Two decades ago, improvements in visual effects had already became a clear threat to Malta’s water tanks. Built on the Kalkara coastline over half a decade ago, these tanks can create storm effects on water with a natural sky background and practically dominated foreign filming activity in Malta.
However, the movie The Perfect Storm (2000) revealed how computer-generated water and chroma-screen technology could, at times, easily replace such exterior water tanks.
Today, these technologies have advanced to the extent that high resolution backscreens can now create exterior locations inside a sound stage or warehouse, also threatening location- filming and, to some extent, set-building too. Movies such as Oblivion and The Mandalorian are good examples of such breakthroughs.
This is not to say that Malta will stop having foreign productions choosing the stunning locations and neither that the tanks will become obsolete. With minimal optimism, productions with low to moderate budgets should continue choosing Maltese locations unabated.
However, it is not unrealistic to expect that, within a few years, larger productions requiring full control of prominent public locations, which are too cumbersome or expensive to shut down, will most likely choose the digital route. It will become far easier and cheaper for productions to send a visual-effects team to ‘scan’ locations instead of a full shooting crew.
It is wise for Malta to take note of these technological trends and especially not rely entirely on cash rebates that are currently the deal-breakers for many productions filming in Malta. The island needs to start adding value to the film industry.
It will become far easier and cheaper for productions to send a visual effects team to ‘scan’ locations instead of a full shooting crew- Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante
Currently, foreign producers receive up to 40 per cent of their local expenditure. It is commendable that the government intends to retain this incentive as this is essential in today’s uncertain and competitive climate. However, it is no secret that a good chunk of ‘local expenditure’ by the larger productions consists of foreign companies and foreign crews who are not paying taxes locally nor living permanently in Malta.
This diminishes the multiplier effect of the incentive on the local economy, the formula upon which economists and astute finance ministers base such schemes. But money does talk and Malta currently has no choice but to pay this cash if it wants to continue attracting a certain number of productions each year.
Meanwhile, by adding value to the industry, the island can prepare itself for the future if, or rather when, the cash rebate becomes unsustainable and needs some tightening.
There is good news. For the first time since 1963, the government has now allocated substantial funding for the refurbishment of the Rinella water facility in Kalkara which, for lack of enticing any private investment, is now run by the government’s film commission and renamed Malta Film Studios. Three million euros have been allocated during these last two years.
The inclusion of sound stages is exceptional news and should prove to be pivotal for sustaining film work over the long term. These stages have been touted by various governments from as far back as 1999 and, for many industry stakeholders, their construction has been a fantasy, until now.
It is obviously crucial that construction of these massive warehouse-like buildings happens in a way that does not hinder the operations of the water tanks, so not to give way to the competition. But it is also important that these public funds are spent on areas that preserve the production values.
Top areas are the main water pumps, the special effects machinery and all mechanics that make the tank create its magic. Some years ago, one small but important tank lost its roof after a storm. This also needs priority attention. Needless to say, film directors would not be amused if their office has wooden floors and cosy furniture but if the tank machinery is too cranky and unreliable. The unpublished government ‘masterplan’ for this facility hopefully caters for all the above already.
It is also commendable that government intends to strengthen local crews. Malta would do good to publish a tangible scheme or incentives whereby, for example, local crews are offered subsidies or tax credits or free training courses to help them during downtimes in between production jobs, until the economic activity of this industry is less sporadic.
Otherwise the good talent will continue to migrate or switch to other more secure careers. Simply enforcing the placement of some trainees on each set is not enough if real growth is to be achieved.
Just as it is naïve to think that generous cashbacks to foreign producers will never need to be revised, it would be naïve to think that the Rinella water tanks will continue to dominate the film-servicing industry in years to come. But if action is taken quickly to build the promised sound stages, to improve the existing ancillary facilities, to strengthen local crew numbers and their experience, to build up the local film infrastructure, to ensure professional management of the Rinella facility as well as competitive pricing for both tanks and sound stages, then the future of Malta’s film-servicing industry can be bright and no more reliant entirely on monies sent abroad to producers, effectively paying them to come to Malta. The cash rebate can become a sweetener rather than a deal-breaker.
Money and unique locations are not going to continue falling from the sky forever. Once value is added to the industry, the cash rebate can be revised to a more sustainable level and a new scheme could be created by, for example, creating a film investment vehicle that operates in a rollover fashion so it recoups most or all of its monies, if not occasionally generating a small profit.
Such a vehicle would provide more serious funds than the current Malta Film Fund and would encourage the formation of Maltese international co-productions, which would in turn build local resources onto the world stage and also help promote Malta’s history, culture and lifestyle to international audiences.