As the global financial crisis hits film financing, producers are becoming more cost conscious than ever. Despite the problems, they still need to feed film-hungry audiences for this $33 billion industry. Ironically this crisis has seen a substantial increase in international audiences, with some $3 billion dollars of additional revenue in recent years.

Some countries, such as Hungary and South Africa, are overwhelmed by the amount of foreign productions visiting them. Sadly, Malta is not one of them. In fact, at the time of writing, there are no sizable productions solidly confirmed and lined up for the near future except for a couple weeks of filming here and there.

Still, Malta has the potential of becoming one of the most attractive and film-friendly islands in the world. This is possible with sections of government becoming more film-friendly and efficient, with an improved film infrastructure, with more aggressive financial incentives and with more trained crews.

There are those in government who like to say “filmmakers will come to Malta if they really need to”. Although this can be true in some cases, it is dangerous to underestimate the foreign competition and the whole package other countries offer.

The government would do well to roll out the red carpet and instil a widespread policy that virtually bends over backwards to assist with the film industry. Producers simply want fast and efficient cooperation without having to jump through too many hoops. That is what makes some countries stand out from others.

The “FilmSpeak” conference held by the Malta Film Commission (MFC) six months ago was a good opportunity for newcomers to understand how the government interacts with the film industry. The solutions to existing problems were not discussed but the MFC promises to follow up with separate “information sessions”. Stakeholders hope that government officials invited to talk in such sessions will want to inform themselves as to why their departments are not exactly encouraging producers to film in Malta and how they can offer assistance in a more efficient manner. Otherwise, simply informing stakeholders what they are already experiencing will result in no progress whatsoever.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority, responsible for issuing filming permits for many locations, is evidently overloaded and often unable to deal adequately with certain film requirements. It is pointless selling Maltese locations to foreign producers if some places cannot be permitted in a film-friendly and efficient manner. There is absolutely no reason why environmental concerns and filmmaking cannot work hand in hand. Mepa’s remit with filming applications should be to find ways to say ‘Yes’ rather than giving an easy ‘No’.

Also, the Dwejra incident in 2010, which was mainly the fault of one foreign production not adhering to the complete set of permit regulations and which resulted in unfair public accusations against Mepa, should not be creating repercussions for other better-managed productions.

There also exists the problem of crew and actors from Third World countries who require a minimum six-week process for obtaining a working permit even if they are filming in Malta for only a few days. This is besides a further two-week process for entry visas. These personnel should only need to experience one visa process to satisfy the Schengen (and national) security concerns.

A couple of local councils popular with filming try to exploit film productions by demanding exorbitant donations.

These situations far from impress foreign producers who offer the best marketing in this closely knit industry. Producers who are contemplating filming in Malta almost always speak to others who have previously filmed on the island in order to discover the pros and cons and weigh them against other countries.

The cash rebate scheme for producers set up in 2005 leaves a lot of room for improvement in today’s increased competitive climate. On a positive note, it is understood that government will be improving the incentives in the very near future. If Malta is to be seen as a first world nation, systems and policies have to be in place with the utmost clarity so that producers on the other side of the world who are evaluating Malta’s incentives can clearly understand, at first glance, everything substantial that the scheme has to offer.

Because of long-standing arrears in ground rent, Mediterranean Film Studios (MFS) has recently been ordered to abandon the government-owned land where its famous tanks are situated. The government has the right to collect its ground rent and give no more concessions than it gives to other private businesses. However, in the public’s interest, it also has a duty to ensure that the tanks remain operating as the ‘national monument’ that they are, keeping in mind that these company assets are responsible for a large part of foreign productions visiting in Malta.

With this facility so pivotal to the survival of the industry, it must be ensured that any new management is a professional one and prices will not increase unreasonably. Foreign competition must neither be underestimated: this year alone two new tanks are expected to be completed in South Africa and the Dominican Republic.

Recent good news is that government has managed to acquire substantial EU funds for film training. Malta now needs to institutionalise seasonal film training. The Malta Film Commission should not be expected to run or manage these courses as this is not its role or experience. But the commission should nonetheless maintain its good energy and enthusiasm in this sector and remain very closely involved to ensure that those areas lacking local human resources are well catered for.

Unfortunately, for the majority of film production service providers, the foreseeable future looks very challenging for Malta. Perhaps BSkyB’s Sinbad series will return but even this is very doubtful at the moment. With some optimism maybe a big production will suddenly surface overnight as Tom Hank’s Captain Phillips did earlier this year, but all rumours about a Tom Cruise film have no real foundation and the uncertainty of the future is worrying many stakeholders.

This bleak future has the warped advantage of attracting foreign producers who might view the lack of filming activity as an excellent opportunity to absorb more local crews and achieve more competitive rates. But the bottom line is that Malta needs to work hard if real opportunities are to be had.

The new film commission recently had its budget and staff increased. A wise move by the government. Its challenge now is to make Malta attractive and film-friendly enough and to represent it in such a way as to attract sizeable productions that generate serious employment and expenditure.

The ultimate success is when foreign producers are so impressed with their experience in Malta that they spread abroad only positive words about the island, making them want to return as opposed to simply needing to.

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