulee’s Gold.
What Killed the Studio?
Really, really uneven box office performance.
It’s true Orion put out some of the most successful movies of the 80s, both critically and commercially. However, these hits were not distributed very equally year to year. Some years Orion struck gold, but other years Orion would produce nothing but stinkers, or at least just plain underperformers.
1984 had big hits with The Terminator and Amadeus, but Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club cost 58 million and didn’t make half of it back. 1985 was even worse, with only the Madonna headliner Desperately Seeking Susan and Code of Silence as major hits. But the studio came back in a big way the next year, helped by Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. Orion hit a hot streak until 1989, and then things went downhill. The studio took a 31 million dollar bath on Valmont, one of two dueling adaptations of the novel Dangerous Liaisons; the flick barely edged out a million. Dennis Quaid’s Great Balls of Fire! was badly received. The SCTV-alumni starring car comedy Speed Zone cashed in at just 3 million. Conan scribe John Milius saw his flick Farewell to the King bid farewell by audiences at just under 2 and a half million.
Desperate for a hit, Orion turned to music parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. His starring debut UHF was posting great test audience numbers, so they shuttled it to the summer…where Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Tim Burton’s Batman were waiting to chew it up and spit it out. The only bright lights of 1989 were Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a rescue from the defunct De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, and Prancer, a Christmas family film about a girl who nurses a wounded reindeer back to health.
The losses hurt Orion going into 1990. Again, most of that year’s movies flopped or just didn’t make enough to help the studio. Robocop 2, directed by Irvin Kershner, cost twice as much as the first film but wasn’t the success the first one had been. Not even Dances With Wolves, nor Silence of the Lambs, which were huge gushers, could make up for the years of losses. Orion’s dire straits became the fodder for Billy Kristol’s jokes at the Oscars. In 1992, he said on stage:
“Take a great studio like Orion. A few years ago Orion released Platoon, it wins Best Picture. Amadeus, Best Picture. Last year, they released Dances with Wolves wins Best Picture. This year The Silence of the Lambs is nominated for Best Picture. And they can't afford to have another hit! But there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Orion was just purchased, and the bad news is it was bought by the House of Representatives.”
Orion was so bad off, in 1991 it lost $102.1 million. It was no surprise that on December 11, 1991, Orion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Over the next few years, movies that Orion had made before bankruptcy would see staggered releases over time.
It took five years for Orion to emerge from bankruptcy, but it was pretty much a husk of its former self. It made fewer films, most of them for niche audiences. It released one of Joe Pesci’s last movies before his retirement, (until Pesci returned for a couple of movies in the late 2000s-early 2010s), the comedy 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. It acted as distributor for Live Entertainment’s The Arrival, The Substitute, and Phat Beach. The only distinguished movie of the era was the Academy Award-nominated Peter Fonda flick Ulee’s Gold.
The writing was on the wall. In July of 1997, Metromedia, the owners of Orion, sold it to MGM, laying off over a hundred employees, and the studio was dead.
Orion stayed dormant until MGM revived the Orion label in 2014 to release the horror flick The Town That Dreaded Sundown. So the constellation logo is back in theaters, mostly to put out “specialty films” as MGM puts it.
Most of Orion’s film library is now the property of MGM, as well as Hemdale-made films like Platoon and Terminator and the Nelson Entertainment-made Bill & Ted movies. The movies Orion made with Warner Bros, however, remain with that studio. So chances are most Orion DVD releases will come with the Leo the Lion logo on the top cover.
Of course, the biggest reminder of the Orion legacy to date was 2014’s remake of RoboCop. However, the new version only made about half of its production budget in the U.S., showing once again in many cases there’s nothing like the original.
So what is your favorite Orion picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?