Orion trumpets return; skeptics note caution

Orion Pictures Corp. is advertising that it’s back in the theatrical distribution business barely 10 months after its bankruptcy, but prez/CEO Leonard White readily admits it will have to prove itself to a skeptical industry before it is considered a serious player again.

“You ask me how the industry perceives us: I’d say with skepticism” he told Daily Variety. “It’s a wait-and-see attitude.”

Analysts, including Seidler Amdec Securities’ Jeffrey Logsdon, agree. “Well, they’re back,” he quipped. “What does that mean? Obviously they’re in an operating mode, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into 15-20 films a year, starting next week.”

White emphasizes that majority Metromedia shareholders John Kluge and Stewart Sobotnik “personally guaranteed” cash infusions of $ 300 million in secured debt , $ 15 million in capital infusion, in addition to a “forgiven note for ‘Mermaids’ worth about $ 29 million,” which reduced the debt to about $ 400 million from the $ 700 million Orion reported when it filed for bankruptcy.

“Armed with that and assets, meaning people, there is continuity,” White said. The staff was chopped from 700 in January ’91 to its current 160, “and this is no time for them to leave: They’ve been through hell.”

White is proud that Orion’s 750-title library wasn’t sold during bankruptcy (except for rights to “The Addams Family”) and counts that as a future asset. However, he’s counting on the 10 completed feature films that were canned and shelved to put Orion back on the distribution map.

All 10 will be distributed this fiscal year, he says, beginning with 300 prints of “Love Field” on Feb. 12, followed by “Married to It” on Feb. 26 and Stephen King’s “Dark Half” on April 23.

Distributing those pix doesn’t convince skeptics. “They’ve got these infamous 10 films in the can, that nobody fell over themselves to acquire for distribution,” Logsdon said. “Now we’ll see how many off-balance-sheet dollars they can put together to get back into the production business.”

White says, “That’s what the industry is waiting to see. First, they want to see if we’re capable of opening any movie and how well, and secondly, if we’re capable of greenlighting pictures.”

For the time being, White only hints that a production slate is pending. Meanwhile, he says $ 72 million has been earmarked and approved for P&A on the current 10.

Cash infusions and a 10-pic release slate doesn’t convince David Colden, a partner with the law firm Weissmann, Wolff, Bergman, Coleman & Silverman, that Kluge is necessarily in for the long haul.

“If John Kluge is willing to make a personal financial commitment to re-start Orion, then in my opinion, they do have the ability to once again become a distributor. However, what the public needs to bear in mind is the reason Orion ultimately collapsed is because John Kluge pulled the plug, and said in essence, ‘I’m not going to continue to cash flow this company.’

“So in the very year or so that they had two of their biggest hits (“Dances With Wolves” and “The Silence of the Lambs”), the company disappeared. John Kluge is a rich enough man that he can reverse the events he started in the fist place.

“That being said, I have no knowledge as to his actual intention. John Kluge, as a practical matter, could be funding Orion in order to convert these intangible assets (the 10 films) into the tangible asset of cash. And once that’s done, he may do what he did the first time, and that is pull the plug.”

Colden was quick to add that he’d personally “love” to see Orion back in business, but cautioned that this release slate “could be a smokescreen. On the other hand, it could be (Kluge) really wants to get back into the motion picture business.”

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