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Hungary’s Film Business Copes With Life After Late Producer Andy Vajna

When the producers of Lionsgate’s “The Spy Who Dumped Me” were struggling to get a permit for a key location on the streets of Budapest several years ago, they knew exactly where to turn. “I called Andy,” says Adam Goodman, whose Mid Atlantic Films serviced the shoot. “I said, ‘Look, we need your help.’”

Goodman might have expected Hungarian film commissioner Andy Vajna to pick up the phone and call in a favor. But on the day of Mid Atlantic’s pitch, a black minivan pulled up to the stairs of the mayor’s office. “Andy steps out with the mirrored sunglasses, the suit, smoking a cigar,” Goodman recalls recently in Budapest. “As we walked into the mayor’s offices, it was like the parting of the Red Sea.” Vajna’s presence gave a winning presentation added weight, according to Goodman. Within days of the meeting, he had the permit he needed. 

Such was the outsize influence and persuasive power of the Hungarian-born producer, who died in January at age 74. After a legendary stint in Hollywood, where he produced a series of blockbusters in the 1980s and ’90s, Vajna returned to his native country, spearheading its transformation into the second-biggest production hub in Europe after the U.K.

Vajna was instrumental to the overhaul of Hungary’s film financing system and the creation of a cash rebate that spurred an incentives arms race across
the region. As film commissioner, he leveraged his Hollywood connections and the considerable force of his personality to woo foreign producers to central Europe while championing the sorts of bold, visionary films — such as László Nemes’ 2016 foreign-language Oscar winner “Son of Saul” — that have spurred a revival in Hungarian cinema.

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His death has left a vacuum that industry players say will be impossible to fill. Agnes Havas, CEO of the Hungarian National Film Fund, met with Prime Minister Viktor Orban just days after Vajna’s death, looking for reassurance that the government would continue to put its muscle behind supporting and developing the local film industry. “He emphasized how important the service jobs are for the economy of this country,” Havas says. For the time being, there are no plans to find a new film commissioner; Havas will continue in her role as film fund CEO to ensure the country’s strong legislative framework remains in place.

Vajna’s work on behalf of the local film business formed a firm foundation for the nation to build on. “I think his greatest legacy may be how he transformed Hungary into one of the preeminent filmmaking locations in the world,” says Paramount Pictures chairman Jim Gianopulos. “I think it has a momentum of its own now, given the road map that Andy laid out and what has been successful for the local economy as well as for Hollywood.” 

Signs of that momentum are readily apparent: Shooting continues apace in Budapest, where Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” reboot for Warner Bros. and Netflix’s highly anticipated series “The Witcher” are both filming this year. 

Born in Budapest, Vajna immigrated to the U.S. in 1956. Two decades later, he and partner Mario Kassar founded Carolco Pictures, which produced such box office hits as the first three “Rambo” films and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Vajna left Carolco in 1989 to form Cinergi Prods. and InterCom, the exclusive Hungarian distributor of theatrical releases from Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures. He was among the first producers to bring large-scale American productions to Hungary after the fall of communism, and throughout his career, he worked tirelessly to build a bridge between the two nations.

The return to his roots allowed Vajna to spur a renaissance in a country that has its own indelible ties to Hollywood — a storied history stretching back to the days of pioneers like Fox Studios founder William Fox and Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, both Hungarian immigrants. “The elements were there,” says Gianopulos. “What it really needed was the catalyst of someone like Andy to harness the great local talent pool, the capabilities of quickly building production facilities and training crews. And of course, working closely as he did over the years with the government to provide the funding.” 

Goodman calls Vajna’s passing a great loss “because he was a champion of so many things. Right now, there’s an element of the unknown.” But he points to Vajna’s impact on pushing for film-friendly legislation and increasing the cash rebate — which last year rose to 30% — as having established an environment for success. “The same energy, the same passion, the same desire to deliver on the legacy that Andy helped to create, is continuing,” he says. “I think [with] the combination of Andy and what the community has done, the train has left the station.” 

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