Vajna’s goal is to win over locals

Cannes Daily Spotlight 2012: Hungarian Cinema

Although Hungary’s economy has struggled along with the rest of Europe during the economic downturn, Hungarian cinema seems to be on the brink of a boom. The potential upswing arrives in the wake of a film law passed last year that has brought structure and clarity to an industry that had been beset by scandal and a lack of funding.

According to the new law, decision-making for greenlighting projects and allocating budgets is centered in an office called the Film Fund, which operates with the efficiency of a commercial movie studio. At its helm is Hollywood producer Andrew G. Vajna, now the architect of Hungary’s reinvented domestic film industry, who was appointed commissioner overseeing reforms by the government of prime minister Viktor Orban.

Already under the leadership of Hungarian-born Vajna (whose family escaped communist Hungary and settled in the U.S. when Vajna was 12 years old), the Film Fund has seen one feature film (director Janos Szasz’s “The Notebook”) wrap principal photography, and funded three other productions with between $460,000 and $830,000 apiece. The fund has also provided development support for 32 screenplays.

The key to Hungary’s new system may be the decision to eliminate bureaucracy from the funding process by culling money directly from the nation’s Pick 6 Lotto. (Eighty percent of the lottery’s proceeds goes to the fund, which could amount to $18 million in 2012.)

Given Europe’s woes, the fund’s ability to jump-start its cinema industry looks impressive, though Vajna is hardly satisfied.

“I’m never happy,” he jokes. “If I was, I wouldn’t be doing this job. I think it is a good start. We have some good (projects).”

Movies in production include “Liza, the Fox Fairy,” the first feature by director Karoly Ujj Meszaros; Gyula Nemes’ “Zero”; and Balint Kenyeres’ “Hier.” Such productions appear to strike a balance between promoting culture and encouraging strong narrative, which Vajna hopes will recapture local audiences.

“You have a situation where Hungary’s films are not able to attract its own moviegoers,” he told Variety in November. “We have to do something to entice these people to come back to watch Hungarian films.”

But despite improvements to the funding and selection process, Vajna’s greatest accomplishment may be his behind-the-scenes efforts to eliminate the financial chaos that crippled the industry in the past.

Vajna announced that after months of painstaking negotiations, the debts of the industry’s former funding body, the Hungarian Motion Picture Public Foundation, have been satisfied.

“The debts have been resolved completely with the banks,” Vajna says. “The past has been completely cleaned up.”

Though the Film Fund is making game-changing reforms in Hungary, not everyone is applauding. Members of Hungarian Filmmakers Assn. have been critical of the new system, claiming it promotes entertainment over art. But the criticism may not be accurate, considering that directors receiving support by the fund include prize-winning auteurs Szasz and Ibolya Fekete, as well as such seasoned helmers as Elemer Ragalyi, Arpad Sopsits, Peter Gardos and Geza Beremenyi.

To help ensure coin is well spent, the fund is offering assistance to writers and directors and has even launched a program to help Hungarian film school grads break into the industry.

“We’re organizing a master class for directors and screenwriters,” Vajna says. “We’re assisting them to get their first films made (and) setting up teams so that it will be a team effort to get them through this first step.”

Though the industry has come a long way, change hasn’t been easy for Vajna.

“I am frustrated with the bureaucracy I have to fight on almost a daily basis,” he says. “But I realize bureaucracy is something you have to live with (in government) and I’m learning to be patient.”

Cannes Daily Spotlight 2012: Hungarian Cinema
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