Are you sure?

Taxes and death - interview with Andrew G. Vajna, the government commissioner for the Hungarian film industry

The huge debt amassed by the former film subsidizing organization, the Motion Picture Public Foundation of Hungary (MMKA), which practically resulted in the collapse of the Hungarian film financing system in 2010, made it clear that something had to change. Since then, MMKA has been replaced by the Hungarian National Film Fund and Hungarian-born American film producer Andrew G. Vajna has been appointed as government commissioner to revamp the industry. While Vajna says that he relies on his decades of experience in international filmmaking to complete his new tasks, the Hungarian film profession has not unanimously welcomed his approach.

Is it a new office? You don’t seem to have settled in yet.

It is only a temporary place. Since we have been thrown out of the Ministry, we haven’t had time to find another office. We are too busy.

What are you busy with?

With bureaucracy. Being a new state-owned company, we have to fight to establish our place in the state structure and meet all the bureaucratic requirements. At the same time, we have to handle the huge debt left behind by MMKA and also make progress with film plans.

What are your expectations as a government commissioner?

To establish a clear and transparent system. My personal aim is also to bring the Hungarian audience back to the cinemas to watch Hungarian movies. And we want to make so-called art films successful not only at festivals, but also at the cinemas.

CV

Andrew G. Vajna, born in Hungary in 1944, immigrated to the United States in 1956. Following a short career as a hairdresser in Hong Kong, he started to operate movie theaters in the Far East. In 1976, he co-founded Carolco Pictures, a film distribution company that quickly became very successful and produced such blockbusters as the first three movies in the “Rambo” series. Vajna also has the executive producer’s credit on films such as “Angel Heart”, “Narrow Margin” and “Die Hard: With a Vengeance”.

Early 2011, Hungary’s Fidesz-KDNP government named him government commissioner in charge of renewing the Hungarian film industry.

You aim to achieve transparency through a new financing concept alone?

I would not say that it is a brand new concept since it has always been a state-financed system. But MMKA, due to the lack of resources, continuously spent more money than it had and amassed a huge debt of more than HUF 7 billion. We would not make that mistake.

So you say that the debt was due to the lack of resources and not the result of malpractice?

It was a system without any discipline but with the aim to subsidize as many films and artists as possible. I do not think that it had much to do with corruption. No one made off with billions of forints. The money was wasted, rather, which is even worse. But we are not here to investigate or to criminalize the film profession. As I see it, this country is full of talented people who need a system to support their professional work.

But what is the guarantee of transparency?

There are only two things guaranteed in life: taxes and death. But, for example, the single window system that we implement enables our accounting department to accurately follow the path of the subsidies. We will also keep an eye on the entire production process and we will be able to immediately spot if anything goes wrong and not according to the original plans or to the script.

A fellow of the Film Fund will be involved in the entire production process. Won’t this make the films uniform?

No. Our control focuses only on financing issues and does not cover creative subjects.

What is your budget for 2012?

We get HUF 4.8 billion, that is fourth-fifths of the tax revenues at the state lottery, which from this year contributes to the Film Fund by law, and we also have money from last year. We started working only in September so have almost the full 2011 budget.

And you still want to make only six or eight movies?

That is what we can afford at the moment. But we also want to subsidize approximately 180 screenplays in order to have a bigger pool of film proposals we can pick from. A good script is the footing of a good film.

That’s why you plan to invite Joe Eszterhas and Oliver Stone to Hungary to teach local filmmakers how to write a script?

I want to tickle the imagination of the Hungarian scriptwriters.

You don’t find them good enough?

That is not what I am saying, but I would like them to break out of the box they have lived in and see further than the good old Hungarian movies they have done. I want to motivate them to explore new things. I want them to know from where Joe Eszterhas gets his inspiration.

When will the results of the new system be visible?

We start shooting our first film this week, but our aim is not to produce a pile of films in a very short time. We are not in a hurry.

And you don’t have to be since your contract as a government commissioner has recently been extended to an undefined period.

I do not know what that means and I am not really interested. I use this position to make my voice louder when lobbying for the interests of the profession. I want to launch the new system, make it work and then leave.

If the new system will be that effective and transparent, why do acclaimed professionals tirelessly raise their voices against it? Why has Béla Tarr [Silver Bear-awarded director and chairman of the Hungarian Filmmakers’ Association] cited the vision of an antidemocratic system of filmmaking?

Because the earlier system was convenient for them. This I can understand. If I were they, I would also prefer to see a friend of mine as the one who decides on money. But, by the way, it is interesting that the film professionals who are now so busy criticizing me did not show up two years ago when the entire film financing system collapsed. Where were they then? Where was Béla Tarr? Why didn’t they solve their own problems? They needed me to solve them.

Filmmakers have written several petitions in the past few years calling for better financing. And this year they organized the Hungarian Film Week without any subsidies from the Film Fund.

It is not about petitions. They were sitting at home and waiting for the bank to come and take away their houses because the financing system at that time was not only bad, but did not even clear the matters of liability either. Now that I have attained the money and managed to change the law for better financing they come and shout that the system is bad. They don’t even give it time to prove itself. Just wait a minute, please.