Can small countries afford to make films?

A seminar on the discussion of European cinema organised by MEP Marlene Mizzi in Brussels betrayed a sizeable rift between Malta and the rest of Europe, TEODOR RELJIC discovers

Actor Paul Portelli in the upcoming Maltese fim Limestone Cowboy, which was partly financed by the Malta Film Fund. Film Commissioner Engelbert Grech said that indigenous films need more support from the EU to thrive
Actor Paul Portelli in the upcoming Maltese fim Limestone Cowboy, which was partly financed by the Malta Film Fund. Film Commissioner Engelbert Grech said that indigenous films need more support from the EU to thrive

A brief and catchphrase-heavy speech characterised Malta’s contribution to a panel discussion on the future of European cinema, organised by the office of MEP Marlene Mizzi at the European Parliament in Brussels, with Malta Film Commissioner Engelbert Grech lamenting that “Europe isn’t helping Malta” to secure necessary funds to kick-start a bona fide indigenous film culture. 

Observing that the Maltese film industry is not yet competitive enough to avail itself of the Creative Europe scheme – due to the fact that it doesn’t have a substantial track record in indigenous cinema – Grech welcomed Mizzi’s initiative as he said it “shows that the subject is on the European agenda”, before adding that the vision of the Maltese government is to “create a sustainable film industry – we want to be an industry leader in the region”. 

“We want to take care of our talent and indigenous industry. We want to have a consistent system which will allow us to tell our stories, while setting the bar very high,” Grech said, adding that the Malta Film Commission has last year also launched a €1 million co-production fund to help and encourage filmmakers to partner up with their counterparts in other countries. 

Grech however complained that, “Some countries are being left out”. 

“Maltese filmmakers are facing real disadvantages. Malta is not being given due consideration – Europe is not helping us,” Grech said, adding that, “we need to sit down with all the key stakeholders, so as to figure out how to turn problems into challenges, and challenges into opportunities.

“We need to build bridges,” Grech continued before launching his parting salvo to raucous applause at the European Parliament hall: “Everyone deserves to be respected as a European filmmaker.”

Luckily, fellow Maltese participant – the filmmaker Rebecca Cremona – was also at hand to add some nuance to Grech’s rhetorically effective but ultimately boilerplate sloganeering. 

Cremona, director of the Malta-produced Simshar, spoke about the financial hurdles she faced while making the based-on-a-real-events film, describing how Malta is in something of a double-bind when it comes to taking advantage of Creative Europe – a €1.46 billion European Union programme for the cultural and creative sectors for the years 2014-2020 – since in order to qualify, Malta would need to first have a track record in film production. 

“So we’re in a bit of a Catch-22 situation: in order to kick-start the Maltese film industry, we need to have a film industry to begin with,” Cremona said, in fact questioning the term ‘industry’ in the Maltese context, saying that in her mind, it’s “less of an industry, and more of a landscape”, since locally-produced films are few and far between. 

The young filmmaker added that it wasn’t viable for Malta to take advantage of initiatives like Eurimages either, since this Council of Europe fund for the co-production, distribution, exhibition and digitisation of European films tends to target productions that would be larger than Malta’s current remit. 

To make matters worse, Cremona said, Malta couldn’t even tap into funds allocated for developing countries, since the country forms part of the EU and so is deemed ‘too developed’ to qualify for such funds.

“So when it came to Simshar, we fell into this gap,” Cremona said. 

There was a discernible rift between the Maltese speakers at the event and the other participants, as while Grech and Cremona expounded on the challenges of producing films in the first place, their pan-European counterparts delved into issues of the film distribution and audience cultivation. 

However, an intervention by the Croatian representative of Creative Europe, Martina Petrovic, served as something of a bridge between the two, as she recounted the success story of the Croatian film Zvizdan (‘The High Sun’), which was propelled to international attention after it was screened at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival. 

Like Malta, Croatia falls within the ‘low-producing countries’ bracket among filmmaking countries in Europe, and Petrovic noted how 56.1% of public funding for the film was taken up by the ‘high-producing’ counterparts, nicknamed the ‘big five’ and including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom.

Co-produced by Gustav Film (Slovenia) and SEE Film Pro (Serbia), Zvizdan was supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre, the Slovenian Film Centre, FS Viba Film Ljubljana, the Serbian Film Centre and Eurimages, while its international sales were handled by the Dubai-based company Cercamon.

Zvizdan, like Simshar, takes a national tragedy as its starting point, and its ability to secure a cluster of funding and distribution streams could be instructive for the future of Maltese film production – not least given the Malta Film Commission’s apparent commitment to creating co-funding opportunities. And while Creative Europe funds for Maltese films remain elusive, a back-and-forth discussion between Matteo Zacchetti of the European Commission and the Maltese participants during the panel discussion hinted that there may be some compromise deals on the horizon. 

But a pall of defeatism also marked the event, with many of the speakers admitting that European film is severely financially compromised when compared to other international markets – with the irony that cinema was actually invented in Europe by the Lumiere brothers not going by unnoticed. 

“But the Lumiere brothers also said that ‘cinema is an art form with no commercial future’,” Zacchetti said. “Maybe we’re still paying for that prophecy.”

Zacchetti added that the key weakness of the European film industry is the fragmented nature of the market. But this fragmentation, Zacchetti suggested, may be turned into a positive in an increasingly digitized world, where “we’re moving from a mass market to ‘millions of niches’”.

Zacchetti, who is from the DG Connect-Unit of Media Support Programmes within the European Commission, also suggested that one way to create a level playing field would be to categorise countries proportionally, with smaller countries being given some form of financial head-start. 

“All of this is currently being discussed,” Zacchetti said. 

The two-day event, organised by Marlene Mizzi and the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, kicked off with a screening of Simshar on 2 June. 

Introducing the film to the assembled audience at the European Parliament – which was largely made up of Brussels-based Maltese expats – Mizzi said that a film like Simshar encourages cultural dialogue, and that while Malta has become famous for its efforts in film servicing, “we also need to cultivate indigenous cinema”. 

“We don’t yet have a history of making our own films, which is crucial to safeguard our strong cultural heritage,” Mizzi said. 

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