Turmoil at four film companies has Hollywood reeling

If a company is in flux,” says producer Martin Ransohoff, ”and the guy that’s calling the shots is battling to save his ass, would you want to give him a comedy? Nothing looks terribly funny when he’s trying to patch a hole in his leaky lifeboat. It’s a serious distraction.”

In Hollywood these days, there’s a lot of serious distraction flooding a lot of lifeboats. In a rare occurrence, four movie studios — Columbia, Orion, MGM/Pathe, and Paramount — are in chaos, with their production activities considerably slowed. Of course, it’s a fact of industry life that the studio people with the power to say yes to a multimillion-dollar film don’t stay secure in their jobs long. But in the current four-sided storm, competition among the nine major studios has been significantly reduced, two of the studios are in danger of going under, and the thousands of agents and producers who pitch ideas to them are dizzy from trying to figure out which way to turn.

On the street, the words used to describe the littlest studio range from ”comatose” to ”dead.” Ironically, Orion produced the smashes Dances With Wolves and The Silence of the Lambs, yet no one is bringing new scripts to its doors because-good reason-the studio has no money and is ”restructuring” its huge debt. ”If Dances had come a year earlier,” says Variety analyst A.D. Murphy, ”Orion probably would have survived.”

Not that it’s over yet for the studio, but the fat lady is clearing her throat. Lambs director Jonathan Demme says he expects to be back in business with Orion after the restructuring. But stars such as Kevin Costner have taken their deals elsewhere, and many executives are known to be preparing their exits. Longtime Orion showpiece Woody Allen went to TriStar for his next film, and most observers think he’ll stay there.

Orion has 10 movies awaiting release, including Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate, which opens this month. But it had to sell its most commercial film, The Addams Family, to Paramount for about $23 million at a net loss. Orion reportedly can’t pay the interest on its $500 million debt-even though its controlling shareholder, John W. Kluge, has agreed to supply some $50 million to keep the company alive. And then what? ”It’s a huge embarrassment to Kluge,” says Wall Street analyst Harold Vogel. ”The company was a victim of not having enough capital.”

Although its Thelma & Louise has made $42.7 million, the company still slogged through another lackluster summer, and that’s the least of its worries. Studio topper Alan Ladd Jr. is spending much time in court testifying in a suit brought by Italian mogul Giancarlo Parretti, who wants to win back control of MGM/Pathe from its present owners, the French bank Crédit Lyonnais. Although no one knows where the money is going to come from, Ladd recently green-lighted four modestly budgeted films, including a new version of Of Mice and Men, starring John Malkovich. Very nice, but what if Parretti wins?

”Until the lawsuit is resolved,” says producer Ransohoff (Jagged Edge), ”you don’t know who is calling the shots. What happens if the money situation is frozen? Or if the company goes into Chapter 7 or 11? If you’ve broken your butt to make a good movie and a company gets into serious financial problems, your movie becomes an asset in a bankruptcy proceeding.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s movie unit is in limbo while tout Hollywood waits to learn the fate of beleaguered studio chief Frank Price. On the job for a year and a half, Price has had mixed success at the box office, and his boss, chairman Peter Guber, has refused to make any statement of support on his behalf. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has let Guber’s old crony Mark Canton out of his contract, leaving him free to pursue a high- level job at Columbia.

Price has been maneuvered out of such positions twice before (at Columbia and Universal), and this time he’s holding his ground with the help of such media allies as Liz Smith, who recently devoted a column to his defense. The pro-Pricers attribute the surprising success of Boyz N the Hood to Price, who signed director John Singleton to a three-picture deal. The antis say that for every Boyz there’s a dud like Return to the Blue Lagoon. And in the standoff, agents and producers peddle their projects elsewhere. ”We’ll hold back until the situation solidifies,” says producer David Madden. ”You’d have to be foolish to go there today.”

Fresh from NBC, studio chairman Brandon Tartikoff has wasted little time making his presence felt. In his three months in power, he’s slashed budgets and squashed egos (for example, by removing Alec Baldwin from Patriot Games). He’s taken flak for his ”TV philosophy” of rushing movies into production, and he’s thrown out leftover projects; key executives may follow. But what does Brandon like? Besides Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop III, what will he buy? Hollywood is finding him a hard read. ”It’s very political over there,” says one agent. ”It’s court politics.”

And so the industry wrings its hands and waits. The waiting game is hardly new to Hollywood — in fact, it’s a local art form — but with four studios up in the air, it’s being played like never before.