When Engelbert Grech took over as Film Commissioner in December 2013, he was faced with a lull in the film industry which had generated €5 million that year.
Two years and a glittering list of big Hollywood names later, 2015 has proven to be a record-busting year for the Maltese film servicing industry, with figures in hand already topping the €100 million mark.
Where did he differ from his predecessor Peter Busuttil?
“Every person has his own strategy,” he says diplomatically. “Mine was different from my predecessor’s and I went along with it.”
The main selling point or, as Mr Grech puts it, “our way of competing with the big guys out there”, was offering a 25 per cent cash rebate, which came into effect in 2014 and pushed the figure up to €29 million.
Research was conducted to tangibly prove that such incentives made sense economically. The film industry not only leaves a lucrative cash injection – Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi alone yielded €44 million for Malta – but also had a multiplier effect in terms of accommodation, transport and catering.
Screen tourism also has an important impact, with a growing number of people taking to visiting locations made famous as the backdrops for both big-budget films and TV shows.
“We did a quick scan of the magazines which featured Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during the shooting of By the Sea in Gozo last summer.
“If you had to quantify that kind of exposure, it would run into millions. Magazines in Germany, France, Italy and the US featured Gozo on their front covers thanks to the powerful Hollywood couple.”
This year has seen a surge in other big names in Malta, including Christian Bale, Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender.
Is Malta benefiting from the instability rocking the Middle East and North African countries, formerly cheap and popular film locations?
“Malta is endowed with flexibility and diversification. Yes, we can easily double as Israel or as North Africa. But it’s not just about war-torn countries – Pitt and Jolie used Gozo as southern France. Spielberg shot Malta representing Rome while, in Assassin’s Creed, Malta is doubling as medieval Spain.”
Another pulling factor is the island’s unique way of life where film stars are not constantly being hounded by paparazzi. While on the set of By the Sea, he observed people walking past Pitt and Jolie without bothering them.
“They do appreciate that privacy. When they were in London, they had to literally create a border around themselves. Gozo afforded them a quiet, relaxed atmosphere in which they could work.
“Additionally, many of the foreign crew actually brought their families along for a holiday.”
Before foreign producers leave our islands, Mr Grech makes it a point to meet with them to conduct a post-mortem of the production and discuss ways through which Malta can fine-tune its system.
Mr Grech is acutely aware of the deficiencies and gaps in the system, notably the scarce availability of specialised local crews and service companies.
We need a greater element of expertise – being a jack of all trades is not enough
Bigger productions often have to import up to half their crew, especially in the not-uncommon event that there are multiple shoots going on across the country. This summer saw four films being shot in Malta simultaneously.
The Film Commission has invested €1 million over the past two years thanks to an EU project aimed at training people. Next month, some 400 people will be awarded certificates after undergoing extensive courses on subjects, such as costumes, plastering, woodwork, location management and basic lighting techniques, amid others.
Through a collaboration with Film London, specialised mentors were brought over to act as heads of departments on a locally-produced film while Maltese crew were given the opportunity to shadow them.
The training was done on two levels – from a creative aspect (such as shadowing the producer and the director) as well as from a manual aspect (runners, gaffers and lighting people). “It was a very good learning curve. Many people who were on this production immediately went on to work on Assassin’s Creed and other productions.
“Hands-on training is very important. Much of this industry is based on experience. You’re only as good as your last film.”
In a bid to enlarge the island’s talent pool, the Film Commission partnered up with the Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology by providing students with internships. This year, the University of Malta is also offering its very first Master’s in filmmaking.
The challenge, Mr Grech admits, is guaranteeing back-to-back projects. Last year was the firsttime Maltese crews were kept busy throughout.
He also reveals that this year he had to turn down two major productions since the current system could not sustain any more films at that point in time. It would have ultimately backfired and the productions would have ended up with a poor service.
“Many in Malta go into the film industry as a hobby or as a part-time job. We want to create careers but that can only come about through consistent work and back-to-back projects. There will be some downtime in between but ultimately, people could go from one project to another, earn a living and better themselves in filmmaking.”
In the past, with a mere one or two films being produced a year, Malta suffered a brain drain where talented people were lost to other creative sectors, such as gaming, or companies abroad.
