Return of the kings of Cannes

Producers Kassar, Vajna are back on the beach

Producer Mario Kassar, one of the most flamboyant figures ever to hawk his films on the French Riviera, first visited Cannes under the most humble of circumstances: thumbing his way around Europe as a teenager, he fell asleep on the beach of the Hotel Martinez.

“I always had this fantasy about Cannes,” he recalls. “I had nothing in my pocket. Just a backpack. I was looking at the hotel and thought, ‘What a great hotel. Maybe one day I can sleep in it.’ And of course, the French cops came and woke me up and threw me off the beach.”

These days, Kassar and partner Andy Vajna — principals of production firm C2 Pictures and producers of a slew of pics including “Rambo,” “Basic Instinct” and “Terminator 2,” which combined have yielded more than $3 billion in worldwide box office — call Cannes “a second home.”

Longtime Croisette fixtures, the producers return this month after a year’s hiatus spent shooting their latest mondo-budget action spectacular, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” a C2-Intermedia co-production, distributed Stateside by Warner Bros. and internationally by Sony.

‘Machines’ for publicity

Along with the cast of “T3,” including franchise star Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kassar and Vajna will be on hand for three days of parties and press as part of the pic’s international launch.

It’s a new approach for the producers, who once regarded Cannes as a marketplace, not a publicity showcase.

It was at Cannes in the early 1980s when Kassar and Vajna began shopping foreign rights to the blockbuster slate of their now defunct, publicly traded production house, Carolco. In the process, they helped change the face of Cannes — and of the international film market — as the bazaar for low-budget fare transformed itself into a global market, where indie producers mined foreign coin to fund mega-budget movies.

Kassar and Vajna shrewdly exploited the glitz of Cannes to push their slate to foreign buyers, chartering 200-foot yachts, suites at the Hotel du Cap, fleets of limos, A-list stars and fireworks to stir up excitement on the Croisette.

“Mario and Andy’s whole business was always to make the movie with their money and take it to Cannes,” says Schwarzenegger, who remembers how the duo worked the early days of presales. “They’d say, ‘We are here to raise money, but look who we have here: Arnold. While you’re making your commitment to us, while you’re signing up to buy (pic rights for) France, to buy England, to buy this and that, we have the guy here who will sell it for you. Tomorrow, we’re going to make a big presentation and he’s going to talk about your company or his company or his company. So it’s up to you whether you want to put the money down.’ And everyone would say, ‘Oh, wow, I could be the start of something big.’ ”

This year, with “T3” sold to studios both domestically and overseas, the duo will be in Cannes strictly as showmen.

“In the past, we used Cannes as a sales platform,” Vajna says. “Now we’re there to promote to the world that ‘T3’ exists and when it’s coming. With ‘T3,’ because we already have our distributors all over the world, Cannes will be the place where Columbia will kick off their international publicity launch.”

It’s fitting that Vajna and Kassar, who spent $15 million to buy the franchise back from Carolco and producer Gale Anne Hurd before setting it up at Intermedia, should be at the center of the swirl of international “T3” publicity.

“While Arnold is the personification of the Terminator, these guys are the heart and soul of the franchise,” says Intermedia chair Moritz Borman. “It was their vision of ‘Terminator 3’ that originally got me excited about joining forces with them.”

Showmanship may come naturally to Kassar and Vajna, but the duo, who met at Cannes in 1974, have kept a low profile recently, huddling in the graffiti-scrawled warehouse building in Santa Monica that houses C2, planning the global release campaign of “T3.”

On a recent spring afternoon, they prowled restlessly about their headquarters, surrounded by “Terminator” merchandise, stopping briefly to chat with Variety in the capacious office where their massive granite and glass desks are connected at a slight angle. The producers control licensing rights to “T3” and stand to earn even higher profits on the videogame spinoff — the first to use Schwarzenegger’s likeness — than on the film itself.

Kassar dressed in army fatigues and faded New Balance sneakers; Vajna, in sand-colored warm-up pants and long-sleeved T-shirt, clutched a plastic lighter in one hand and twirled a slender cigar in the other.

Reminiscing about past trips to the French resort town, they recalled their tumultuous career trajectories, which include a separation and reunion, IRS probes and the Carolco bankruptcy auction, and a decade-long campaign to bring Schwarzenegger back to the screen as the Terminator.

In the beginning

Kassar, who was born in Lebanon, was a sales agent and distributor, and Vajna, born in Hungary, was running Hong Kong distrib Panasia Films when they first crossed paths on the French Riviera. Two years later, in 1976, they formed Carolco as a sales, financing and distribution company, focused on territories well off the Hollywood radar.

“In the beginning, we started buying and selling films for what was then a very mysterious group of territories, which was the Middle East and Far East,” Vajna recalls. “People didn’t know what to do with them. But I was from the Far East, and Mario was from the Middle East. We were able to go around and buy from most of the large independent producers the rights to most of their films for those areas.”

Carolco produced its first feature in 1982, “First Blood,” starring Sylvester Stallone. An instant jackpot, it gave birth to a new American hero, John Rambo, and grossed more than $120 million worldwide. Dozens of splashy releases followed, including “Rambo,” “T2” and “Basic Instinct,” and a string of less successful efforts like “Cutthroat Island” and “Showgirls.”

Parted ways

In 1989, Vajna cashed in his stake in the company for close to $110 million and Kassar became sole chairman of Carolco. Vajna founded Cinergi Prods., a financing, production and distribution company with a Disney output deal.

Cinergi’s films were similar in scope to Carolco’s. First out of the gate was 1992’s “Medicine Man,” with Sean Connery, followed a year later by “Tombstone,” with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Cinergi’s biggest hit, 1995’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” grossed more than $365 million worldwide. But the same year also saw the release of a much less successful movie, “Judge Dredd.”

A year after Vajna’s exit from Carolco, Kassar threw one of the most lavish promo parties in Cannes history. He chartered a jet and flew more than 50 Hollywood luminaries — including Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, Adrian Lyne and Renny Harlin — to the French Riviera. A phalanx of black Mercedes cars waited on the tarmac to whisk them to the soiree at the Hotel du Cap’s Eden Roc pool area. The Gypsy Kings performed and a fireworks display lit up the sky with artwork and names of talent from forthcoming Carolco pics.

This year’s “T3” festivities in Cannes — two parties and a big publicity event — may not compare to Kassar’s 1990 blow-out. But Kassar and Vajna, who’ve staked their careers on the international film business, are focused on the painstaking process of sending their latest tentpole into the global market with as much hoopla as possible.

“This is a boutique,” Kassar says of C2. “We don’t do 25 movies a year. We do one or two. But we really work that movie up and down. We milk it.”

(Dade Hayes contributed to this report.)

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