Chris Ottinger (president, Orion Releasing) John Bryan (president, MGM Domestic TV Distribution)
Orion Pictures Distribution Corporation Orion TV Productions, Inc.
Los Angeles, California, United States
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM Television, MGM Holdings
William J. Bernstein, Arthur B. Krim, Eric Pleskow, Mike Medavoy, Robert Benjamin
RoboCop, Dances with Wolves, RoboCop 2, The Addams Family, Caddyshack
Orion pictures intro
Orion Pictures Corporation is an American motion picture producer and distributor that produced and released films from 1978 until 1999, and was also involved in television production and syndication throughout the 1980s until the early 1990s. It was formed in 1978 as a joint venture between Warner Bros. and three former top-level executives of United Artists. Although it was never a large motion picture producer, Orion achieved a comparatively high reputation for Hollywood quality. Woody Allen, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Oliver Stone, and several other prominent directors worked with Orion during its most successful years from 1978 to 1992. Of the films distributed by Orion, four won Academy Awards for Best Picture: Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), Dances with Wolves (1990), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Two other Orion films, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Mississippi Burning (1988), were nominated for that same category. In 2013, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer revived the Orion name for television; a year later Orion Pictures was quietly relaunched by the studio.
In January 1978, three executives of Transamerica (TA)-owned studio United Artists (UA) – Arthur B. Krim (chairman), Eric Pleskow (president and chief executive officer), and Robert S. Benjamin (chairman of the finance committee) - quit their jobs. Krim and Benjamin had headed UA since 1951, and subsequently turned around the then-flailing studio with a number of critical and commercial successes. Change had begun once Transamerica purchased UA in 1967, and within a decade a rift formed between Krim and TA chairman Jack Beckett regarding the studio's operations. Krim suggested spinning off United Artists into a separate company, which was rejected by Beckett.
The last straw came for Pleskow when he refused to collect and deliver the medical records of UA department heads to Transamerica's offices in San Francisco for the sake of confidentiality. The tensions only worsened when Fortune magazine reported an article on the clash between UA and TA, in which Beckett had stated that if the executives disliked the parent company's treatment of them, they should resign. Krim, Benjamin, and Pleskow quit United Artists on January 13, 1978, followed by the exits of senior vice presidents William Bernstein and Mike Medavoy three days later. The week following the resignations, according to the website Reference for Business, "63 important Hollywood figures took out an advertisement in a trade paper warning UA that it had made a fatal mistake in letting the five men leave. The 'fatal mistake' came true following the box office disaster of Heaven's Gate" which led to Transamerica washing its hands of the movie business by selling UA to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, so that the name of Transamerica wouldn't be tarnished.
In February 1978, the five men forged a deal with Warner Bros. The executives formed Orion Pictures Company, named after the constellation, which they claimed had five main stars (it actually has seven/eight). The new company intended only to finance projects, giving the filmmakers complete creative autonomy; this ideal was implemented with great success at United Artists. Orion held a $100 million line of credit, and its films would be distributed by the Warner Bros. studio. Orion, however, was contractually given free rein over distribution and advertising, as well as the number and type of films the executives chose to invest in.
In late March 1978, Orion signed its first contract; a two-picture deal with John Travolta's production company. Contracts with actress and director Barbra Streisand; actors James Caan, Jane Fonda, Peter Sellers, Jon Voight, and Burt Reynolds; directors Francis Ford Coppola and Blake Edwards; writer/director John Milius; singer Peter Frampton; and producer Ray Stark soon materialized. Orion also developed a co-financing and distribution deal with EMI Films. To quote Reference for Business: "By the end of its first year, the company had put 15 films into production, and had an additional 12 directors, producers, and actors set to sign on," giving Orion a solid reputation from the very beginning.
In 1979, Benjamin died. Orion's first film, A Little Romance, was released in April that year. That year, Orion released Blake Edwards' 10, which became a big critical and commercial success; the first for Edwards in over a decade (aside from installments of The Pink Panther franchise). Other films released in that period included Caddyshack; The Great Santini, a critically praised but underpromoted adaptation of a Pat Conroy novel; and Promises in the Dark. Out of the 23 films Orion released between April 1979 and December 1981, only a third of them made a profit. Orion executives were conflicted over financing big-budgeted films and passed on Raiders of the Lost Ark for that reason.
