Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo, when clarifying with Times of Malta about how he intends to retain Gladiator’s sets, stated that the Nationalists once wanted the film studio to turn into a fish farm, throwing the film industry “to the dogs”.
Now I have no motivation or desire to defend either political party. But it is good to set the record straight before history gets rewritten by our politicians.
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.
This is not to say the track record of the Nationalist government with the film industry is unscathed. There were several blunders.
In the absence of financial incentives at the time, a one-off incentive was promised to Brad Pitt’s Troy but this was not without incident. Back then, the finance minister had promised a refund on local payroll but, once filming was completed, the minister evaded signing off on the rebate. It had to be the prime minister’s intervention which avoided further embarrassment with Hollywood.
One of the (few) best decisions the Nationalists made was place the film industry for some years under the responsibility of George Hyzler. He took it seriously and tried hard to chip at the thick skull of his comrades to create greater awareness of the industry’s potential. Sadly, Hyzler seemed to be the only one in politics who was batting for the industry. Eventually, in 2005, solid financial incentives for foreign productions were introduced but not after a false start where the proposed legislation was jumbled up.
Fortunately, Hyzler had avoided the embarrassment of having a Nationalist film commissioner act as a co-producer on a film while still holding public office. He had to draw up the commissioner’s resignation letter himself.
However, putting Hyzler aside, the Nationalist administration did not adequately support the film industry. The huge leak of drainage in the sea from where the film tanks were being filled was a problem the Nationalists (and the previous Labour administration) chose to ignore for many years. This issue harmed Malta’s international reputation.
The privatisation in the mid-1990s of Mediterranean Film Studios (MFS), that managed the tanks, was not without turbulence and could have been monitored better if public servants had done their job properly. When, in 1999, this near-bankrupt studio eventually got bought (or saved) by a German entrepreneur, his first reaction was to pay a hefty amount of unpaid social security contributions.
He had bought the studio with several years of unpaid ground rent that was due to government. Two Nationalist ministers had encouraged him to not worry about the rent as long as he can keep the studio afloat. And, then, out of the blue, the Nationalist government decided to instigate court proceedings for the unpaid rent. Effectively, they wanted to reclaim the land and shut down MFS.
This move coincided with all the inflated hype of the nearby SmartCity development and the sudden move by the government, one fine sunny day, to send the police to evacuate the studio’s staff from a huge office building which also acted as set-building space. This so it could literally bulldoze it to the ground and hand it over to SmartCity.
Invaluable film production space was suddenly lost, not due to a fire or earthquake, but due to an arrogant Nationalist administration that gave little hoot about the film industry.
Labour is more proactive where the film industry is concerned- Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante
Under the dark cloud of potentially losing the company following the government’s stealthy moves, the studio owner put the brakes on any investment in the facility. As the court case dragged on for years, the studio saw no real investment other than essential maintenance to keep the industry going. When he tried to build a roof over one of the existing workshops, he was ordered to drop it by MEPA.
It was as if the government was all out to cripple the studio. Meanwhile, in the background of all this drama was someone, who shall remain unnamed, ready to purchase the studios privately once it fell into government hands. This someone was determined enough to maintain interest even after the Nationalists lost the elections in 2013. But this is another story on its own.
Another blunder of the Nationalist administration was the finance minister’s appointment of a dear friend as film commissioner, despite his total lack of qualifications. This appointee removed from the commission’s website the public list of service companies and stakeholders, simply so he can ‘manage’ this information himself.
When stakeholders produced evidence of all the blunders by this unqualified commissioner, including written testimonials from foreigners who had embarrassing encounters with him, the finance minister decided to take no action, saying that, unless there is criminal wrongdoing, he sees no reason to dismiss him.
Inexistent were the moral principles of ensuring that a public servant and de facto ambassador does his/her job in an able manner and without damaging the country.
It was at this point that I realised the Nationalist administration was not going to move the needle on the film industry but, if anything, only help it regress further. Bartolo was not entirely incorrect to say that the Nationalists let the industry go to the dogs but the fish farm excuse is completely wrong, even if it makes a good story.
The Labour government is not immune to its own blunders. One is the tender for the privatisation of the studio, which seems intentionally written to fail and which, to quote a reputable foreign studio that had paid a substantial fee simply to read the tender, it was “ridiculous” and “destined to discourage investors”. There is also the serious matter of the sustainability of the cash rebate, which I have already written about recently.
Truth be told, Labour is more proactive where the film industry is concerned. Its motives are clearly driven by various agendas but one cannot say no progress is made when compared to the Nationalists.
However, the industry is only ‘strong’ (b’saħħita) when there is a healthy amount of local crew and local infrastructure to meet the demands and when the turnover is not dependent on large sums of taxpayers' money given to blockbuster films to help fund their foreign crew and equipment hires.
Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante has over three decades of experience as a line producer and production manager in the film and TV industry.