This year has been "a good year by historic standards" for Malta's movie industry - it is enjoying an uninterrupted six-month stretch of shooting of productions of varying scales. Fiona Galea Debono investigates.

"This uninterrupted consistency of activity is key to allowing more Maltese to consistently earn a living from the film industry - and increasing that consistency is the principal platform for the creation of the film industry," according to the Malta Film Commission (MFC).

Film productions are expected to spend about Lm3 million in Malta during 2005, IT and Investments Minister Austin Gatt had informed Parliament during the debate on the new Malta Film Commission Act. The estimate was based on discussions then underway with producers.

The 25 weeks of continuous location activity are a more positive result than was originally planned and, clearly, the introduction of incentives to film producers has allowed Malta to attract more productions and to revise upwards its estimates of expenditure, according to MFC chairman Chris Grech.

However, despite the fact that the commission would be doing everything in its power to ensure that these good results repeated themselves, it was cautious in its forecasts for the future, given the volatile nature of the global film industry.

"Although it is appropriate to have targets, it is important to realise that the film industry is extremely volatile and largely depends on the mood and requirements of some 200 world-class top executives. Their decisions will be a function of the cost of their alternatives - our incentives can help sway their decisions in our favour - and they will also depend on what type of film they want to shoot, specifically which backdrops they require," Mr Grech explained.

One of the major changes the Malta Film Commission Act has brought about is the commission's empowerment to grant financial incentives to film productions shooting in Malta and, at a later stage, perhaps for the setting up of a film fund, as well as further incentives for training.

The government has allocated a budget of Lm1.5 million until December 2006 to the scheme, whereby eligible productions can benefit from a cash rebate of up to 20 per cent on their expenditure in Malta.

The rebate offered as a cash grant on completion of an audiovisual production is calculated on the following expenses incurred in Malta: labour, hotel bed nights, transportation equipment and hire, location fees, catering services, per diems, leasing of offices, computer equipment, props (sourced locally), property (owned locally), animals, equipment, vehicles, boats and locations. Other qualifying expenditure includes courtesy payments, telecommunications, laundry and cleaning services and professional services.

Significant importance is attributed to the size of the budget of each film and, specifically, to its total spend on the island. However, the focus is primarily on how that money is spent, Mr Grech pointed out.

"The expenditure figures can include materials that are imported from overseas, leaving little or nothing in terms of value added to the Maltese economy. This is precisely why this type of expenditure is excluded from eligibility to our incentive schemes," he explained.

Since the commission started marketing the new incentives in February, companies have already benefited from them and others have shown an interest in coming to Malta because of them. The applications for three productions have been approved and the MFC is assessing others.

"Applicants have indicated to us that the incentives were critical to their decision to use Malta as a film location," Mr Grech said.

The government has also allocated Lm1 million for fiscal incentives to those interested in the construction of sound stages, the setting up of post-production facilities and laboratories, the rental of equipment and anything else that would have a direct impact on the industry.

The regulations on these fiscal incentives, which are being introduced this year, are in the form of tax reductions. They also include tax credit on any investment in assets, industrial structures, plants and machinery.

The draft regulations have been drawn up and it is understood that they are going through the standing procedures governing state aid to ensure compliance with European rules. "We understand that the government intends to publish the regulations shortly," Mr Grech said.

Meanwhile, initial feedback, since the government announced its intention to draw up these incentives, has been encouraging. But formal applications can, of course, only be considered when the actual regulations are in force, he continued.

The MFC believes that the shooting of Steven Spielberg's Munich and, shortly, of parts of the film based on The Da Vinci Code, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, will give prospective film producers the opportunity to consider Malta as a film location suitable to double for any Mediterranean setting.

"We will be focusing on this newly gained advantage and hope that this can get us even better results in the future," the chairman said.

The MFC aims to maximise Malta's potential, including its offer of incentives, optimising the Malta Offer as a versatile film location.

As regards the lack of people trained in the industry, the new commission has been instructed to draw up a programme to start changing this disadvantage.