Acquisition of Filmways: 1981–1983
By early 1982, Orion had severed its distribution ties with Warner. As part of the deal, the rights to Orion's films made up to that point were sold to Warner. Orion was now looking to have its own distribution network by acquiring another company with such capabilities. The four partners looked into Allied Artists and Embassy Pictures before settling on Filmways. Orion subsequently purchased Filmways and reorganized the flailing company. New employees were hired and all of Filmways' non-entertainment assets (Grosset & Dunlap and Broadcast Electronics) were sold off In June 1982, Filmways was renamed as Orion Pictures Corporation.
Another result of the merger was that Orion entered television production. Orion's biggest TV hit was Cagney & Lacey, which lasted seven seasons on CBS. In 1983, Orion Pictures introduced art-house division Orion Classics with executives who had previously run United Artists Classics.
Problems arise: 1984–1986
According to Reference for Business: "Of the first 18 movies the company had released as Orion Pictures Corporation, ten had been profitable, five had broken even, and three had losses of less than $2 million." One such film, Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club, was mired in legal troubles and Orion lost $3 million of its investment. '"We've had some singles and doubles [but haven't] had any home runs," lamented Krim. In September 1984, Orion distributed Amadeus, which garnered many accolades, winning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
For Orion, 1985 was a dismal year. All but one film, Desperately Seeking Susan, made less than $10 million in the United States box office. Orion's haphazard distribution channels and unsuccessful advertising campaigns made it impossible to achieve a hit. Another factor was that Orion was about to venture into the video business and stopped selling off home use rights to its films. Furthermore, production of the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School was put on hold when a co-producer died, taking the film off of its Christmas 1985 release slate.
In January 1986, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, producers of the Rambo films (the first film, First Blood, was distributed by Orion) attempted to buy $55 million worth of the studio's stock through the duo's company, Anabasis. Had they succeeded, Kassar and Vajna would have controlled the board and laid off every executive save for Krim. Warburg Pincus subsequently limited its 20% stake in Orion to 5%; the remaining stocks were acquired by Viacom International. Viacom hoped to use Orion's product for its pay-TV channel Showtime. Orion expanded into home video distribution with the formation of Orion Home Entertainment Corporation.
Metromedia era: 1986–1991
On May 22, 1986, Metromedia, a television and communications company controlled by billionaire (and a friend of Krim's) John Kluge, purchased a 6.5% stake in Orion. Kluge's investment in the company came at the right time- Back to School was a success and ultimately earned $90 million at the box office. By March 1987, the studio's fortunes increased dramatically with a succession of critical and commercial hits, including Platoon (which ultimately won a Best Picture Oscar), Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, and the sports film Hoosiers. Orion's 1986 offerings totaled 18 Academy Award nominations, more than any other studio. 1987, Orion achieved further success with RoboCop, and No Way Out. By this time, Orion's television division had expanded into the lucrative syndicated game show market under the name Century Towers Productions, in reference to Orion's street address at the time. It produced revivals of format inherited from Heatter-Quigley Productions after the Filmways merger (as Filmways had previously acquired HQ in the late 1960s); this included The New Hollywood Squares, which ran from 1986 to 1989, and a revival of High Rollers which aired in the 1987-88 season.
In January 1987, Kluge faced big competition with the arrival of Sumner Redstone. His theater chain, National Amusements, purchased 6.42 percent of the company's stock. National Amusements later acquired Viacom, increasing their Orion stake at 21%, then 26%. Soon Kluge started buying more Orion stock, leading to him and Redstone battling it out to take over the company. Kluge ultimately succeeded when Metromedia took over approximately 67% of Orion on May 20, 1988, effectively giving him control of the studio. One analyst commented on the takeover to the Wall Street Journal: "This amount is probably so small to Kluge it doesn't matter. He probably burns that up in a weekend."
In 1989, Orion suffered from a disastrous slate of films, placing themselves dead last among the major Hollywood studios in terms of box office revenue. Among its biggest flops that year were Great Balls of Fire!, the biography of Jerry Lee Lewis starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder; She-Devil, a dark comedy starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr; and Miloš Forman's adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses, Valmont, which competed with Dangerous Liaisons, also based on the same source material. Test screenings of the "Weird Al" Yankovic comedy UHF were so strong that Orion had high expectations for it. It flopped at first, but it has since attained a strong cult following.
In February 1990, Orion signed a deal with Columbia Pictures Entertainment in which the much larger studio would pay Orion $175 million to distribute Orion's movies and television programs overseas. Orion had previously licensed its films to individual distributors territory by territory. That same month, Mike Medavoy left Orion and became head of Tri-Star Pictures.
