Monday, March 30, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Orion Pictures

by Jason

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.

Notable Movies

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?


ScottDS said...

Orion, the logo so well-known, even one of my high school science teachers mentioned it in a lecture about astronomy.

Back to School is a comedy classic that doesn't get the love it deserves. At work, we sell furniture with names like "Henley Desk" and I always refer to this exchange between Rodney Dangerfield and his wife:

"Thornton, please don't put your clothes on the Briar Chair."
"How come all our furniture has names?!"

I consider RoboCop to be a near-perfect movie. It's really a great modern update of the old "gunslinger comes in to clean up the town" story. And it's proof of my theory: movies in the 70s and 80s did a much better job with their supporting actors. So many memorable lines and characters in this movie! I mean, come on... how many supporting characters do you remember from Avatar. Or main characters, for that matter?! ;-)

The Terminator... another modern classic that put a former truck driver turned filmmaker named James Cameron on the map. Bummer he lost any sense of subtlety in the last decade.

Three Amigos... not high art but I don't know anyone who dislikes this movie. Too bad John Landis hasn't been able to make a hit movie in 20 years. (He's done some good documentaries and is a fun guest on podcasts, though. I envy his knowledge of film history.)

And then Woody Allen. His two best for Orion in this period are arguably Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, though he admits in interviews that Purple Rose of Cairo is one of his favorites. (Which is saying a lot coming from him!) Shadows and Fog is a weird curiosity, as is Alice. September is a pretentious melodrama while I used to think Another Woman was a pretentious melodrama, but it's grown on me. I didn't like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy but Zelig was interesting.

I just saw Code of Silence for the first time. You've got Chuck Norris, half the cops from The Fugitive, and even the "See ya later, ya filthy animal!" guy from Home Alone. The Fugitive is one of my favorite films and it's interesting to see little things in this film that Andrew Davis would use again later.

Jason said...

Ha ha, I love that the Orion logo actually got mentioned in an astronomy lecture!

From what I’ve learned, Orion didn’t have much faith in The Terminator. They thought they were getting an exploitation pic that’d be in and out of the theater in a week or two. Cameron wanted them to market the movie’s science fiction themes, the studio balked because there were no spaceships. Orion dumped the movie in October, considered a graveyard for releases, but the movie became a hit anyway. Then, as it was still in theaters, Cameron wanted Orion to pony up more ad money to promote the film, but the studio already blew threw their advertising budget early on and didn’t care. It’s somewhat amusing, actually.

Re: Cameron and subtlety. It helped that back then Cameron didn’t have a bottomless pocketbook. The first Terminator was pretty much just a B-movie.

It’s weird that RoboCop 2 was the final film Irvin Kershner ever directed. For someone who helmed The Empire Strikes Back, it’s strange that he couldn’t make another sci-fi sequel on par with its original.

AndrewPrice said...

James, Thanks for another excellent article. It's really funny to me that these are the studios I knew growing up and yet they are all failing or failed. Once again, I know all these films and loved many of them. Seriously: Robocop, Platoon, No Way Out, Remo Williams, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dangerous Liasons, Amadeus, etc. Great stuff!

And again, I am surprised they didn't have such a huge vault of money that they could never fail again. But that seems to be a common story with these studios. It makes me wonder how someone like Paramount or MGM stayed alive so long?

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I actually prefer Robocop 2 to the original. I'm apparently one of the few who does. I just think it's more entertaining.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

MGM is a shell of a shell of a studio. The only things keeping them afloat are their home video catalog, James Bond, and shitty remakes.

And yes, you are the only one who prefers the second film to the first one! The first one just has so much style and wit and black humor and bizarre characters. But I like the second one, too. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I know there's nothing left of MGM really. I think Paramount sold itself too, right? To Viacom or CBS? RKO is gone. Republic is gone. I don't know about UA?

But my point is that some of these guys lasted for many decades before they sold out or fell apart. It seems that all these great studios Jason is talking about only lasted a decade or so tops before it all came crashing down... despite having some great hits.

I like 2 better. It's not as dour.

Jason said...

A lot of these studios seem to have a 10-20 year streak before they hit a bad run of flops. The studio then goes downhill, even bankrupt, and maybe chugs along for a few more years before it’s bought by a bigger studio (or at least their library is bought up before they go out of business entirely). The big studios today, the “majors,” are all owned by some giant corporation or ARE a big corporation themselves (like Disney) that makes it unlikely they can ever go financially under. The mini-majors tend to live movie to movie, or have a smaller corporation or a millionaire that owns them, and thus don’t have a big cushion in bad years. Imagine what shape Disney would be in after John Carter, Prince of Persia, and The Lone Ranger if it was a mini-major studio and not, well, the Disney of today.

