It has been only a year and a half since Andy Vajna resigned the co-chairmanship of Carolco Pictures, sold off his shares for $106 million to his former partner Mario Kassar, and set up Cinergi Productions, his own independent development and production company in Beverly Hills.
Apparently, that’s all the time the Hungarian-born producer needed to make a dramatic impact on the industry. This week, as Vajna carries the Cinergi banner to Cannes, he brings with him an impressive array of accomplishments.
* “The Stand: The Last Days Of Eden,” the Sean Connery-Lorraine Bracco-starrer helmed by John McTiernan, is currently in production in Catemaco, Mexico. Cinergi paid an estimated $2.5-$3 million for Tom Schulman’s spec script, then gave McTiernan and Connery pay-or-play deals reportedly worth $6 million and $10 million, respectively.
* Cinergi joined forces with Bernd Eichinger’s Constantin Films and Arnon Milchan’s Regency Intl. to create the Summit Group, a joint-venture foreign sales company that will handle foreign distribution rights on their own films and selective projects from other sources. “The principals have known each other for years,” says senior v.p. Michael Werner. “They all have a strong familiarity with the international arena.”
* Cinergi and Disney Studios cut an exclusive five-year distribution/co-financing deal. Under the terms of the agreement, films developed by Cinergi will be released through Hollywood Pictures and Touchstone Pictures in all North and South American markets. “Eden” will be the first such release. A Disney spokesperson declined to comment on the financing portion of the arrangement.
* Cinergi has 21 projects in development, according to development v.p. Jill Arthur. The indie’s next release most likely will be “Princess Of Mars,” a $60 million-plus sci-fi actioner with McTiernan signed to direct, his second outing for the indie as part of a three-picture deal.
* Other greenlighted highlights include: “Paramour,” a political thriller to be produced and directed by Ridley Scott; “Big Time,” an action drama with Tom Cruise attached as producer, at least, and Ron Bass (“Rainman”) as scripter; “Judge Dee,” a Paul Verhooven project based on the true adventures of an 8th century Chinese magistrate who acted as judge, jury and executioner in his heyday.
Coming to Cannes
At Cannes this year, Werner will be spearheading the Summit Group’s efforts with screenings of two comedies and a high-powered slate of films in production and preproduction from the three partners, including “The Last Days Of Eden.” “We did significant sales at the American Film Market,” he comments. “I expect to complete licensing arrangements on all these films at Cannes.”
Asked about the genesis of the Summit Group, Werner explains that the partners analyzed what it would cost to license their product to other agents, or to do it individually or to do it collectively. “The most cost effective way was collectively,” he points out. “It gave them more control, more strength.”
Vajna’s distribution deal with Disney raised many eyebrows in the industry when it was announced last August. It pairs one of the world’s most free-spending producers with one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious and tightly managed studios.
“It’s clever, not inconsistent,” insists Ricardo Mestres, president of Hollywood Pictures. “Andy’s proven himself at creating big, event-style motion pictures.” The top exec concedes that Vajna’s approach to financing, talent and production is “quite different than ours,” but predicts a harmonious marriage.
“Andy operates in the world of big budgets, big salaries and big stars,” he explains. “While we occasionally delve into that world, it’s not our staple diet. Our approach is to develop things ourselves internally, use homegrown talent, create hits out of smaller budget pictures.” Mestres thinks Cinergi’s product will be an important adjunct to Disney’s releasing schedule, and that Cinergi will benefit from Disney’s marketing and distribution expertise.
When pressed on whether Disney will try to exercise any control or restraint on Vajna’s operation, Mestres says: “Andy makes the deals and the movies that he chooses to make. He is the principal. It’s his studio. He seeks our feedback and opinions, of course, but it’s his show.”
In vying for “The Stand,” Vajna went head-to-head with ex-associate Kassar, who last June outbid him for Joe Eszterhas’ erotic thriller, “Basic Instinct.”
Carolco dished out $3 million for the script, which still represents the highest amount ever paid for an original screenplay at auction. It also promised an additional $1 million producing fee to Irwin Winkler and more than $10 million for Michael Douglas to star.
Friend or foe?
Vajna’s exit from Carolco, coupled with the high-priced bidding wars, gave rise to much speculation that the two men’s longtime friendship had soured, and that it was being replaced by distrust and animosity. Sources close to both producers deny this, and continue to describe their relationship as “competitive, but amicable.”
“They were compelled into the same level of competition by their situations,” observes Werner, one of the few insiders who agreed to discuss the matter on the record. “You must be more aggressive and bolder than studios if you want to [independently] produce major films.”
Werner dismisses the speculation about the rift as “silly,” and attributes much of the hoopla on the press. “It became a self-fulfilling thing,” he notes. “If any elements of it were true, they’ve grown beyond it now.”
Nevertheless, some industry insiders continue to blame Kassar, Vanja and several other cash-rich independent producers with “deep foreign pockets” for the dramatic escalation in the cost of creative talent.
“Guys like Kassar and Vajna and (Largo’s) Larry Gordon have changed the way the whole town does business,” asserts a high-ranking executive who requested anonymity. ‘Writers are cranking out spec scripts. Agents are deliberately structuring intense bidding situations. And they’ve set a new standard for talent, which basically says ‘the sky is the limit.’”
Mestres, among others, disagrees. “I don’t know if you can point a finger at any one culprit,” he says. “There’s been a general competitive bidding frenzy that’s affected all of us. It’s borne out of the tremendous rewards that seemed to be promised from $200 million blockbuster movies. Those rewards are elusive. There’s better use of money. Put it in a bank.”
“It’s an easy [accusation] to make,” adds Werner. “But look at how many movies are being made in Hollywood as a whole. Andy and Mario are doing a very small percentage of the total. You can’t single them out as the guilty parties.”
Despite their similar appetites for star-and director-driven projects, megabuck spec script deals and minimal budget restraints, Vajna and Kassar are viewed by many as having distinctly different styles. Some sources who knew both men claim that they weren’t surprised by Vajna’s departure from Carolco.
They suggest that the 47-year-old producer was seeking calmer waters, a slower lane. Vajna himself has described Cinergi as “a small boutique operation with a non-pressure format” of making just two quality pictures a year for worldwide distribution.
“Mario is a cowboy, a flamboyant, high-stakes gambler, who I think, enjoys his reputation in the business,” says one established screenwriter who knows both men. “Andy is more low-key. He’s a gambler, too, but quieter, more thoughtful. He’s the Guber of the pair [referring to Columbia's CEO tandem Peter Guber and Jon Peters]. Mario bowls you over with enthusiasms and extravagance; Andy wins you over with brains and charm.”
Mestres points out that both Vajna and Kassar come from a distributor-exhibitor background. “Their approach to the world is a bit different than traditional Hollywood’s,” he says. “They come at it from [the position of] what will the exhibitor buy, and therefore, what will the audience buy?
“I also think Andy is a master at putting together creative elements,” continues the Hollywood Pics prez. “He emphasizes the talent’s involvement early on, whereas most studios follow the process of developing a script until they believe it’s ready to be made into a movie, then attach talent. Andy draws in stars and directors at the beginning. The movie has a lifeblood earlier. It results in a highly visible, highly marketable product.”