1990 was just as dismal for Orion as the year prior, with such failures as The Hot Spot and State of Grace. The only bright spot that year was Kevin Costner's western epic Dances with Wolves. It won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and grossed $400 million worldwide. A few months later, Orion garnered another winner with The Silence of the Lambs, but these two films could not make up for years of losses. Only Kluge's continued infusions of cash were enough to keep the company afloat, but soon he had enough.
After failing to sell Orion to businessman Marvin Davis (Sony was also interested), Kluge took drastic steps. First, Orion shut down production. Second, Kluge ordered the sale of several projects, such as The Addams Family (which went to Paramount), in order to accumulate much-needed cash. Finally, in the spring of 1991, Kluge's people took over the company, leading to the departure of Arthur Krim. Orion's financial problems were so severe, that at the 63rd Annual Academy Awards in March 1991, host Billy Crystal made reference to the studio's debt in his opening monologue, joking that "Reversal of Fortune [is] about a woman in a coma, Awakenings [is] about a man in a coma; and Dances with Wolves [was] released by Orion, a studio in a coma."
It was during this time that ABC stepped in to co-finance and assume production over many of Orion TV's shows it had in production, such as American Detective and Equal Justice.
On November 25, 1991, Orion sold its Hollywood Squares format rights to King World Productions after Orion closed down its television division. On December 11, 1991, Orion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
In December 1991, Orion was in talks with New Line Cinema, a successful independent film company, to acquire the bankrupt studio. By the following April, Orion and New Line Cinema cancelled their plans on the issue of price. Republic Pictures and the then-new Savoy Pictures also attempted to buy Orion, but no deal materialized.
At the Academy Awards ceremony, broadcast on March 30, 1992, Crystal yet made another reference to Orion, this time about its demise:
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.
The Silence of the Lambs swept all five major Academy Awards; however, a majority of key executives, as well as the talent they had deals with, had left the studio. Hollywood observers had doubts that Orion would be resurrected to its former glory. The bankruptcy of Orion also delayed the release of many films the studio had produced or acquired, among them RoboCop 3 (1993), The Dark Half (1993), Blue Sky (1994), Car 54, Where Are You? (1994), Clifford (1994), The Favor (1994), and There Goes My Baby (1994). It was not until 1993 and 1994 that the films were finally shown. Blue Sky won star Jessica Lange an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1994.
In November 1995, Orion and three other companies controlled by Kluge were merged to form the Metromedia International Group. Orion was eventually able to exit bankruptcy by 1996, but few of the films released during the four years after bankruptcy protection were successful either critically or commercially.
In 1996, Metromedia acquired production company Motion Picture Corporation of America, and installed its heads, Brad Krevoy and Steve Stabler, as co-presidents of Orion. Both received a six picture put picture distribution deal as a part of their contracts.
In the years ahead, Orion produced very few films, and primarily released films from other producers, including LIVE Entertainment. Orion Classics, minus its founders (who had moved to Sony Pictures Entertainment and founded Sony Pictures Classics), continued to acquire popular art-house films, such as Boxing Helena (1993), before Metromedia merged the subsidiary with Samuel Goldwyn Entertainment in 1996.
In July 1997, Metromedia shareholders approved the sale of Orion (as well as Samuel Goldwyn Entertainment and Motion Picture Corporation of America) to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This led to the withdrawal of 85 employees, including Krevoy and Stabler, while 111 other employees were to be laid off within nine months, leaving 25 of them to work at MGM. Orion also brought with it, a two thousand film library, ten completed movies and five direct-to-video features for future release and the Krevoy and Stabler movie put picture distribution deal. Krevoy and Stabler retained the right to the Motion Picture Corporation of America name and their three top movies. Metromedia retained Goldwyn Entertainment's Landmark Theatre Group. One Man's Hero (1999) was the last film released by Orion for 15 years.
MGM kept Orion intact as a corporation thus to avoid its Warner Bros. video distribution agreement and began distributing Orion Pictures films under the Orion Home Video label. MGM acquired the 2/3 of pre-1996 PolyGram Filmed Entertainment library from Seagram in 1999 for $250 million, increasing their library holdings to 4,000. The PolyGram libraries were purchased by its Orion Pictures subsidiary so as to avoid its 1990 video distribution agreement with Warner.
Orion returns: 2013–present
In 2013, MGM revived the Orion Television brand (after its original TV unit was shut down during its bankruptcy era) as Orion TV Productions with a new syndicated series, Paternity Court.