"The indirect benefits of attracting films to Malta - the revenue to the tourist and transport industries, for example - are very important. We expect to see a greater share of direct benefit in jobs in areas of the industry which Maltese people have not yet managed to penetrate too successfully," Mr Grech said.

"It is critically important to analyse the setting up of a sustainable local film industry in a holistic dimension. Our objective is to maximise the value added to the Maltese people in every facet. Bearing this objective in mind, we are re-examining the building blocks within the denomination of the existing and future potential of our film industry and we intend to announce our first set of initiatives in the coming months," Mr Grech said.

Other objectives of the commission are to increase the actual number of production days during the year, "meaning that sometime, somewhere, a film is being shot on the island".

The Mediterranean Film Studios - Malta's primary asset

A new lease of life has been breathed into the Mediterranean Film Studios over the last year, following setbacks in the past.

Formerly known as the Malta Film Facilities, MFS was founded back in 1964 by a special effects wizard, Benjamin Hole, and could be considered the reason for the birth of Malta's film industry.

But the studios have suffered slumps along the years, falling into a state of neglect and almost disuse at times.

Things are now changing and the ball seems to be rolling again this year. In fact, until mid-November, a total of six film and TV productions will be using the MFS facilities and its construction expertise.

At the beginning of the year, MFS was involved in constructions for two events held in Malta - the Nokia and Porsche Car launches - while since March, the studios have been busy either with construction and preparation for productions or with actual shooting. This year's productions include two low-budget documentaries, three TV productions (one low budget and two medium) and one low-budget feature.

Compared to previous years, 2005 was "one of the better ones", says studio manger Cornelia Azzopardi-Schellmann, particularly in relation to last year, which was one of the worst for MFS. Although 2004 hosted seven productions, they involved between only one or five shooting days in the tank or location shooting for which they utilised the MFS construction team.

The number of employees at MFS, whose ownership has been split between Maltese/Canadian, Maltese, German interest and a local bank since 1995, varies between 10 and 150, according to the production, says Ms Azzopardi-Schellmann, who answers questions on the state of the studios:

What are the factors leading to this year's success?

This year's success is attributed to a combination of good luck (being approached by the right productions at the right time); the worldwide promotion of Malta as a film location via the Malta Film Commission and MFS's good reputation over the past years.

One has to keep in mind that the international film industry is "small" in the sense that word spreads fast if you provide a good and reliable service and, of course, even if you don't.

MFS, other local studios and, of course, Malta as a location got very good coverage throughout 2003 and at the beginning of 2004 in preparation of Malta's joining the EU. It is hard to quantify the effect of this kind of marketing but it definitely helped.

The fact that the government did introduce film incentives this year might have given the last push for some of the productions to decide on filming in Malta.

And what was the cause of the slump in previous years?

The cause of the slump in previous years was probably again a combination of various factors: the international film industry is not doing too well and several projects have been downsized budget-wise, or cancelled; plus Malta has stiff competition from eastern European countries, which offer film incentives and very good film facilities and services.

Malta lacks a sound stage, film material and development and camera rental, while offering only very limited light and grip equipment for rental. In addition, many international productions, mainly American, now use the tanks in Mexico; and new technology has often replaced shooting "the real thing". As in any other industry, competitiveness is the driver and costs are certainly on the increase here.

When was the last time the studios were doing well and for how long do you think this positive trend can be sustained?

The last time the studios were doing well was in 2002, which was quite a good year for MFS in that many productions required its construction expertise. Before that, MFS fared well in 1998 because of U-571.

With regard to sustaining this year's positive trend, I hope the recently introduced film incentives will continue to be offered and help to attract foreign productions, while the good reputation the studios have earned over the years and, especially this one, should encourage more producers to use Malta.

It saddens me, however, to hear that some local companies, or entities abuse of the fact that a film production team may need to use their facility, service or equipment and they rip them off with exaggerated rates just to make a quick buck, not realising that word of this "abuse" definitely spreads around the film world, discouraging many producers to consider Malta as a film location.

Would the studios consider building a much-needed sound stage and any other facilities or upgrade what it already has?

