Orion's money problems keep new films shelved

October 24, 1991|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,N.Y. Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- A series of newly completed films starring some of Hollywood's most prestigious artists has been placed in virtual cold storage because Orion Pictures, which made them, is facing severe financial difficulties.

Film executives close to Orion, a small studio with a record of critically acclaimed movies, said that the decision to keep the movies on the shelf was especially painful because several of them, and their stars, are believed to have Academy Award potential. If the movies are not released in the next two months, they will be ineligible for Oscar nominations.

Among the stars are Michelle Pfeiffer, Beau Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Woody Allen, Jodie Foster and Madonna. Orion executives say that several of the films are especially strong, including "Love Field," with Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert, about a white woman and black man who meet unexpectedly in Dallas on the day President Kennedy is assassinated. The drama's director, Jonathan Kaplan, also directed "The Accused," the film that won an Academy Award for Jodie Foster.

Another film, "Article 99," about the bureaucratic chaos at a Veterans Administration hospital, has also stirred heavy interest at the studio and among filmmakers who have seen it. Its stars include Ray Liotta, Kiefer Sutherland, John Mahoney and Kathy Baker.

Woody Allen, who made "Annie Hall" and most of his other films at Orion, has completed what is described by one Orion executive as a "philosophical comedy" set in the 1920s. The film, "Shadows and Fog," has a typically all-star Allenesque cast, including Kathy Bates, Mia Farrow, Jodie Foster, Madonna and Lily Tomlin.

Because of Orion's inability to finance Allen's next movie, the filmmaker signed a deal with Tristar Pictures. At Orion, Allen had been given virtually total control over the production and editing of his films, an unusual measure of creative freedom in Hollywood but not especially unusual at Orion, which has been extraordinarily popular among filmmakers because -- unlike the major studios -- it has given them substantial independence.

Midge Sanford, a producer of "Love Field" with her partner, Sarah Pillsbury, said: "They're just a wonderful company to work with. When they decide to do a movie they basically say, yes, let the filmmaker do it. They watch the budget but they're not intrusive, and when you're making a movie that's welcome."

Orion is currently negotiating with banks to extend payment terms on three past-due loans totaling $52 million. John Kluge, the billionaire whose other interests include the Metromedia Co., owns about 70 percent of Orion.

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