“The magnitude of each film differs, with some requiring an 80-strong crew and others a crew of 600. We cannot expect every Maltese to fill each and every single role.
“We need to top up our skills but if we show our young generation that there can be a career in the film industry, I’m quite sure they would be eager to learn and to stay with us.”
A major game changer, Mr Grech believes, will be the redevelopment of the Malta Film Studios. The call for expressions of interest was issued earlier this week.
Malta has been used as a location for many years but its unique selling point since the 1960s has always been the Rinella water facilities. However, the country lacks soundstages; a controlled environment where a producer could build sets and work without being exposed to the elements.
Once the Malta Film Studios are redeveloped, they would need to be serviced by professional, specialised crew.
“If we’re shooting on water, we need people professionally trained on water. If we have soundstages, we need people to light a stage. In backlots, we need people capable of building sets.
“We already have very valid people but I think they’ve learnt mostly through experience. We need a greater element of expertise – being a jack of all trades is not enough.”
Mr Grech is foreseeing a transition period, with the main roles initially having to be filled by foreigners. But the Film Commission, he stresses, will be enforcing a policy requiring the foreign heads of departments to be shadowed by Maltese crew so that they may learn the trade.
The Malta Film Studios would also help eliminate the seasonality problem. At the moment, most films are shot between April and October due to the favourable climate.
“But now we need to fill the gaps of November and December when the weather is not 100 per cent but the industry can still move forward.”
Apart from the water tanks, the most popular film locations in Malta are Ricasoli, Valletta, Manoel Island, Vittoriosa, Mdina, Mġarr ix-Xini and Dwejra in Gozo.
Touching upon Dwejra brings us to the 2010 gaffe during the filming of Game of Thrones, where sediment originating from a local quarry was deposited at the site and underwent consolidation and cementation following heavy rainfall.
Maltese filmmakers need to be a bit avant-garde and think outside the box when it comes to producing
The contractor commissioned to remove the sediment used heavy machinery and impact tools to remove the material before Mepa intervened.
“Whoever committed that mistake damaged the Maltese film industry. We must learn from past mistakes. We involve environment and heritage authorities from day one so that they can guide the crew and not the other way round.
“We’ve also introduced a ‘green champions’ course to train crews to recycle and keep the environmental impact in mind while working.”
In the middle of increasing development and a changing skyline, does he fear Malta could lose its unique selling points which draw in filmmakers?
“We are very aware of that,” he says, once again very diplomatically.
“We do give our input. Whenever there is a project that will impact a key location, we always put forward our suggestions. We have mostly been listened to. Mepa and Heritage Malta are key partners.
“To date, we have not lost any key sites that are specifically used for filming. That is a plus. Our challenge is to upgrade our present sites and safeguard them. Fort Ricasoli is a case in point – it is still a major film location but we need to invest in its upkeep and general restoration.”
It has often been said that Malta does not have a film industry but a film servicing industry. How can we up the quality of local productions?
In the span of eight years, €1 million has been awarded in funds to a number of local film productions, but, unfortunately, the products left much to be desired.
“We are investing heavily, especially in scriptwriting and in production because they are the two key areas we’re struggling most in.
“The Film Fund has been given a totally new strategy. Before it was merely forking out a lot of money without the right mentorship. Now we’ve included compulsory, foreign mentorship on each and every project.”
The biggest deficiency plaguing the indigenous film industry is numbers. The talent pool is a small one, as is the market, making it very hard for producers to break even let alone make money.
“Expanding our horizons is key. Yes, we can produce for the local market but when it comes to big projects, we will not survive on the basis of the local market alone.
“We need to adapt to the international market and make use of the great channel that it is the internet. Maltese filmmakers need to be a bit avant-garde and think outside the box when it comes to producing and accessing foreign markets.”
What is next for 2016? Rumour has it that the next instalment of Batman, directed by Ben Affleck, is set to be filmed in Malta.
Mr Grech refuses to confirm or denounce the rumours, explaining that the film industry is extremely volatile.
“We have had so many discussions with studios that it would be premature to say which deals we might have.
“I’ll just say 2015 will be hard to top. But judging from the amount of enquiries, I think next year will be a good one. I am cautiously optimistic.”