I think we need to split up | Cannes Festival report

Following a trip to this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival, a local film producer Martin Bonnici argues that Malta’s film strategy would benefit from a more bifurcated approach

Still from Shab, Malta’s only entry to the Cannes Short Film Corner this year
Still from Shab, Malta’s only entry to the Cannes Short Film Corner this year

by Martin Bonnici

First they scan your card, then they check your bag and scan you with hand held metal detectors. Every security officer greets you with the customary ‘Bonjour Monsieur’ and a slight nod – but rarely a smile. Then you walk down wide steps into a large hall at Palais-01 and you’re met with a couple of thousands of people walking at a brisk pace from stand to stand, meeting to meeting. If they’re not talking to someone, they are glued to their phones, tablets or laptops. It’s very clear that this place is not for the dilettantes, this place is not for people looking for a good time. This is a place of business.

While millions of people from around the world were looking at photos of the stars climbing the red steps of the Palais de Festival in Cannes for the 68th edition of this festival, for me the real magic was happening two storeys below, at the Cannes Marche du Film and Short Film Corner.

It was my first visit to Cannes and I certainly wasn’t there to watch movies. I was there to promote my film projects, learn more about film business and understand the reality of the industry for a young independent filmmaker from Malta. So instead of watching movies or doing a bit of star spotting, I was more occupied with getting in as many meetings as possible, discussing our industry and finding leads for new opportunities. And that’s when it happened.

Most meetings were opened with a somewhat awkward question: “What do you do? Oh, I did not know you make films in Malta.”

Now most readers might get alarmed at that, some of the greatest filmmakers from around the world have shot in Malta! Huge blockbusters have been shot in Malta and even independent European films have been shot in Malta! Do not get alarmed, most of the industry knows that Malta serves as a backdrop for various projects, but simply put, that does not mean we make films in Malta.

For most countries, the film servicing industry and their indigenous film industry are two rather distinct sectors. To paraphrase a French producer I met: “You cannot do both well, they have different needs and use up different resources, so what will your company focus on?” In fact, a number of countries had two different offices representing them at the Cannes Marche du Film. There was the commission that was there to promote filming in their regions, and there was an audio-visual institute or producers’ network that promoted their ‘local’ projects.

In our case, the Malta Film Commission has to continuously strive to do both, talk to two different audiences, about two different products, each of which having different costs and opportunities. It wasn’t always like this.

A few years ago, under a different administration, a huge effort was made to tie together these two different industries, actions which have put undue strain on the industries. While film servicing provides Malta with great publicity around the globe and important employment opportunities for many people, it does not provide to the cultural well being of our society.

On the other hand, the indigenous film industry may not be ready to generate great financial returns (yet) but film can play an important role in our society’s ability to examine it’s past and present. If the indigenous film industry is incentivised to grow as a business, like many other sectors are, it will generate a number of employment opportunities and become a respectable contributor to the national GDP.

So where does the industry go from here? Do we continue to struggle under a system that may not be yielding the best results or do we take a minute, take a step back and evaluate our options? Is it time for the industries to have a good hard look at one another, and accept that there are irreconcilable differences?

One thing is clear, that we need to take urgent stock of our industry and allow the public, regulators and investors alike, to understand the opportunities that an indigenous film industry offers as well as the tangible results obtained from initiatives and public incentives offered so far. After all, it is only through analysis and reflection that we grow.

Overall, my first visit to the Cannes Film Festival (supported by Invex Malta) has yielded great results, we have confirmed a talent agency to manage the international promotion of two of our short films, Laqgħa ma’ Mara Morbi and Sħab (the latter being this year’s only Maltese entry to the Cannes Short Film Corner), with a small Hungarian start-up called MNE; and signed an international distribution contract for four Maltese animated short films: Ġaħan might be gracing the screens large and small around the world in the coming months. We also got to meet producers from France, Egypt, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Belgium and the United Kingdom and distributors from around the world.

You might say that I shouldn’t complain, and that this is proof that the current system works, but as a concerned member of the industry, as someone that makes a living from and provides employment to people through the creation of original Maltese audio-visual projects, the Cannes Film Festival was a wake up call.

Perhaps, what I learnt most from this trip, was that the major thing holding back the Maltese indigenous film industry may simply be our attitude – as producers, regulators and a nation.

Martin Bonniċi is an independent film and media producer/director, and founder of the award-winning production company Shadeena Films

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