Orion Pictures name, also being called Orion Releasing, was extended in fourth quarter 2014 for smaller multi-platform video on demand and limited theatrical distribution. Its name was first seen again on September 10, 2014 in front of the trailer for The Town That Dreaded Sundown that was released in October. The label' first releases was the Brazilian films Vestido pra Casar.
In September 2015, Entertainment One Films relaunched the Momentum Pictures banner with an announced deal with Orion Pictures to co-acquire and co-distribute films in the United States and Canada, and selected foreign markets, such as the United Kingdom (Momentum's country of origin). The initial films under the deal were The Wannabe, Fort Tilden and Balls Out.
In 2017, Orion TV added another court series, Couples Court, to its syndicated line up. The show is presided over by a husband wife team and deals with marital issues primarily cheating.
During the 1980s and early '90s, Orion's output included Woody Allen films, Hollywood blockbusters such as the first Terminator and the RoboCop films, comedies such as Throw Momma from the Train, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Something Wild, UHF, and the Bill & Ted films, and Best Picture Academy Award winners Amadeus, Platoon, Dances with Wolves, and The Silence of the Lambs.
Following is a list of the major Academy Awards (Picture, Director, two Screenplay and four Acting awards) for which Orion films were nominated.
Orion's library today
Almost all of Orion's post-1982 releases, as well as most of the AIP and Filmways backlogs and all of the television output originally produced and distributed by Orion Television, now bear the MGM name. However, in most cases, the 1980s Orion logo has been retained or added, in the case of the Filmways and AIP libraries (except the Streamline Pictures library).
Most ancillary rights to Orion's back catalog from the 1978–1982 joint venture period remain with Warner Bros., including such movies as 10 (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Arthur (1981), Excalibur (1981), and Prince of the City (1981). Some post-1982 films originally released by Orion - Lionheart (1987), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Amadeus (1984) (the latter two being Saul Zaentz productions) - are currently distributed by Warner Bros. as well. HBO also owns video distribution rights to ¡Three Amigos! (1986), which co-produced the film and owns pay-TV rights. However, MGM owns all other rights and the film's copyright.
Woody Allen's films A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Zelig (1983) are the only Orion films from the original joint venture period now owned by MGM. Orion releases produced by the Hemdale Film Corporation and Nelson Entertainment are included in MGM's library as well, and are incorporated into the Orion library. MGM did not acquire the Hemdale films, (which include The Terminator, Hoosiers, and Platoon) or the Nelson films (including the Bill & Ted films), until MGM bought the pre-1996 library of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, which included both companies' libraries, although the television and digital rights to certain Nelson films (with the exception of co-productions with Castle Rock Entertainment) are now held by Paramount Television, with television syndication handled on behalf of Paramount Television by Trifecta Entertainment & Media.
Many of the film and television holdings of The Samuel Goldwyn Company have now also been incorporated into the Orion library (with ownership currently held by MGM), and the copyright on some of this material is held by Orion, except The New Adventures of Flipper now carries the MGM Television Entertainment copyright.
MGM still holds distribution rights to the 1980s revival of Hollywood Squares and High Rollers the company produced, as well as the remnants of the Heatter-Quigley library that was not erased, including all remaining episodes of the original Squares; they do not own the rights to the format, which is currently owned by CBS Television Distribution, successor-in-interest to King World, who purchased the format rights in 1991 and produced another syndicated revival from 1998 to 2004.
Orion distributed the first Rambo film, First Blood (1982). Rights to that film are now owned by StudioCanal as a result of purchasing the library of its co-distributor, Carolco Pictures.
In popular culture
In an episode of Family Guy, Mayor Adam West writes an unprovoked, angry letter to the constellation Orion's Belt. He then flies to the constellation and punches it, and the stars form the Orion Pictures logo. West then says, "That's right. All you are is a failed production company."
In the 1996 film, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie during the opening credit sequence of the movie that the cast members watch, This Island Earth, which features a moving star field, Crow T. Robot exclaims, "Oh, look - Orion's bankrupt!"
On the 2002 MGM DVD release of UHF, if you listen to the commentary, it has "Weird" Al Yankovic sing lyrics to the jingle ("Orion, Orion is bankrupt now!"). This references how Orion nearly killed themselves by releasing the eventual cult classic the same year that many popular franchises were releasing new films. It became ironic when the studio was relaunched in 2013.