Cash once used to bring Hollywood could finance Malta's film industry

Producers wonder whether normality could ever return to Malta’s film servicing industry as coronavirus shuts down film sets

Malta’s film lots are deserted, and much like it did for tourism, the pandemic immediately shut down Malta’s film industry, which in the last decade had picked up speed with major blockbusters and TV series filmed on the island.

All foreign crew, mainly from the EU and Canada, who were working in Malta on scheduled projects, flew back to their home countries. “The pandemic has placed film projects on hold and the productions which were expected to be shot in Malta have been temporarily suspended due to this crisis,” says film commissioner Johann Grech.

But while Malta was previously considered to be an attractive location that also offered generous tax rebates, now even hiked up to an unprecedented 40%, producers wonder whether normality could ever return to Malta’s film servicing industry.

“Filming necessitates group gatherings of crew, cast and extras in a studio or on location and since such activities cannot take place due to restrictive measures intended to protect public health, no production work is taking place,” says Simon Sansone, of the Malta Producers Association.

But the paralysis of Malta’s film servicing industry could be a good time for companies to focus on creating new content that could be filmed in the future, Sansone says.

And while there is concern that Malta might no longer be the jewel in the Mediterranean for film production companies once the pandemic subsides, Sansone insists there is no reason things should not return to normal.

“There is little doubt that it will take some time for confidence to be restored in travelling and simply being in proximity with other humans. As long as Malta is always looking ahead and remains competitive, once normality is restored the MPA does not see why international productions would not return to the islands.”

However, he points out, the trouble lies in what will happen before ‘normality’ – whenever that is – returns. “It seems to be several months away – some are speculating a year, or even 18 months away – so it is important to focus on what could and should be happening between now and then.”

Can film production even work with social distancing? Sansone thinks it will be hard for large-scale, big budget productions involving hundreds of crews and extras but that smaller productions and co-productions could possibly find a way to operate. “Here we’re talking about shows with minimal cast and crew (under 50 people) that could be managed and work within social distancing parameters.”

Sansone suggests that Maltese film financing should now turn to these projects. “These could be national projects, minority or majority co-productions involving minimal foreign crew that could receive funding through Malta Film Fund and cash rebate too. This period could also be opportune for Malta to kickstart investment in animation projects and encourage investment in virtual production facilities which are currently virtually non-existent.”

Indeed members of the MPA have for many years stressed on the financial limitations of the Malta Film Fund, which focuses on local productions. In 2019 it was finally increased to €600,000.

“This is still a far cry to what is needed to make the local film industry a viable reality and there is no doubt that substantial boosting of this fund is still required. Iceland, for example, which is smaller than Malta in terms of population, has a film fund of €7 million per year.”

Sansone hopes the steep learning curve of COVID-19 should see the Maltese government shifting most of the cash rebate monies into local funding.

“A project like Assassins Creed for example took €5.2 million in cash rebate on its own. This would go a long way to giving a much-needed boost to funding locally produced films. This will help give the many crew and talent dependent on foreign productions an income and at the same time encourage them to stay in the industry and continue developing themselves.”

Sansone says a €75,000 grant per short film, up from the current €20,000, would keep crew and talent employed, as well as go a long way in the overall development and growth of the local craft of film-making.

“The time is ripe for short films due to the relatively small team sizes they typically require, allowing them to circumnavigate social distancing measures once the most restrictive conditions start to be lifted... If supported adequately, this time could be turned into a golden period for local talent, professionals and indeed the homegrown industry to get on its feet and flourish.”

Johann Grech says the cash rebates are dedicated towards foreign or local film company involved in Maltese productions.

“The objective of the cash rebates is to make Malta an attractive and viable location for the film industry by being cost effective and providing producers with more value for money. Our cash rebate programme supports Malta’s skilled resources and contributes towards developing and upgrading the film industry infrastructure.”