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It is now time for action

A one-off Japanese TV production made a big difference in the first half of last year. Otherwise, Malta's film servicing industry would have had a slow start. Clouds Above The Slope, a series produced for the Japan Broadcasting Corporation and a decade in its making, was a challenging feat for Mediterranean Film Studios. Thankfully, producers were willing to maximise local crew.

The rest of 2009 became vibrant as several low-budget films and TV episodes landed, some shooting and prepping at the same time. In moments like this, the lack of Maltese crew becomes all too evident. In most countries with a thriving industry like Malta's there is usually the A and B crew and a multitude of C crews to fall back onto. Malta's crew base is not developed enough to talk on these terms. There is, basically, one team, which is not complete. Filming two productions at the same time usually means dividing the team across both and complementing substantially with foreigners and/or having to make do with glorified assistants who must be constantly supervised if not micro-managed. Few producers are comfortable with these situations. Also, having only one person fully qualified in a particular position is an unhealthy situation like in any market.

The government's financial incentives places Malta on the international playing field. Over the last two decades, the uniqueness of Malta's locations has diminished somewhat (in the name of "progress") and the island is no longer cheap even when factoring in inflation. But Malta's cash rebate of up to 22 per cent does well to offset these negatives and it has been largely responsible for the current growth. Productions are leaving millions of euros in the island and the ripple effect creates even more benefits to the economy.

The government also wisely set up the Malta Film Commission. Despite the sudden departure of two of its commissioners who crossed over into the industry, literally overnight, the MFC has, over time, only become more solid. Still, financial incentives and the MFC alone are not the answer to further growth or its preservation. As yet, there is no proper system in place to professionally train Maltese in this industry. Back in 2006, a short course in production management was proposed to the MFC, conducted by a known UK lecturer. The course was structured to be mostly self-financed as prospective students were interested in forking out tuition fees. After chasing the commission for either minimal financial aid or providing at least coordination of the course, the MFC board refused assistance based on the policy that it cannot hold hands with private initiatives and, then, because it did not have the human resources.

A Film Development Office needs to be set up as an extension of the Malta Film Commission. This could be run easily by one smart and fast-learning individual working from the commission premises, so no start up costs are necessary. This individual would focus on developing annual training schemes in various fields. Seriously motivated students should fork out some expenses, as is done in other countries and courses should not be a total freebie. Overseas scholarships, especially for technical fields, should be introduced and partly (but not wholly) subsidised by the government.

The FDO would also focus on the local infrastructure where government policies and permits are involved in order to facilitate productions. Like some other countries it could go one step further and actually process all government permits.

When a council, the government or even a private entity decides to behave abusively or is unreasonably uncooperative with a producer, and when all production efforts have been exhausted, someone from the government must have the political weight and the time to get involved. It would not be a bad idea if the MFC and the FDO fell within the portfolio of a parliamentary secretary since any minister is usually too busy to be hands on. The PS should command a reasonable level of respect by both political parties and it is vital that s/he is hands-on.

For example, eight years ago, producers of a Sharon Stone movie, in prepping stage, were verbally abused when requesting access to an all too important balcony of an unoccupied property. The owner happened to be a professional in the public service and it was only the intervention of a PS (George Hyzler Jnr) that resolved the matter.

Ten years ago, a government-appointed executive led the director of The Count Of Monte Cristo to believe that filming in a particular government property was permissible and he encouraged several visits, only to then request unreasonable huge amounts of money in an arrogant manner. Again, it was the PS's intervention that eventually resolved this embarrassing issue.

There are occasionally rogue councils. Recently, one mayor would not officially approve a small film crew unless he received a hefty sum that was two-and-a-half times the normal highest donation for one day. This mayor used obscene language to the very polite crew.

This repeated itself a few months later on another production, with the same mayor and the same verbal abuse. This situation became extremely tedious, frustrating and dramatically long-winded where lots of production time and money was unnecessarily lost. It was only eased after the film commission's prolonged involvement and after roping in other government executives.

The FDO would, at best, pre-empt this situation and keep councils in constant reminder of the government's filming policies and, at worst, it would not allow this situation to happen twice by the same council. The FDO would generally conduct a post mortem on every production to smoothen the path for future producers.

The FDO should relieve the film commission from its overloaded tasks by focusing on infrastructural needs such as the building of a sound stage. A study has been recently promised. The FDO would have seen to it that the unused section of the Marsa Shipyard that was utilised for several films, including Spielberg's Munich, a property, which often served as a life-saver for film space issues, would have been developed at a very low cost into a sound stage rather than having fallen into the hands of the Civil Protection Department before anyone could raise a hand. Today, productions shooting on location often face the challenge of searching for adequate warehouse and office space.

Any future sound stage should be built with an eye to strengthen one of Malta's best existing assets: Mediterranean Film Studios. A stage would serve to attract productions that may only have minimal need of the tanks. The synergy between MFS and a future state-sponsored stage should be factored into its planning and design. In the last decade, MFS has managed to become more production-friendly and cost-efficient. Its role in this industry should not be underestimated.

The film industry worldwide is changing and a consistent growth will not happen without the proper systems and policies in place. Hollywood studios are reducing their product, although they are expected to lean more than ever on independent films. But film financing in general has taken a severe hit. Commercials are decreasing as reduced advertising budgets are stretched further into unconventional media such as the internet that is also now expected to play a significant role in film distribution. This is a shake up of the industry but not necessarily a negative one for those who understand that producers are now, more than ever, looking for better value for their money. Producers come to Malta because they want to pay Maltese and not foreign rates to their professional technicians. Flying in too many foreigners is not cost efficient.

The challenge today is to ensure the industry is geared for further growth. The understaffed MFC is doing sterling work in putting Malta in the international spotlight and coordinating producer's visits as well as administering the incentives. Although it does help in other areas, it is time to put a Development Plan firmly in action with its own dedicated full-time officer working in unison with the commission. This "extension" could cost as little as €30,000 annually for salary and overheads. Three years ago, the government paid twice this amount to receive a report about expanding this industry. It also paid half the amount for another report commissioned nine years ago.

Enough of studies and reports. It's time for action.

malcsf@canada.com

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