If we had the finances, we would love to invest in a sound stage and other facilities. But we are still struggling to get back on our feet. We also have to spend a substantial amount of money on the maintenance of our premises and special effects equipment. Being situated right next to the sea, we are faced with the extremely high wear and tear costs of facilities and equipment and shooting in salt water obviously requires constant and costly maintenance of equipment.

How has the mushrooming of other water tanks around the world affected you? Given that the tanks are no longer unique as they were 10 years ago, what are the assets that are exclusive to the Malta studios and how can they be exploited?

It is difficult to quantify, but the mushrooming of other water tanks surely took business away from us.

Our assets, besides the tanks, special effects marine equipment and workshops, include our experience, reliability, efficiency, honesty and the crew. It obviously helps that Malta's weather conditions are favourable, that almost all locals speak English and that Malta's infrastructure is good.

What was the greatest challenge undertaken this year in terms of servicing a particular movie?

For the Blackbeard production, we had only eight weeks to construct three ships (or parts thereof), two elaborate model boats and a cabin. Our construction crew did a marvellous job and the production was extremely happy with the results.

And the greatest accomplishment?

Managing and coordinating the overlapping of the various productions this year.

How do you envisage the future?

With a bit of luck, the help of the incentives, continued promotion of Malta as a film location, excellent services and a good reputation, including clamping down on those entities that, as I mentioned above, "abuse" the industry, Malta could hopefully continue having more regular productions. These could cause the desired ripple effects of, for example, attracting the major camera and light rental houses to set up shop in Malta; the government's realisation of the need for a film school; finding investors interested in building sound stages and encouraging, for example, Kodak to set up a branch in Malta for the sale and development of film material. These changes, among others, would, in turn, encourage especially the smaller and medium-sized production companies to shoot in Malta.

This is my vision and hope for Malta's future as regards its film industry. Bearing this year in mind and the introduction of incentives, I believe and hope it is not just a case of building castles in the air.

On the scene...

Film production manager and line producer Malcolm Scerri Ferrante, who has been involved in the scene since 1988, points out that "everyone needs to constantly remind oneself that Malta has a film servicing industry. The term 'film industry' is misleading because it means Malta has an ongoing economic and cultural activity of making its own movies.

"It does not. It simply services foreign film producers, who are producing foreign films for foreign markets with foreign financing.

"Of course, we hear about co-productions with Malta, but these are none other than on-paper descriptions, whereby films take advantage of financial schemes abroad by pretending to co-produce with Malta. In essence, there is no real financing coming out of Malta and the Maltese do not have any creative input in the respective movies.

"These types of 'alternative' co-productions exist everywhere and are good business for countries where the films are shot but it does not mean that Malta has its own film industry," he stresses.

"I think much of Malta's problem is based on the fact that many people and politicians seem to believe that the local film industry is thriving just because, for example, Steven Spielberg comes to Malta."

As far as locations are concerned, although Malta still has its gems like Mdina, Dwejra, Grand Harbour and some of its coastline, the choice is somewhat limited and definitely not increasing, Mr Scerri Ferrante points out. For example, one of Malta's most sought-after locations, Vittoriosa Wharf, where films like The Count of Monte Cristo (2000) and Cutthroat Island (1994) were shot, is now lost for any period movies.

"Malta had a good reputation for period movies but the loss of the Vittoriosa location, which was unique because of its almost 360-degree period setting, is a typical example of how 'progress' is now reducing Malta's attraction to filmmakers," he maintains.

"What we should remind ourselves is that what is attractive for filmmakers is often also very attractive to tourists," Mr Scerri Ferrante adds.

"On a more positive note, Malta is still affordable, although its pricing is slightly on the high end. And the ability of most Maltese to speak good English is also a major asset.

"Moreover, the whole location permit-seeking process, thanks to the Malta Film Commission's efforts over the years, is not overly bureaucratic compared to other countries. In fact, in some cases, it is pretty straightforward, although not as easy as shooting in the US, or Canada.

"In a nutshell, 10 years ago, there were five fundamental reasons why producers came to Malta: language, climate, locations, tanks and economy. Today, the language is still a plus, the climate is still good but the locations are not increasing and the water tanks are no longer unique - Spain is building several similar tanks and there is also a new one in London.

