Where’s Woody?

Here’s an admission I’ll probably live to regret:

I think Woody Allen has become a major drag.

I realize, of course, that Allen remains a cultural icon, especially in New York. People still genuflect when they pass his empty table at Elaine’s. The press treats him with a reverence accorded to Mother Teresa. Three years ago when he shot a terrible film called “September,” then decided to shoot it all over again, the Times commented not on his profligacy but on his drive for perfection (the second version turned out even worse than the first).

But the time has come for Woody to face up to some stern imperatives. Instead of prancing around in ponytailed self parody, as he does in “Scenes From A Mall,” he should start thinking about his responsibilities. And his friends.

What brings all this to mind is a chain of events that doesn’t directly involve Woody Allen – but probably should.

The Woody Allen “franchise” belongs to Orion Pictures. And Orion at this time is scrambling on the edge of oblivion. This week Orion executives, led 81-year-old Arthur Krim, are seeking to raise some $70 million from Hollywood for the rights to distribute five completed Orion films.

For Orion, this is survival money. The company has a debt of nearly $500 million, a negative cash flow of $174 million and its bank debt has just been downgraded by Moody’s (though Orion met a $12.5 million interest payment Friday). Its major stockholder, John Kluge, has packed the Orion board with his allies. The storm clouds loom.

Paradoxically, this crisis comes at a time when Orion would seem to be on a hot streak. Orion films this week collected 19 Oscar nominations, more than any major. Orion’s “Dances With Wolves” has soared past the $100 million mark and stands to make a lot more money on the basis of its 12 nominations. Orion’s latest release, “The Silence Of The Lambs,” has the feel of a winner about it as well.

Given these portents, why are Arthur Krim and his partners, Eric Pleskow and Bill Bernstein, desperately in search of cash?

When they started Orion in 1978, they had the highest of expectations and the best of friends. Krim was not simply a film exec; he was a living archive. Who else in the industry has negotiated with Charlie Chaplin and cajoled Mary Pickford?

And who else was joined at the hip to Woody Allen? The Krim- Allen tie began at United Artists 20 years ago and resulted in such hits as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” When the franchise shifted to Orion, it was assumed that hits would continue.

But things never came easy for Orion. As the only mini-major still headquartered in New York, Orion was put down Hollywood dealmakers as “too elitist.” Indeed, the 68-year-old Pleskow, Orion’s president and operating head, always seemed to see himself more as Medici than manager. Orion’s triumph with “Amadeus” brought him much satisfaction, for it was a cultural as well as a financial success. Other successes were rare. “Back To School” was one of them, but Rodney Dangerfield’s a long way from Mozart.

But then Orion always had its secret weapon – Woody Allen. Allen exercised an autonomy experienced by no other American filmmaker on a consistent, ongoing basis. He could make his films without anyone approving his script, his budget, his final cut. He was the master.

But where were the hits? Orion waited patiently through Allen’s Bergman period, his Kurosawa period, his Kierkegaard period. They kept waiting for the return of his Woody Allen period. Until time ran out.

Over the last decade, Allen has cranked out 11 films for Orion, thus supporting a mini-industry of actors, technicians and sycophants. His films have cost well in excess of $100 million. They’ve yielded domestic film rentals of under $60 million. Among the Orion slate, only “Hannah And Her Sisters” broke through into double-digit rentals. Others, such as “September,” “Another Woman” and “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” sank.

Krim and Pleskow, ever the Allen loyalists, will no doubt be indignant when they read these figures. They’ll argue that Allen was never positioned to be their Steven Spielberg – of course he wasn’t – and that his slate has at least broken even, when one considers income from the ancillary markets, and they may have a point. But in the fearsome 1990s, “breaking even” is not enough.

Today, even as Allen meanders around in the Disney picture “Scenes From A Mall,” directed by Paul Mazursky, the hugely expensive set for his final (typically unnamed) Orion film stands idle at Kaufman Astoria Studios. Woody plays Bette Midler’s husband in the film and in one scene is heard to complain about all those nasty new Yorkers who keep putting down Los Angeles – the ultimate Woody Allen in-joke.

But one wonders: Instead of dropping in-jokes, why isn’t Woody out there in Hollywood with his patron, Arthur Krim? Why isn’t he rallying around the Orion flag?

But filmmakers don’t do things like that – certainly not icons.

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