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Orion's short-lived attempt to compete with the traditional powers taught every company in Hollywood, major or mini-major, independent or semi-independent, a valuable lesson about survival in contemporary Hollywood. In a nutshell, Orion's failure has beyond any doubt underlined the overwhelming power of corporate capital, which represents the only type of safety net for the extremely precarious nature of the film business. Orion was unfortunate in choosing to pursue independence at a time when the stakes were already too high and the traditional majors had already transformed into global superpowers. Ultimately, Orion was ill-equipped to join the superpowers and its destiny was decided a long time before its petition for bankruptcy protection.

This lesson was best learnt by companies such as Miramax and New Line which, to a certain extent, shared Orion's relatively limited financial power. In 1993, these two companies secured their survival by swapping their independent status for that of the major independent. This move has provided them with the opportunity to make films 'parallel to the majors'

while also continuing 'stressing art house acquisitions which have the potential to cross over to a wider market.'48 In this respect, New Line and Miramax have managed to get the best of both worlds as the success of expensive films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy (New Line), the Spy Kids trilogy (Miramax/Dimension) and Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002; Miramax) has shown, while at the same time continuing the distribution of cheaply made, often challenging films such as Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000; New Line), Storytelling (Solondz, 2001; New Line), Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997; Miramax), and Full Frontal (Soderbergh, 2002, Miramax).

On the other hand, the Orion project has taught the traditional powers a different lesson, namely that there are still gaps in the now global entertainment market which, when exploited wisely by companies with vision, can undermine the conglomerated majors' oligopoly, even for a short period of time.

Case Study: 'That's what you thought you saw.' Orion Pictures, Filmhaus Productions, David Mamet and House of Games (Mamet, 1987, 100 min.), produced by Filmhaus Productions, distributed by Orion Pictures.

David Mamet has been one of the most influential contemporary American playwrights, whose plays such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), American Buffalo (1976), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), Speed-the-plow (1988) and Oleanna (1992) have been produced around the world, often in record-breaking productions. Since 1981, Mamet had also started writing screenplays for big-budget films such as MGM/Lorimar's The Postman Always Rings Twice (Rafelson, 1981) and Fox's The Verdict (Lumet, 1982). His screenwriting experience eventually attracted him to film directing.

Since his first film as a writer-director, House of Games in 1987, Mamet has written and directed eight films, the majority of which have been produced and/or distributed by small independent outfits such as Triumph Releasing (Homicide [1991]) and The Samuel Goldwyn Company (Oleanna [1994]), classics divisions of major companies (The Spanish Prisoner [1997] and The Winslow Boy [1998] - both by Sony Pictures Classics) and specialty divisions of major independents (State and Main [2000] - distributed by Fine Line Features, New Line Cinema's specialty distribution arm), while his most recent films, Heist (2001) and Spartan (2004) have been financed by a well-capitalised independent company, Franchise Pictures, and distributed by Warner. Irrespective of where Mamet gets financing for his films, he has developed a very distinct and personal style of filmmaking that clearly departs from a number of conventions associated with mainstream Hollywood cinema. As a result, Mamet has been considered a marginal filmmaker who does not follow Hollywood's commercial trends.

Although there was considerable interest from many parties in House of Games (a dense psychological thriller about a female psychologist conned by a gang of con artists to), most envisaged the film as a major production with stars and with Mamet only as the film's screenwriter. Mamet however wanted to direct his script himself, so he decided to 'go independent' by approaching producer Michael Hausman. Hausman was a well known figure in the independent sector as he had been involved in the first wave of the PBS-funded contemporary independent films such as Alambrista! and Heartland but had also worked in major productions such as Silkwood (Nichols, 1983) and Places in the Heart (Benton, 1984). In 1986, Hausman approached Orion Pictures with the script for House of Games. Always eager to develop new relationships with talent, the distributor agreed to finance the production for approximately $5 million dollars in negative costs and let Mamet produce the film according to his very specific vision. Orion raised the funds by pre-selling the film's rights to HBO and to a number of foreign distributors on an individual basis. With Hausman's company Filmhaus Productions undertaking the administration of the production Mamet found himself in the envious position of being able to concentrate on the creative aspect of the film.

With this unusual amount of creative freedom for a first-time filmmaker, Mamet made a number of decisions that exerted particular influence on the aesthetics of his film. Arguably the most important one was that he brought a number of close collaborators from his career in American theatre to work on the film, despite the fact that some of them - actors included - had no experience in filmmaking and made their debut in House of Games. All of them, however, had worked for many years with Mamet in the production of his plays, while most of the actors had been Mamet's students in acting workshops where the playwright had professed a particularly distinct approach to stage (and film) performance.

As a result the filmmaker and his above-the-line crew functioned as an ensemble, an intricately linked group of creative units whose overall contribution to the production and aesthetics of the film surpasses any one individual contribution. This means that the division of labour during the production of the film did not follow the strict hierarchy which has traditionally characterised the mode of production of mainstream (classical) filmmaking. This is not to imply that there was no pecking order in the division of labour that informed House of Games, or that Mamet, as the film's director, did not have the final say in questions of frame composition or editing. Rather, it means that the creative aspect of the film's production was, more forcefully than is usual, shaped by the dynamics of a tightly knit group of players.

