The local film industry has made giant strides over the years, bringing over big name productions like Gladiator, World War Z, and most recently Jurassic Park, which was filmed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Central to this success has been the country’s attractiveness to producers, from its nature and architecture to the skilled workforce, and from the production infrastructure to the rebate on local investment.
All these factors require constant care and management to ensure they are preserved for the long term sustainability of the industry, says Malta Producers Association Chairperson Simon Sansone.
“Malta as a filming destination needs to be vigilant of its reputation,” says the experienced line producer, with credits in films like Troy and The Count of Monte Cristo. “On the one hand, the Government has shown its commitment to the film and TV industry by injecting investment into the water tanks in Kalkara, in a sound-stage studio, and by increasing incentives for international movies to film in Malta.”
“On the other hand,” he continues, “there is still much needed work to be done in terms of bureaucracy, infrastructure, management and resource improvement.”
Mr Sansone points to the “prohibitively long” time taken to issue permits for temporary film sets, filming on location and use of heritage.
“It has come to the point where a producer, after bringing significant investment to our island, is left worried and wondering whether that will be able to actually film,” he says.
He says one must appreciate that the industry can be demanding on this front and often has challenging exigencies, pointing out that this is the nature of filmmaking.
“It is essential that Malta is able to fulfill its promise as a film-friendly destination after attracting investment to the island,” he says.
“Of course, there should be procedures and systems in place to curb any abuse, especially to our environment and heritage sites, but the system should be swift, practical and with an understanding of the industry.”
He believes producers would be happy to pay a reasonable amount for fast-tracking of permits as long as it provides them with the peace of mind that they will be issued, “with all restrictions necessary”, in a reasonable timeframe.
Mr Sansone also highlights the administration of the cash rebate in this respect. “Malta has earned itself an excellent reputation in its timely administration of this fiscal incentive over its two decades of existence.”
“Lately, however, there have been delays in effecting rebates to production companies. It does not take much for these ad hoc delays to become a trend, and it would be wise to ensure that this issue is tackled swiftly and decisively to avoid Malta’s reputation taking a hit.”
The 40 per cent rebate on local investment has undoubtedly played a central role in the success enjoyed by the industry, opening up the country to productions of a level that were previously unable to look overseas for filming destinations due to the prohibitively high costs.
However, the rebate is also often used by large productions that not only use up a large amount of the limited resources, but also rarely hire locals in proper high levels roles that allow them to grow and upskill.
“One of the more obvious ways of mitigating this,” says Mr Sansone, “is by focusing incentives on the target group of smaller to mid-level productions, whilst reducing the incentive or placing a cap on the larger ones.”
Adding other funding strands, such as instituting an accessible, self-sustaining equity fund may also be of help to producers looking to complete the financing package of small to mid-budget productions which tend to be much tougher to finance fully.
Such funding strands may also be of use to local producers who find little by way of local investment. Mr Sansone admits that “there is very little in terms of established trends or track record which is essential to build confidence in the industry.”
The domestic market is too small to sustain the type of investment required to produce such films, he says, but he expresses hope that the notion of exporting Maltese films has become “more tangible as local producers realise that foreign markets are receptive and very possible to tap into”, pointing out that the local industry has made good strides in the last couple of years with a number of homegrown projects being completed or in their final stages.
“The MPA firmly believes that the local film industry is a prime sector for development and results could be very rewarding for the bold investor who backs a savvy producer and the right production,” says Mr Sansone.
However, a lot more needs to be done. Despite minor improvements to the sector’s funding structure (Screen Malta), Government support remains very limited when considering the industry’s requirements and when compared to the support offered by other countries of similar size to Malta.
Mr Sansone believes proper tax rebates on investment and adequate boosting of Government funds allocated for local productions are much needed, saying these “could really provide the spark for this sector to kickstart satisfactorily and flourish”.
“Both prospects are very doable and could be very rewarding for the country’s employment record and economy. Both are established paths at nurturing the industry which have been successfully adopted by countries of a similar size to Malta.”
In fact, the Malta Producers Association has long lobbied for an increase in Government funding for local productions and for the introduction of proper private investment incentives, and in 2020 issued a proposal document on sustainable, adequate improvements that the industry requires in order to flourish.
Speaking on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the local film production industry, Mr Sansone says that the lockdown period between March and June was important to develop protocols to work as safely as possible in the circumstances, and to line up projects to be ready for the eventual bounce back.
“In fact,” he says, “a good level of productivity was recorded between August and December 2020, despite operations being very stressful, tenuous, and quite restricted.”
He continues, “notwithstanding the drive to produce content due to high demand, it was only the bolder investors and stronger studios who were able to push their films into production since filming in COVID times is a costlier and far riskier prospect.”
Mr Sansone now hopes that the vaccine will bring a swift end to the pandemic so that the sector, along with many others, can get back on its feet and continue providing employment and investment opportunities in the local economy.