The stench of scandal clings to the Malta Film Commission like a gripping movie, but its fake glitz and glamour mask a grim reality: the squandering of millions in taxpayers’ money.

While foreign film producers and practitioners are treated like royalty and get to exploit the most generous rebate in the world, the local talent begs for scraps.

The latest outrage? A €120,000 fee paid to British comedian David Walliams to host the Malta Film Awards for a couple of hours. As two PN MPs put it, Walliams earned a minimum wage worker’s monthly salary every single minute of the show.

This exorbitant fee, unearthed after a lengthy legal battle by the Daphne Foundation, is merely the cherry on top of a rotten cake. For months, Film Commissioner Johann Grech fought tooth and nail to keep his lavish spending secret, refusing freedom of information requests and shrouding every expense by simply ignoring anybody who asked for it.

A Times of Malta investigation showed a whopping €47 million was handed to the Gladiator sequel producers, and a staggering €143 million in cash rebates showered upon foreign companies since 2019 – a stark contrast to the paltry €1.5 million pittance shared among local filmmakers.

The Malta Film Week cost taxpayers a total of €1.3 million, yet details on how the public funds were spent are under wraps.

Then, we revealed that the Mediterrane Film Festival last June cost taxpayers a few millions (we still don’t know how much exactly), with visitors flown in business class seats, a ‘plus one’ ticket for some visitors, five-star hotel rooms, a chauffeur service and all-expenses-paid lunches, dinners and parties.

In an attempt to justify its spend, a government-commissioned report claimed last year the industry generated €94 million in the economy. When the tourism ministry reluctantly published the report, we asked sectoral experts and economists to try to decipher the report’s calculations. They were stumped, and we were left none the wiser, fuelling suspicion that the report is just built on trumped-up figures.

Grech’s reign has been a masterclass in secrecy. He appears to have access to a bottomless pit of cash

Both the tourism and finance ministries were unable to explain where all the money is coming from.

“This is good for the country,” we were repeatedly told.

This extravagance exists in the context of thousands of talented Malta-based film-makers, actors, artists and musicians struggling to make ends meet.

Walliams’ fee alone could fund countless vital initiatives, yet it was deemed a necessary indulgence for a fleeting moment of celebrity glamour.

Local industry players are reluctant to speak out, because they know that the film commission – with its power to dish out funding and rebates, provide access to facilities and smooth bureaucratic issues related to filming – can make or break their upcoming ventures.

When assessing the film commission, the auditor general highlighted a “lack of effective control” due to “a concentration of authority with the Film Commissioner and no independent oversight”. The auditor even acknowledged “image plays a big part in the industry”, but said it should not come at the expense of judicious spending and public trust.

Grech’s reign has been a masterclass in secrecy. He appears to have access to a bottomless pit of cash, enjoying his access to Hollywood stars and basking in the reflected glow of their fame. His self-proclaimed justification about promoting the industry and the millions he claims are generated in the local economy rings hollow.

Incentives are necessary to boost the industry, but not at the expense of transparency, responsibility and basic fairness.

This cannot continue. The cries of critics who see Grech on an ego trip fuelled by public funds are loud and justified. He needs to go. And the Film Commission needs to step away from the world of fiction.

Malta needs a film industry that serves Malta, not just the inflated ego of a commissioner and his minister.

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