Claim: PN wanted to turn Malta’s film studios into a fish farm.

Verdict: The idea of turning one of the tanks at the studios into a fish farm came from the owner of the studios, which were run as a private venture at the time, not PN. The then-film commissioner publicly opposed the plans and the owner says he was discouraged by other government officials. A planning application into the matter was withdrawn shortly after it was submitted and plans were never taken further.

Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo waded into the ongoing controversy over Malta’s film industry last week, aiming a pointed dig at the opposition’s track record in the industry throughout its tenure in government, saying that it once planned to turn Malta’s film studios into fish farms.

“We can either have an industry, like we had in the past that didn’t work. An industry in which, under a Nationalist administration, the film studios were going to be turned into fish farms. Or else we can have a successful industry like we have today,” he said.

Clayton Bartolo last week repeated a claim that the PN tried to turn Malta's film studios into a fish farm. Video: Chris Sant Fournier

This claim is not new.

Almost a decade ago, then-Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis told parliament “this is the opposition’s road map, to try to turn the tanks, which are strategic to our plans to advance the film industry, into a fish farm”.

Both Bartolo and Zammit Lewis are referring to a planning application dating back almost a quarter of a century, filed by an entrepreneur named Jost Merten who, at the time, ran the Mediterranean Film Studios (as they were known back then).

But this claim needs some more context.

So, what’s the story?

Back in 1995, in an effort to revive a flagging film industry, the then-PN government decided to hand the running of the Malta Film Studios over to a private company, effectively privatising the operations of the studios and placing the land at Kalkara in private hands through a 65-year emphyteusis.

The company, a Canadian-British consortium, quickly ran into financial trouble after an ill-advised attempt to create a movie theme park. The studio, in dire financial straits, was bought out by Jost Merten, a German entrepreneur, who took over the studios in 1999.

One of Merten’s first moves was to float a controversial suggestion to convert one of the studios’ two water tanks, the lesser-used deep tank, into a fish farm.

At the time the studios consisted of two water tanks. One was a frequently-used shallow tank, built in 1964. The other was a deep tank built in 1979, mostly used to film underwater scenes.

The deep tank, Merten said at the time, was only used twice a year, lying vacant and unused the rest of the time.

The water tanks at the film studios are believed to be one of Malta's main attractions as a film destination. File photo: Jonathan BorgThe water tanks at the film studios are believed to be one of Malta's main attractions as a film destination. File photo: Jonathan Borg

Merten figured that finding a way to generate income from the unused tank would help finance investment into the studios and build a much-needed sound stage which, he believed, would attract more films to Malta.

He promptly filed an application with the planning authority on 11th October 2000, requesting permission to change the use of the deep tank into a fish farm.

But the application didn’t get very far.

PA records show that the application was withdrawn just a few months later, on 7th March 2001, in line with a law that says that a planning application is scrapped if the applicant doesn’t communicate with the authority in the weeks following the submission.

This suggests that the controversial idea was abandoned almost immediately.

A screenshot of the planning application's summary - submitted in October and withdrawn by early March. Screengrab: Planning AuthorityA screenshot of the planning application's summary - submitted in October and withdrawn by early March. Screengrab: Planning Authority

Was the government on board with this idea?

No, reports indicate that the government was far from keen on the idea, and several key players confirm this.

“The fish farm suggestion was my idea,” Merten told Times of Malta when contacted this week. “I thought we could use the deep tank, which was an under-utilised resource since it was very rarely used, and monetise on it, with the income going towards building a sound stage”.

“I proposed the idea to the government, who were unconvinced and discouraged me from going forward with it, so I quickly abandoned the idea”.

Film producer Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante, at the time an employee of the Mediterranean Film Studios, had a similar take in an opinion piece published by Times of Malta last year.

“Back in 1999, the owner of the studio, then privatised, had explored the possibility of turning into a fish farm one tank, the least popular one at the time. The truth is the Nationalists didn’t encourage this and, at some point, the ministry shot it down and told the owner to forget this crazy idea,” he wrote.

News reports of the time show this to be true.

When the media got wind of the proposal, several weeks after it had been submitted, then-film commissioner Winston Azzopardi told Times of Malta that the Film Commission was against the idea, saying that the tanks were “vital” to the film industry and using one of them as a fish farm “did not make sense”.

News of the plans broke on 28 November 2000.

News of the plans broke on 28 November 2000.

The report features the then-film commissioner opposing the plans.

The report features the then-film commissioner opposing the plans.

Then-parliamentary secretary George Hyzler, was a little more open to the suggestion, albeit only as a last resort if it was the only way to “save” the ailing studios. and as long as the process could be reversed. If they were to go ahead with it, Hyzler said, it was a matter of “sacrificing part to save the whole”.

Hyzler tried to find a creative compromise. The fish could be removed whenever a major film needed to use the tank, he suggested, euphemistically adding that this was “perhaps not the most practical of ideas”.

In any case, Hyzler said, the idea would need the approval of the Malta Development Corporation (now Malta Enterprise) if it were to go ahead. But the suggestion never even made it that far.

What eventually came of the idea?

In reality, the idea appears to have been dead in the water just weeks after Merten proposed it.

A Times of Malta feature on how to attract more film productions to Malta published in April 2001 (just a few months after Merten's idea first came to light) features several suggestions, from fiscal incentives to training of local crew members, but makes no mention of transforming the tanks (which the film commissioner describes as “the main factor in attracting many of the productions in the first place”) into a fish farm.

The fish farm idea was long gone by the time April rolled around.The fish farm idea was long gone by the time April rolled around.

Merten himself never brought up the idea again. By the end of 2001, he had embarked on a cost-cutting exercise to try balance the studios' books, laying off almost half of the studios' workforce and calling for co-investors from the industry to build the much-vaunted sound stage.

The studios remained plagued by financial difficulties for years to come, with courts eventually deciding to scrap the concession altogether and return the land to the government in 2012, following a dispute over unpaid ground rent.

The studios were renamed Malta Film Studios and have remained under the government’s control ever since.


The film studios were run as a private venture at the time, having effectively been privatised in 1995.

The owner of the studios at the time applied of his own steam to have one of the tanks at the studios turned into a fish farm, hoping that the venture would generate income to build a much-needed sound stage.

He says he was immediately discouraged by the government and quickly abandoned the idea.

The plan was publicly opposed by the then-film commissioner. The parliamentary secretary responsible for the film industry was reluctant to go ahead with suggestion, saying he would only support it as a last resort.

The planning application was abandoned and automatically withdrawn some months after it was submitted.

The claim is therefore misleading as although the claim may, in itself, be partly or entirely true, it is presented in a manner that is not representative of the facts within a broader context.

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