As the Malta Film Commission comes under scrutiny for going over its allocated budget, it remains unclear where the money is coming from, how it is being approved and how much is actually being spent.
It is also unclear whether the finance or the tourism ministries ultimately hold the purse of an industry which has been extravagantly promoted in the last few years.
In this year’s budget, the government voted a total of €14 million for the Malta Film Commission. €3 million were earmarked for the upgrading of film facilities and the rest – €11 million – for “film industry incentives”.
But top industry insiders say millions more have already been spent and they estimate that, by the end of the year, the total bill will run into the “tens of millions” over and above those published in this year’s budget estimates.
The government has provisionally committed a total of €22.3 million in cash rebate to productions that have filmed in first six months of 2023 and that excludes the money given out for the filming of the Gladiator sequel.
When questioned, Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo said his ministry asks the finance ministry for more money when needed to sustain the film industry initiatives, and it is the finance ministry which approves the extra funding.
“Whenever there’s the need for extra amounts for cash rebates, for instance, additional money is allocated accordingly. A request is made to the finance ministry and is then approved, and funds are allocated,” Bartolo said. Finance Minister Clyde Caruana would only say that the difference between what each ministry is allocated and what it actually spends is reconciled at the end of the year and the extra money is approved then.
The finance minister said every ministry has its ‘line items’ allocated in the budget. At the end of the year, if those funds are exhausted, a reconciliation exercise is performed on the merits of each ministry’s request.
“The finance ministry approves the difference at the end of the year. We’re still half way through the year so it’s not time for reconciliation yet.”
Bartolo and Film Commissioner Johann Grech have insisted the money spent is all worthwhile, because the film industry in Malta is growing at an unprecedented rate, creating jobs in films for Maltese people and injecting big money from blockbuster films into the economy.
Whenever there’s the need for extra amounts for cash rebates, for instance, additional money is allocated accordingly
But both ministers would not say how much money has been spent so far over and above the allocated budget, whether there is a limit and where the extra money will come from.
Meanwhile, local industry players have questioned whether the government is simply throwing money at large production companies to bring big-name films to Malta for little more than “personal vanity”.
Malta did attract a record number of films and television productions last year, and a new record will be set again this year. Bartolo and Grech have claimed the industry injected €85 million in the economy last year.
But that is largely thanks to a very generous cash rebate that sees the government give international film producers up to 40 per cent back of almost all the money that is spent while the production is in Malta.
The cash rebates run into millions of euros, and it remains unclear what, exactly, remains in Maltese economy after the bills are settled. Bartolo has insisted that he will publish a detailed report on spending and return on investment within the coming weeks, but he failed to deliver on a similar promise last year.
He had promised to publish the figures showing how much the government spent on last year’s controversial Malta Film Awards ceremony – a lavish event that drew criticism for being an out-of-control spending spree on taxpayer money. But when he finally published the figure of €1.3 million, it covered the amount spent on the entire film week but not the actual cost of the awards night held during that week.
The Malta Film Commission’s spending has been largely shrouded in mystery over the past years, and last month’s Mediterrane Film Festival continued to raise eyebrows when it was revealed that dozens of renowned actors and film crew were flown to Malta to attend the first edition of the festival – an extravagant event that cost taxpayers at least a million euros.