Moreover, shooting in Malta includes many hidden costs, such as having to bring in equipment and crew.

"This is why it is so important for Malta to be aggressive with other incentives, such as financial, to compete with other countries that offer the same and much more."

While commending those involved for "having the guts to finally take a step" to introduce the incentives, Mr Scerri Ferrante says everyone should now work at making the scheme as simple and straightforward as possible, which means further work on the structure and presentation.

"Hollywood studios are attracted to the straightforward presentation of incentives so that when they are still sitting at their desks in LA, wondering which countries would be best to host their films, they can understand easily how much money they will be getting back."

Malta's Filmography*

Film

The Da Vinci Code (2005); Godspeed (2005); Munich (2005); A Previous Engagement (2004); Troy (2003); A Different Loyalty (2003); The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2002); Pinocchio (2002); Swept Away (2001); The Count of Monte Cristo (2000); The Emperor; s New Clothes (2000); Revelation (2000); Gladiator (1999); U-571 (1999); Jesus (1998); Wo bist du (1998); The Goddess of Malta (1996); White Squall (1995); Cutthroat Island (1994); Casque Bleu (1993); The Voyage (1992); Christopher Columbus - The Discovery (1991/1992); The Mountain of Diamonds (1991); The Burning Shore (1990); Killer Cruise (1990); Erik the Viking (1989); Scheherazade (1989); Leviathan (1988); Freedom (1988); Sign of Four (1987); Black Eagle (1987); Crash (1986); Inside Story (1986); The Fifth Missile (1986) ; Among Wolves (1985); Iron Warrior (1985); Story Book (1985); Riviera (1985); Pirates (1984); Final Justice (1984); Snowman (1984); Trenchcoat (1983); Samraat (1982); Airline (1982); Raise the Titanic (1980); Testament of Youth (1980); Popeye (1979); Clash of the Titans (1978); Force Ten From Navarone (1978); Midnight Express (1977); Charas (1977); The Spy Who Loved Me (1977); Orca The Killer Whale (1976); Warlords of Atlantis (1976); Shout at the Devil (1975); Sinbad in the Eye of the Tiger (1975); The Mackintosh Man (1974); Children of Rage (1974); Sea Wolf (1974); Pulp (1972); Mrs Pepperpot (1972); Zeppelin (1971); Birds on the Wing (1971); L; Invenzione di Morrell (1971); Murphy's War (1970); Adventures of Gerrard (1970); Paul Temple (1970); David Copperfield (1969); The Oxbone Buccaneers (1969); Mr Jerico (1969); Hellboats (1968); Hieronymus Merkin (1968); Man on a Lonely Island (1968); A Twist of Sand (1968); Eyewitness (1967); Casino Royale (1966); Trouble Shooters (1965); The Spies (1964); Mask of Janus (1964); Single Handed aka Sailor of the King (1953); The Malta Story (1953); Message from Malta (1943); Tell England aka The Battle of Gallipoli (1931).

TV

Elizabeth David (2005); Ghostboat (2005) ; Pamir (2005); Blackbeard (2005); Shipwrecked Sailors (2005) ; Die Patriarchin (2004); Byron (2003); Sharia (2003); Held der Gladiatoren - The Gladiator Hero (2002); Helen of Troy (2002); Daniel Deronda (2002); Dinotopia (2002); The Death of Klinghoffer (2002); Julius Caesar (2002); Terrible Hours (2001); Fuga d; Amore (2000); Paul of Tarsus (2000); Close and Innocent (2000); The Count of Monte Cristo (1997); The Odyssey (1996); Shipwreck (1997); Hooked (1994); Howard; s Way (1989/1990); A Fine Romance (1988/1989); Christopher Columbus (1984); Remington Steele (1984); Reilly Ace of Spies (1982); The Sandbaggers (1978); The Martian Chronicles (1978); Sweeney 2 (1972); The Protectors (1972); Vendetta of the Saint (1967/1968).

*This list does not include the commercials shot here between 1984 and 2004.;

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