In 2016, when Hungary’s foreign-language Oscar entry “Son of Saul” won that honor (as well as many others), it was the first time in 35 years that the Hungarians captured that prize and nearly as long since they’d even had a film Oscar-nominated. For long-time film pro Andy Vajna, who has served as government commissioner in charge of the Hungarian film industry since 2011, it was a personal triumph. Best known for his co-stewardship (with partner Mario Kassar) of ’80s and ’90s indie powerhouse Carolco, where blockbusters such as “Terminator 2,” the “Rambo” franchise and “Basic Instinct” scored huge numbers, Vajna in the 21st century began to refocus on developing business interests in the country where he was born and fled from as a 12-year-old in the dark days of communist rule. Vajna’s Horatio Alger story also includes a stint at UCLA studying filmmaking, an apprenticeship in Hollywood hairdressing, which led to establishing a wig business in Asia that was his path to the Asian film industry and ultimately to his successes in production, sales and distribution. In 1974, Variety first noted his work in Asia during the now-defunct Mifed market in Milan.
Your bio suggests your film production work in Asia was career No. 3.
I was in Mifed as a buyer. I had decided once I had quit the wig business, that it was time to go back to my first love, the movies. I bought two theaters in Hong Kong and started distributing films.
What kinds of films were showing in your theaters?
We had some big films, like “Papillon” with Steve McQueen and the Charles Bronson film “Chino.” We had some French films with stars like Alain Delon and some of Dino De Laurentiis’s films.
Variety noted you had produced a film and were beginning production services on another.
Thanks to Bruce Lee and other kung-fu stars, Chinese films had become a fad. My first Hong Kong production starred Angela Mao, who was already a star. So it fit in with the kung fu craze and did very well.
You were learning production and getting paid while you were at it.
I learned a valuable lesson on that one. When MGM called and said they wanted to buy it, I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” They offered me either $50,000 upfront and participation or $75,000 upfront and no back end. Which I took. And then the picture did over $1 million.
A painful lesson.
I was gaining insights into the business. I studied every aspect of film production: development, casting, choosing the director, post-production, distribution, marketing. But I was never the artist. I was always the audience.
Were there key instructors?
Dino DeLaurentiis was an important influence. So was TriStar’s David Matalon. And of course Mario Kassar, whom I met when he was buying European films for my distribution company. Studying them, I learned how to be a real producer, not someone doing it for the numbers.
What did you like most about filmmaking?
I learned I didn’t like being on the set, but I loved post-production.
What did you like about that?
I loved learning about the film business.
And what was the worst part?
Not knowing what I was doing.