Dozens of renowned actors and film crew were flown to Malta last week to attend the first edition of the Mediterrane Film Festival, an extravagant event that cost taxpayers at least a million euros, according to top industry insiders.
The Malta Film Commission paid “exorbitant” fees to fly the visitors on business class seats, accommodate them in lavish five-star resorts and in some cases paid for visitors’ “plus one”. A number of guests were offered a chauffeur service to drive them around the island and were treated to all-expenses-paid lunches, dinners and parties.
Among the celebrities were Jared Harris, who played King George VI in the historical drama series The Crown, Eric Bana who starred in Hulk, Troy and Munich, Darko Peric who played the role of Helsinki in the hit series Money Heist, Natascha McElhone, who starred in a leading role alongside Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and played the part of the first lady of the US in the political drama Designated Survivor, X-Men and The Mummy actress Annabelle Wallis and British host David Walliams.
McElhone was in Malta primarily as the star of the Maltese co-produced film Carmen, which was one of the selected entries for the festival.
Joining them were around 70 other film judges, critics and journalists, actors, directors, producers, location managers, composers, production designers, editors and film commissioners from around the world.
Absolutely floored by where the Mediterrane Film Festival has put me up for my stay in Malta. The view is incredible. Cannot believe this is where I’m sleeping while here. If you ever get invited to cover the festival say yes.- Steven Weintraub, editor-in-chief of film website Collider
Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo and Film Commissioner Johann Grech would not say how much the film festival is costing taxpayers, but PR efforts to advertise the event on social media, television and on the streets suggest it was nothing short of an extravagant spree.
One foreign film journalist invited to cover the event and who often tours film events around the world did not hide his excitement over the deal he got in Malta. Ahead of the start of the film festival he posted a photo to social media from his room at the Westin Dragonara Resort.
“Absolutely floored by where the Mediterrane Film Festival has put me up for my stay in Malta. The view is incredible. Cannot believe this is where I’m sleeping while here,” Steven Weintraub wrote beneath the photo. “If you ever get invited to cover the festival say yes.”
Weintraub is the editor-in-chief of film website Collider. He tours the world to visit film events and interview film stars and was invited by the Malta Film Commission to cover this week’s film festival.
Rooms at the Westin Dragonara Resort were listed at around €300 per room per night this week, and some rooms cost upward of €1,300 for the weekend.
Film-makers ‘seriously concerned’
But top film industry insiders told Times of Malta they are seriously concerned over the Film Commission’s excessive spending, saying it does not really foster the Maltese film industry in the long-run and is not sustainable.
“If the journalists got such a good deal to come over, just imagine what actors like David Walliams, Eric Bana and Jared Harris got,” one top industry source said.
The final gala awards night last Friday – called The Golden Bee – was especially lavish. Around 800 guests, including actors and their partners, were hosted at the Fort Manoel and were treated to a four-course meal, live orchestra, performances by Joseph Calleja and Rebecca Ferguson, and complete with fireworks, a giant LED screen and high-end camera equipment rented from abroad.
Celebrated film director Ridley Scott and all the actors currently shooting the Gladiator sequel in Malta, however, were not present at Friday’s gala night.
Also not present were most of the actors and film crew who won awards on Friday, with representatives accepting awards on their behalf.
The night, hosted by David Walliams, opened with a short film featuring him playing James Bond, driving a vintage Aston Martin through the streets of Malta and whisking a speed boat through the Grand Harbour. The short film is understood to have been directed by James Nunn, the director of Shark Bait.
Industry insiders said the short film alone must have cost at least €100,000 and that the total cost of the film festival must have exceeded at least €1 million.
And the sheer number of printed banners and billboards on the streets and the several advertisements aired on television and social media – none of which make any mention of EU funding or private sponsorships whatsoever – continued to raise the eyebrows of many film-makers who suspect it was all funded by taxpayer money.
The Malta Film Commission spending has been largely shrouded in mystery, drawing criticism for not disclosing the cost of last year’s Malta Film Awards. The awards reportedly cost €400,000 but it was rumoured that host David Walliams’s fee alone reached €200,000, causing top Maltese film-makers to boycott the event, arguing that the government was ready to throw away money on an awards night but was only willing to budget €600,000 for local productions.
Later, Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo said that €1.3 million were spent on the Malta Film Week, but the actual cost of the awards night, which was held during that week, was never revealed.
Bartolo and Film Commissioner Johann Grech have been, once again, tight-lipped on this week’s film festival expenses, with the minister telling Times of Malta that a detailed report with a breakdown of the costs and the value for money for the country will be published within three months.
Times of Malta then sent questions to both Bartolo and Grech, asking them for an estimate of the costs of production of the film festival, including its events, advertising material and the final awards night and the cost of the actors’ trips to Malta.
In a reply on Saturday, the film commission said the festival features dozens of panels, masterclasses and education initiatives which help increase skills in the local market and also help local producers and workers meet international counterparts, nurturing new opportunities and minimising insularity challenges for Maltese people.
The auditor general had already slammed the Malta Film Commission for “extravagance in the use of public funds”. In his 2020 report on public accounts, he said the Film Commission lacked effective internal controls that “resulted in a concentration of authority with the Film Commissioner and no independent oversight. This contributed to a disregard to budgetary controls and standing regulations”.
And when, last February, PN culture spokesperson Julie Zahra asked Minister Bartolo to table the Film Commission’s audited accounts for the last 10 years he only tabled the accounts until 2019.
Rising to the top
The Mediterrane Film Festival is part of Malta’s efforts to rise to the top of the international film industry as it aims to draw foreign attention to the island as a film-making haven.
A number of films from nine Mediterranean countries were shown during the festival, although most of them had premiered elsewhere months ago and some had already been uploaded online. The invited actors, film-makers and journalists took part in conferences, panel discussions and masterclasses on film-making, in a bid to foster a stronger Maltese film industry, entrench film-making in the education system and create more jobs in films.
The festival would have coincided with the MED9 meeting on June 29 – a meeting of nine Mediterranean ministers responsible for the film industry in their country. The meeting was to be hosted by Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo but it was cancelled.
Bartolo and Grech have repeatedly said the efforts are yielding results, with a record 24 film productions having been brought to Malta last year and even more shot this year.
But Maltese filmmakers are very doubtful of the effectiveness of these efforts and believe Malta is not getting enough in return for what it is giving out to foreign filmmakers.
Cash rebate of 40% for film-makers who film in Malta
The government offers filmmakers a 40 per cent cash rebate on their total expenditure if they decide to film in Malta – a financial package which one international producer described as “the most generous cash rebate in the world”.
The government and the film commissioner have defended the rebates saying they will generate millions of euros in economic activity. Last year alone, the industry generated €85 million in the economy, they said. But it is still unclear how and in what form the money was injected into the economy.
In this year’s budget, the government estimated it would spend a total of €14 million through the Malta Film Commission but insiders say that is nowhere near the actual bill that taxpayers will have to foot at the end of the year.
The Mediterrane Film Festival is not the first national film festival in Malta. Between 2015 and 2019 Malta hosted the Valletta Film Festival, organised by a voluntary organisation. It ran for five years, attracting talent, new films which premiered in Malta and organised several masterclasses, receiving most of its financing through private sponsorships. The festival was forced to shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic.