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Andy Vajna, the Hungarian producer behind the Rambo franchise who also oversaw a revival of Hungarian cinema as a government film commissioner, died Sunday at his home in Budapest. He was 74.
The Hungary’s National Film Fund confirmed local media reports of his death.
Vajna’s life had all the elements of the American dream. A child immigrant — he fled Hungary when he was just 12 — Vajna operated several successful businesses in the U.S. and Hong Kong, including a photography studio, a chain of movie theaters and even a wig-design business, before teaming with the Lebanese-born Mario Kassar to form Carolco Pictures in 1976.
Their first project was The Sicilian Cross, a 1976 Italian film starring Roger Moore. After a series of mostly forgettable genre films, Kassar and Vajna, in 1980, paid Warner Bros. a reported $383,000 for the option rights to David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood. The resulting 1982 movie — starring Sylvester Stallone as troubled Vietnam veteran John Rambo — cost $14 million to make and went on to gross $125 million worldwide. Overnight, Carolco was a major Hollywood player.
Vajna and Kassar were masters of securing financing for star-driven action films from the international market, and the pair were among the most successful producers of the 1980s, with two successful Rambo sequels and films such as Angel Heart, Red Heat and Total Recall. Rambo: First Blood Part II, which was made for a reported $25 million, grossed more than $300 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. In 1982, Vajna was a founder, and then president, of the American Film Marketing Association.
Vajna left Carolco in 1989, selling his interest to Kassar and setting up his own venture, Cinergi Pictures. The company had a number of hits, including Die Hard With a Vengeance and the Madonna musical Evita. The latter also won three Golden Globes — including best motion picture, comedy or musical and an Oscar for best original song. But a string of box office bombs — including Renaissance Man, Judge Dredd and Deep Rising — forced Vajna to shutter the company in 1998.
Carolco, which went on to produce films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day without Vajna, collapsed in 1995 following such flops as Showgirls and Cutthroat Island. Vajna and Kassar would reteam in 2003 to form C-2 Pictures to bring back the Terminator franchise with Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines.
Vajna remained connected to his Hungarian homeland his entire life. He pushed for several of his films — including Red Heat and Evita — to shoot in Budapest and, in 2002, founded the visual effects firm DIGIC Pictures in Hungary.
From 2011, when he was appointed the government commissioner for the Hungarian film industry by Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban, Vajna oversaw a revival of the local film business. Under his management, the money spent on film production in the country nearly doubled from $144 million to $260 million within three years. He is credited with cleaning up what many viewed as a corrupt and inefficient funding system and helping to spark a renaissance in Hungarian cinema.
Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust drama Son of Saul, made with the support of the Vajna-run Hungarian National Film Fund, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2016, the first Hungarian film to do so since Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto in 1982. International shoots also increased during the Vajna era thanks to generous tax incentives he helped push through. Last year, he successfully increased Hungary’s tax incentive to 30 percent.
But Vajna was also criticized for his closeness to Victor Orban, a right-wing nationalist, and for supporting Orban’s efforts to quash dissent in the country. In 2015, Vajna acquired the TV2 Group, Hungary’s second-largest television channel, and shifted its news reporting to being heavily pro-Orban. He also acquired a radio station and a newspaper group to back the Hungarian prime minister.
“We are bidding farewell to the greatest Hungarian film producer. Hasta la vista, Andy! Thank You for everything, my Friend!” Orban wrote on his Facebook page following the news of Vajna’s death.
Total Recall star Arnold Schwarzenegger remembered Vajna on Twitter: “Andy Vajna was a dear friend and a revolutionary force in Hollywood. He proved that you don’t need studios to make huge movies like Terminator 2 or Total Recall. He had a huge heart, and he was one of the most generous guys around. I’ll miss him. My thoughts are with his family.”
James Cameron also honored Vajna, tweeting, “Andy Vajna was a great friend and collaborator. He believed in me on one of my toughest shoots, Terminator 2. I will miss him, his humor, class and style, but especially the motorcycle rides.”
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