Sunday 3 February 2019

In memoriam: Andy Vajna (Telegraph 23/01/19)

Andy Vajna, who has died aged 74, was a Hungarian-born film producer who – via his companies Carolco and Cinergi – oversaw several of modern Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters and flops. Teaming with flamboyant Lebanese-Italian business partner Mario Kassar on the Rambo trilogy (1982-88), the avuncular, bearded Vajna transformed Carolco from a modest six-person operation into a movie powerhouse at once illustrious and profligate. A 2004 profile recalled how an executive bounded into the company’s offices one morning in the late 1980s to ask whether his colleagues were aware of any outstanding payments. A cheque for $5 million had just arrived by registered delivery, and no-one had the least idea what it might be for.

A different form of escapism defined Vajna’s early years. Born András György Vajna in Budapest on August 1, 1944, he fled the Hungarian Revolution aged 12, arriving in Canada alone and unable to speak a word of English. He was eventually reunited with his parents some years later in Los Angeles, where he studied and taught cinematography at UCLA before setting up a photography studio. His route into moving images would be circuitous, however. After a skiing accident left him unable to work for nine months, Vajna teamed up with hairdresser and fellow émigré Gábor Koltai to design high-end wigs. Exports to Hong Kong were so lucrative that Vajna launched his own hairpiece company, Gilda Fashion, in the Far East.

It was during this Asian spell that he first entered the industry, using the profits from selling Gilda in 1973 to buy two cinemas and found the production-distribution company Panasia Films. He scored encouraging worldwide sales with an English redub of Deadly China Doll (1973), a vehicle for local chopsocky star Angela Mao, and by the mid-Seventies, he’d become a regular face at the Cannes festival’s markets. It was here, in 1975, that he first met Kassar. Right from the off, the pair proved a money-spinning combination, securing international rights for the justly forgotten Roger Moore thriller The Sicilian Cross (1976) for $130,000 before selling the title on to Asian distributors for $220,000.

That first sale established Carolco’s modus operandi: savvy negotiation, quick turnarounds, and an internationalism that both distinguished the company from smaller-minded rivals and presaged today’s globalised event-movie business. As director Alan Parker, who worked with Vajna on Angel Heart (1987) and Evita (1996), spotted: “They figured out that 60 percent of a film’s revenue comes from outside the US. Andy and Mario personally knew all the local independent distributors.” Nevertheless, it took time to gain traction upon Vajna’s return to Hollywood. Carolco occupied a small Melrose Avenue office, recruiting wives and girlfriends as secretaries, and using sales of starry yet subpar titles like The Changeling (1980) and Escape to Victory (1981) to maintain a revenue flow.

Their breakthrough was Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), the still-potent potboiler that introduced Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. Test audiences hated its doomy, ambiguous tone, but recuts and the star’s presence reassured buyers: all international rights were sold within five minutes. The flagwaving fantasy of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), reworked by Stallone from a James Cameron script, provoked President Reagan to warn potential hostage takers: “I saw Rambo last night… next time I’ll know what to do.” By 1988’s third instalment, a business model had been affirmed: find exploitable material, then pump it until it gave out. Unabashedly populist, Vajna shrugged: “I was never the artist. I was always the audience.”  

In Carolco’s case, this often meant doubling down on violent pulp: Vajna backed Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice (1987), Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Red Heat (1988) and Mickey Rourke as Johnny Handsome (1989). Sometimes the money financed more ambitious projects, such as Angel Heart and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Yet by the time the latter reached cinemas, the Vajna-Kassar relationship, tested by sudden, easy money, had definitively frayed. While Kassar was gifting Schwarzenegger a Gulfstream jet to ensure his participation in Terminator II (1991), the marginally more circumspect Vajna sold his 32% share in their company for an estimated $100m.

Formed in 1989, Cinergi mixed blockbuster fare with prestige ventures like Evita and Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995). Yet successive high-profile flops all but torpedoed Vajna’s American career. Joyless Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd (1995) was followed by the misconceived The Scarlet Letter (1995) with Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, and Burn Hollywood Burn! (1997), a dud satire centred on the tradition whereby directors removed before final cut can adopt the pseudonymous credit “Alan Smithee”; infamously, a post-production dispute saw director Arthur Hiller quit, so the final product itself bore the Smithee credit. Vajna had other distractions: the IRS’s “Hollywood Task Force” began pursuing Carolco for $109.7m in back taxes. (The case was settled in 2001, with Vajna paying $6.5m.)

There was a surprisingly effective reunion with Kassar on Terminator 3 (2003), but Basic Instinct 2 (2006) and Terminator: Salvation (2009) served as examples of the limitations of Vajna’s relentless franchising. He fared better upon returning to Hungary, earning a huge local hit with the Ray Cooney-derived Out of Order (1997) and respectful reviews with Children of Glory (2006), which revisited the events of 1956 from the perspective of the national water polo team. He forged close links with PM Viktor Orbán, and despite protests by cineastes Béla Tarr and Miklós Jancsó, he was appointed Commissioner for Film in 2011, in which guise he set up the National Film Fund that backed Son of Saul (2015). He also maintained two casinos, ever-alert to the romance – and possible rewards – of the big gamble.

He is survived by Timea Palacsik, the director of Miss Universe Hungary, whom he married in 2013.

Andy Vajna, born August 1, 1944, died January 20, 2019.

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