UA was bought by MGM and is pretty much just a label in the drawer of MGM. I think they did try to revive UA recently. Actually, MGM itself almost went completely kaput in 2010. They’ve since dug themselves out with some low-brow comedies (I think Hot Tub Time Machine was one) and the three Hobbit movies. I think MGM also needs the help of Columbia to make Bond films nowadays (UA used to make them, then MGM took up the copyright after the merger, and now they co-produce the movies with Columbia).

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Isn't it amazing? It sounds like studios are inherently doomed. Ride the wave for the first couple years and then bail out.

As an aside, I remember Disney almost failed in the 1990s and people were talking about Pixar buying Disney, not the other way around.

Rustbelt said...

Orion is a logo I will always associate with the 80's. It's too bad they fell from grace.

On 'The Terminator,' I'm actually one of the few people who likes the original better than T2. The first film really is one of the those few successful sci-fi horror films. T2 is just an action flick that desperately wants to be (philosophically) more than it is. Plus, everything seems to flow better in the first movie; whereas, in T2, Cameron uses one video game cheat code after another to (a la Lucas) to get to the action scenes as quickly as possible.
Also, I have to constantly remind myself that T1 actually was directed by Cameron. With the atmosphere and music, it feels much more like a John Carpenter film.

The other thing I remember about Orion was a quote I read from Weird Al about 'UHF.' When making UHF, he said that he got strawberries from the studio every morning for breakfast. Then the film came out and bombed. No more strawberries!

I also saw 'Time After Time' several years ago. (OK, maybe more like 15.) It's an intriguing, if really silly concept. (H.G. Wells builds his time machine and uses to chase Jack the Ripper from 1880's London to 1970's San Francisco.)
To be honest, the script could easily have sunk or swum. Since I'm not a film professional, I can't gauge how much Meyers' directing had to do with the finished product. For me, Malcolm McDowell as Wells and David Warner as the Ripper ultimately make the film work. In the hands of lesser actors, this flick could easily have been an early disaster for Orion.

Jason said...

Interestingly, James Cameron did matte paintings for John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, during Cameron’s days as a behind-the-scenes f/x guy.

Orion really dropped the ball with UHF. Weird Al was popular as a music parodist, but there was nothing yet to show he could carry a picture. Putting the flick out in a summer filled with big name blockbusters was a recipe for failure. It should have come out sometime later, perhaps winter, after the blockbuster derby was over.

Here’s Weird Al at the top of his UHF commentary during the Orion logo: “Orion, Orion, is bankrupt now!”

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I like T1 better than T2 as well. T1 is the more interesting movie. T2 is largely an action film.

Jason, My friend and I saw UHF on its opening night in the biggest theater in two... one of those with the huge screens and probably 30 seats across at the front. We were the only people in the theater. We actually sat at opposite sides of the theater and yelled to each other during the movie.

ScottDS said...

I'll never understand (though I'm sure there are reasons for it) why the movie studios need to be owned by larger corporations, or rather why larger corporations (Coca-Cola, for instance, with Columbia back in the day) feel the need to diversify into a high-risk business like movie-making.

Today, the prestige pictures seem to come from smaller companies that have deals with larger studios. A good example would be Annapurna Pictures, owned by Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. (She's younger than I am, BTW!!) They made Zero Dark Thirty, Her, and American Hustle, among others.

I'd do the same thing if I ever won the Lottery!

P.S. I don't consider the first RoboCop dour at all. Hell, at times it's hilarious. :-)

EricP said...

Thirding the love for T1 over the sequel, aka the first time I realized Cameron's meandering led to movies about 20-30 minutes longer than they coulda/shoulda been.

Also funny (semi-haha variety) to see "Johnny Be Good" and "notable" in the same sentence. Not often at that point in the 80s you could imagine belly-flops from Anthony Michael Hall and Judas Priest (yet I dig the Turbo album, go figure).

Jason said...

I personally prefer T2 to T1, but it's not by a big margin.

I will say that T1, through Kyle Reese, gives a human perspective on the horrors of the future war through his flashbacks to his war experiences and his talks to Sarah, that we don't have in T2. In fact, there's a deleted scene on the DVD where he finally breaks down and weeps over the beauty of the world around him, as it's a world he's never known. In T2, we just had the two terminators, so there was no human perspective on the future post-nuclear nightmare.

Rustbelt said...

Jason, that's an interesting fact about the Cameron-Carpenter connection. If he'd learned more about music. (Personally, T2 loses me when Arnold puts on the sunglasses and "Bad to the Bone" plays. Sequel or parody? I'm not sure.)

And it seems this Orion discussion has again put me in an 80's mood. Of course, Grit TV is also helping by playing most of the Chuck Norris-Cannon Films collection these days. (If only they weren't interrupted by "The Valachi Papers"...)
Anyway, I don't have anything Orion-specific. So, here are some clips from Sledge Hammer! (A parody of 80's cop movies where the cops don't let the rules stand in their way.)

Clip 1 Clip 2 Clip 3 Clip 4

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