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The Last (Low-Budget) Action Hero?

From his condo in Northridge, where he spends endless hours hunched over an old editing machine he bought at a bankruptcy sale, Tony Zarindast puts the finishing touches on feature-length action, horror and adventure films that he then sells throughout the world.

But the Iranian-born producer of such low-budget fare as “Death Flash” and “Hardcase and Fist” says the task of selling violent action movies abroad has never been more difficult.

From tough censorship laws in some foreign lands to stiff competition from major Hollywood studios, Zarindast says small, independent filmmakers must use their ingenuity and business savvy if they are to survive in the overseas film market today.

Zarindast, whose movies often wind up going straight to video rather that debuting at the local megaplex, is a small part of a huge U.S. independent film market that in fiscal 1998 accounted for nearly $2.3 billion in theatrical, video and television sales abroad.

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To stay competitive, Zarindast often shoots his movies at breakneck speed, filming a scene only once before going on to the next. When he isn’t scouring the planet for financing from banks and private investors to bankroll his movies, he’s writing, directing, editing and even acting in them, too.

“My latest film is called ‘Blood of His Own,’ ” he says. “I am starring in it. It’s a very touchy subject. This is a movie like ‘The Crying Game.’ It’s about a guy who falls in love with a waitress who turns out to be a guy. He is very anti-gay. He decides to kill his own brother.”

Yet, Zarindast notes, censorship in some countries makes it difficult for small independents to market their action films. Big studio movies and stars get all the breaks, he claims.

“Selling to television overseas is worse than the U.S.,” Zarindast says. “In Germany, you really have to be careful. If they cannot buy it for prime time, then you are not going to get the right price. It’s gonna be on at 11 [p.m.] or 2 in the morning, and you won’t have that much money coming in. . . . But you put John Travolta in a movie and have a very violent scene--blood and gore--that’s a different story.”

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His low-budget film “Red Room,” for example, ran into censorship problems in Germany, Japan and other countries.

“It was like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ ” Zarindast says. “I still haven’t been able to sell it in the U.S. because of the violence content. There is a necrophilia scene, which is very erotic and, at the same time, very scary, so I am trying to negotiate with a video company [to distribute it in the U.S.].”

Zarindast says foreign buyers allow more violence if a movie stars a box-office attraction like Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger. But casting one the major stars, who command $20 million a picture, is out of the question for independents like himself.

“I can’t compete against those companies,” he laments. “That is why I have taken over a year to work on the script of my next film to get the right actors, the right budget and be able to sell it. Action movies used to sell very well, but even in kick-boxing movies, it’s very difficult to sell them now.”

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Zarindast grew up watching Hollywood movies and television shows in a remote corner of Iran, and dreamed of one day making films with some of the actors he enjoyed seeing on the tube as a boy. He finally got that chance in 1980, when he released “The Guns and the Fury,” a film about two Texans who discover oil in the Mideast.

The film was shot primarily in Cairo and starred Peter Graves of TV’s “Mission: Impossible.”

“Peter Graves to me was bigger than God,” Zarindast recalls. “So, when I grew up to be a filmmaker, I said, ‘I’m going to cast Peter Graves,’ and I took him to Cairo with Cameron Mitchell, Michael Ansara and Albert Salmi. These are legends. . . . The picture opened in Texas to great reviews.”

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The walls of the editing room are lined with memories--old movie posters for films he made like “Death Flash” (“Jean-Claude Van Damme turned down the role”) and “Hardcase and Fist” (“It was shot in the old Folsom Prison using 300 to 400 inmates”).

One of Zarindast’s more successful films was “The Werewolf,” which he made for a pittance--$350,000. The 1998 film has already sold 40,000 units at video stores throughout the United States, for close to $1.5 million in revenue, and the foreign rights have been sold for another $1 million, he says.

In the film, Zarindast portrays a security guard who is injected with the blood of a werewolf.

“I become a werewolf!” Zarindast says in his best salesman-like voice. “I smash my car into oil wells and blow myself up! That film has sold all over the world!”


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