Malta, film central

Engelbert Grech: Malta is dubbed the ‘mini Hollywood in the Mediterranean’, however we need to keep working very hard at retaining the momentum

Engelbert Grech
Engelbert Grech

Perhaps no more than now has Malta’s love affair with Hollywood had a stronger bond. An industry that has always thirsted after big-budget productions saw a veritable marathon of million-dollar films in the past four years.

For Engelbert Grech, who took over the helm of Malta’s film commission in 2013, it has been a successful campaign that saw some €200 million notched up in foreign direct investment, and a film servicing industry coming out in full force. It is an unparalleled feat as far as investment attraction figures go. With names such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Michael Bay, Michael Fassbender, and Tom Hanks having graced the island over the past years, Malta’s film industry has become a template for similar economies which hope a combination of fiscal incentives and low labour costs can also attract Hollywood productions to search for new locations abroad.

“I always believed in the Maltese film industry,” Grech says as he sums up his four-year tour de force of international film fairs and industry pow-wows. “I had an innate conviction that if packaged properly, our industry could flourish. The vision was very clear. Upon being appointed commissioner I started work on a restructuring plan. First, I fine-tuned our cash rebates system, and then I set out on an extensive international networking and marketing campaign to put Malta on the map. At the same time there was a big investment in human resources, with specialised courses to train and re-skill workers in the industry.”

Grech, who himself hailed from the film-servicing industry, says his success was a direct contribution of his team’s support. “It was always a collective effort, from my team at the Film Commission, the people in the industry, private and public entities… everybody was working together to make it happen.”

Grech says that as his revamped commission started taking shape, the feedback was immediate and positive. The first year saw a 600% growth in FDI through the first films taking place. The momentum it created started propelling the industry forward.

“In the past few years we managed to attract around 50 productions. Official statistics show that the money injected into the economy through the film industry in the past few years will soon reach the €200 million figure. At the same time we managed to create thousands of jobs.

“Today the film industry is one of Malta’s lucrative economic niches, and our ultimate aim is to create a truly sustainable Maltese film industry.”

At the heart of Malta’s success is not just the cash rebates that attract producers to cut down on costs. Films like Jolie’s arthouse flick By The Sea, critically panned though it was, relied exclusively on using Gozo’s Mgarr ix-Xini bay for its location. The magic of film and TV seeks out locations that can turn into uncanny scenes: Gozo, for example, served as both Morocco and Mexico for Granada’s Brideshead Revisited while Fort St Elmo in Valletta, and Sliema, were both used as settings for Israeli towns in, respectively, Brad Pitt’s World War Z and Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

“As a location Malta can be incredibly versatile, and it has the ability to double for multiple locations. A great selling point are the unique film studios in Kalkara that are now managed by the Film Commission and have been given a new life. Then there’s the experienced film crews, and also the good weather. These two are important factors,” Grech says.

“The Film Commission got all these elements and packaged them with attractive financial incentives, offering producers a unique proposition, both on an artistic and a commercial level.”

Indeed, among the biggest productions that chose Malta in more recent times were Michael Fassbender’s Assassin’s Creed, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, Colin Firth’s The Mercy, Christian Bale’s The Promise, as well as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s By the Sea. But all this activity is also taking place in a sea of competition where similar economies want to cash in on Malta’s enormous success.

“Malta is dubbed the ‘mini Hollywood in the Mediterranean’, however we need to keep working very hard at retaining the momentum. Many countries introduced new incentives and competition is very tough. To keep Malta’s cutting edge, the Film Commission is currently discussing a new wave of incentives.

“To keep up with the competition we have decided to diversify our industry. We devised a strategy to expand into new emerging markets like China and India. Indeed we managed to sign a co-production agreement with China and established a very good relationship with key studios in India. To this effect, in the past few months we had the biggest ever Bollywood movie shooting in Malta.”

And it’s not just movies. A key achievement in diversification was the focus on international TV series, with Malta attracting the likes of Netflix’s Sense 8 – a Wachowski production – as well as the BBC, ITV, RAI and other key TV networks to shoot their productions in Malta.

“We’ve accomplished a lot, but we are not perfect,” Grech says. “We need to keep working hard to create a sustainable film industry. An area that needs a lot of investment is film infrastructure. To take the industry to the next level we definitely need to have sound stages. At the same time we also need to keep training people to increase the depth of our crews.”

And it’s not just the pot of global movies that Grech says requires attention. One of his other main interests has been intensifying funding on Maltese film productions.

“The indigenous film industry was always a priority. We invested heavily in education and training. We organized courses with Film London to give our people training in production, script writing, direction and editing. We signed an MOU with MCAST and even financed a Masters degree in cinematography at the University of Malta.”

Now the Commission is giving more resources to the Maltese filmmakers so they can produce their own films, after having increased budgets for the Malta Film Fund and for the first time ever, establishing a co-productions fund.

Grech says these new funds will help local producers team up with international counterparts and produce films on an international level.

“This strategy is reaping dividends and we have already seen a big increase in the production of local films,” he says. “The aim is very clear, we want to create a ‘culture of film’.”