The film's aesthetics are characterised by a particular use of film style that supports a narrative constructed in a very distinct way. Although the film's narrative structure follows, for the most part, the basic principles of classical narrative (causal coherence, continuity and character motivation), on certain occasions it departs from those principles and follows a logic of its own. These departures are mainly manifest in several clear breaks from the rules of social and/or cultural verisimilitude which immediately provide the story with a high degree of implausibility compared to a classical narrative (for instance, the long poker-game sequence in the film is so full of actions indicating that it is staged that the spectator is left wondering how the main character manages to miss all of them).

Equally, the film style employed to support such a narrative generally adheres to the rules of continuity and transparency, though, on several occasions, it also breaks those rules and consequently evokes a strong sense of 'artificiality'. These effects are mainly conveyed through the frequent absence of realist conventions in parts of the film's mise en scène, including frame composition, camera movement and editing (for instance on several frames the confidential information exchanged by characters should have been heard by others). For this reason, although film style is at the service of the narrative and visually supports a story that often follows a specific logic, it also comments on the narrative and in many ways breaks the spectator's engagement with the story, something that a classical style would never do.

If one adds here the nature of the actors' performance, which follows Mamet's view that acting should be plain and physical and not emotive in order to allow the words of the text 'speak for themselves', House of Games represents undeniably an example of independent filmmaking that not only was financed, produced and distributed away from the majors, but also differs aesthetically from mainstream American cinema of the late 1980s. However, without Orion's financial and institutional support House of Games could have looked and sounded very different, if it had been made at all. The company did not only manage to provide the full budget for the film with minimum financial risk for itself, but also to secure exhibition both in the United States and abroad for a feature with no established director or marketable stars. With global distribution and exhibition secure, the filmmaker was in a position to make the film according to his - very specific - vision and hence avoid potential compromises in creative decisions. This means that the mini-major should be given its due credit for allowing the emergence of a distinct voice in contemporary American independent cinema.


2. The figures are taken from Velvet Light Trap, 1991, p. 86.

6. The account of Orion Pictures presented here is a shorter version of an article entitled 'Major Status - Independent Spirit: A History of Orion Pictures (1978-1992)' which I originally published in The New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 2, no 1, pp. 78-135 ( For more information on the company's reputation in the industry see Hillier, 1994, p. 21.

7. For details on the resignation of the UA executives and their reasons, see Balio, 1987, pp. 333-9.

11. Pleskow, interview with the author, 24 June 2005, Weston, CT.

12. Medavoy, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA.

13. Unless stated otherwise, all rental figures for Orion films are taken from 'All Time Film Rental Champions', in Variety, 6 May 1991, p. 83.

17. 'Filmways Banner Retired as "New" Orion Pictures Raises Own Flag; Shareholders Double Stock Base', in Variety, 4 August 1982, pp. 3 and 26.

19. 'HBO & Orion Still Going Steady as Paycabler Picks up 14 films; Homevideo's in $50-75 mil Deal', in Variety, 27 February 1985, p. 44.

22. Medavoy was quoted in, 'Diverse Orion Slate Readied, with 23 Releases Through 1984', in Variety, 22 June 1983.

24. Unless stated otherwise, all US box office gross takings for Orion films are taken from the Internet Movie Database (

26. Variety, 27 February 1985, p. 44.

27. Best Seller (Flynn, 1987) was the only production that was not financed completely by Orion (Thompson, 1987, p. 60).

28. 'Orion Execs See Increased Credit, Longterm Profits', in Variety, 17 July 1985, p. 31.

29. 'Goldsmidt, with 11 Upcoming Pics from Orion, Tempers Intl. Tough Spots with Rosy Market', in Variety, 16 October 1985, p. 13.

30. 'Orion to Form Homevid Label for Own Output', in Variety, 18 December

31. 'Execs Downplay Losses at Upbeat Orion Annual Meet', in Variety, 16 July

32. 'Orion Constellation Growing Brighter while Top Execs Remain Realistic', in Variety, 15 April 1987, p. 32.

34. Pleskow, interview with the author, 24 June 2005, Weston, CT; Medavoy, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA.

35. 'Most of the Cards Have Been Dealt', in Forbes, 21 March 1988.

36. 'A Friend in Need', in Forbes, 16 April 1990; 'Orion Pictures: From Hunted to Hunter', in Broadcasting, 17 September 1990.

38. Forbes, 16 April 1990.

39. The film scored an incredible $114,558 average per screen, when an average of $10,000 is considered a marker of a solid performance. The figure is taken from

40. 'Orion Moves to Trim Its Heavy Debt Load', in Billboard, 8 June 1991.

41. Pleskow, interview with the author, 24 June 2005, Weston, CT.

42. Pleskow, interview with the author, 24 June 2005, Weston, CT.

43. 'Sell Orion Pictures Now Or Wait Until It Revamps Its Debt Burden', in The Los Angeles Business Journal, 10 June 1991, p. 5.

44. Los Angeles Business Journal, 10 June 1991, p. 5.

45. 'New Management Takes over at Orion Pictures', in Variety, 8 April 1991, pp. 3 and 18.

46. 'Cash-starved Orion Trying to Sell Off Pix' in Variety, 11 February 1991, p. 133.

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